Without doubt, the retrofuturistic FJ is the most fun Toyota designers have had on the job since at least the 1997 Lexus Street Rod concept (or possibly ever, since racer Rod Millen deserves much of the credit for the Street Rod).Like the Street Rod, which debuted at the '97 Los Angeles auto show, the FJ had just about as much chance as the 1930-something-based roadster had of becoming a real production vehicle.
But an interesting thing happened after the FJ concept was introduced at the 2003 Detroit auto show: An impossible-to-ignore number of people started waving blank deposit checks around, wanting to get on a waiting list for a production version.
"We had 35,000 'hand-raisers' who said they wanted this vehicle," says Mark Amstock, Toyota's national truck and SUV market planning manager. "That got our attention."
In barely two years' time, the production version of the show car has been hammered into reality. Admirably, the five-passenger iteration, which will go on sale around late March is, in all the essential ways, faithful to the rave-inducing concept.
Pricing starts at $22,315, including $605 freight.
The idea of a Toyota retrocruiser actually was born about six years ago, Amstock notes. That's when the company challenged Millen to come up with his take on a 1967 FJ40 Land Cruiser - a cult favorite - imbued with 21st century techno-flair.
Millen, with the help of Toyota's Calty design studio in Newport Beach, Calif., retained such signature FJ features as its white roof, the bush meat-strainer grille and safari stance. A further objective was to hit a mid-$20,000 price point, which would make it almost irresistible to a target audience of young, single, X-Games-watching men.
Not coincidentally, that also is who buys the Jeep Wrangler, an audience that might be hungry for a high-character rock crawler with Toyota-caliber reliability.
To the uninitiated, such as my 13-year-old daughter, "the FJ looks like what would happen if a Hummer and a Honda Element got married and had a kid." Hmmm.
The FJ certainly does fill one of the few gaps in Toyota's burgeoning lineup of vehicles - that of a bulletproof off-roader with Marlboro Man appeal.
The FJ rides on a stretched and modified Land Cruiser Prado ladder-frame chassis, which is welded to the steel body.
Off-road crazies might quibble with Toyota's decision to go with a mild-mannered double wishbone, independent front suspension and a four-link coil spring independent rear.
But in my off-road testing, the system could handle anything I felt brave or foolhardy enough to tackle; and there is no arguing with how much the suspension, with the help of tubular shocks and sway bars, improves the on-road feel.
The all-wheel-drive FJ enjoys 9.6 inches of ground clearance; two-wheel drives lose about an inch of that.
Wheel travel is almost 8 inches up front and 9 in back; approach and departure angles are 34 and 30 degrees respectively for 4WDs, 32/29 for 2WDs. It's got a 30-degree climb and 41-degree side slope angle capability; it can ford up to 27.5 inches of standing water.
If this were a Jeep, it would be "trail-rated."
Standard FJs ride on 32-inch tires, with 17-inch steel wheels; the spare is full size.
Spinning those wheels is a 239-horsepower version of the 4.0-liter Tacoma-Tundra-4Runner V-6. On the recommended 91-octane premium fuel, the FJ generates a welcome 278 foot-pounds of torque.
The engine makes slightly less torque if fed regular unleaded, but it won't hurt anything to use the cheaper fuel in less-demanding situations such as highway cruising.
EPA ratings are 18 miles per gallon city and 22 highway for 2WD automatics; 16/19 for 4WD with a manual, and 17/21 for 4WD with autos.
Transmission choices consist of a five-speed automatic, or six-speed manual (fifth is a direct-drive high, with sixth an overdrive for highway economy runs).
Gearheads who might opt for the manual be warned: You will tire of shifting this thing in city driving, it doesn't like to pull away from stops in second gear, and you might hit reverse a few too many times as you hunt for first.
A clutch-start cancel switch on the dash gives you the option of starting the manual in-gear; this is an effective hill-start feature for hard-core off-roading.
Manual transmission versions have full-time 4WD systems, with high, low and ultralow shift positions; the center differential can also be locked. In normal driving, the Torsen limited-slip unit has a 40/60 torque split; abnormal driving can send up to 70 percent of the torque to the front wheels, up to 53 percent to the rears.
Automatics offer shift-on-the-fly capability, from two-wheel drive in normal cruising, to 4WD in slippery conditions, to low-range for mud-bogging. An optional locking rear diff can be activated by an instrument-panel switch, but only when the vehicle is traveling under 5 mph (it kicks off above 30 mph).
Big disc brakes all-around, with ABS, brake force distribution and assist, and stability and traction control, make the FJ sure-footed to control and stop. An optional A-Trac dash-actuated feature mimics limited-slip and locking diff wheelspin limitations, without driveline bind.
On 2WD models, an automatic limited slip differential feature enhances rear-wheel traction to get you unstuck.
If you are still awake after the preceding five paragraphs, you qualify as the serious off-roader Toyota is aiming this vehicle squarely at. If not, here at last is the fun part: the styling.
Overall, the FJ has futuristic look of the Jetsons' toaster, with fanciful retro-themed features hung all around it. To wit:
The flat, nearly upright windshield is swept by three stubby wiper blades.
Besides two massive side doors, it has two hidden rear suicide doors.
There is no "B" pillar. An odd byproduct of that is the front seat belts are attached to the rear doors - a nuisance when trying to let someone in or out of the back seat while you're belted in the front.
The side-opening rear cargo door also has a curved back glass piece that opens above the rear-mounted spare.
The interior can be hosed out; the five-layer fabric upholstery and rubber-mat flooring shed water easily. Besides being easy to clean, the captain's-chair front seats are long-trip comfy; the rears fold flat for added storage.
Speakers for the standard AM-FM-CD stereo are incorporated in the headliner, for a "shower of sound" feel. The up-rated stereo can loosen your dental work.
An optional gauge cluster atop the dash features aircraft-type readouts for direction, temperature and angle of attack.
Outside mirrors have small directional spotlights.
The instrumental panel contains a cubby for a removable Garmin Quest 2 navigation unit, with an off-road topography reader - specifically made for the FJ.
Toyota sees a "robust life cycle" for this vehicle, meaning it is likely to be around for a long time - without being restyled. To compensate, Toyota will trickle out got-to-have options like a 4.7-liter V-8, a removable top and special editions with unique paint colors and features in coming years.
A hybrid version? Don't look for it.
Toyota expects to sell 46,000 FJs in 2006; if the yet-to-be-announced MSRP remains true to its mid-$20K promise, that might be a conservative number.
Bottom line: The FJ is as much fun to drive as it is to look at.
2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser
Body style: 4-door, 5-passenger rear-wheel-drive sport utility vehicle; optional 4WD
Engine: 4.0 liter, 4-valve/cylinder, DOHC 6
Horsepower: 239 at 5,200 rpm
Torque: 278 foot-pounds at 5,200 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed automatic or 5-speed manual
Acceleration: 0 to 60 mph, 7.8 seconds
EPA fuel economy estimates: 2WD auto, 18/22; 4WD manual 16/19; 4WD auto 17/21; 87 octane recommended
Fuel capacity: 19 gallons
Cargo volume: 27.9 cubic feet; with 2nd row folded, 66.8
Front head/leg/shoulder room: 41.3/41.9/58.4 inches
Rear head/leg/shoulder room: 40.3/31.3/53.9 inches
Length: 183.9 inches
Wheelbase: 105.9 inches
Curb weight: 4,050-4,295 pounds
Standard features: Air conditioning, AM-FM-CD, tilt wheel, power windows and locks, fog lamps, intermittent wipers, 12-volt plugs
Optional features: Rear differential locker, running boards, side curtain air bags, A-Trac for 4WD models only, FJammer stereo, AC inverter, cruise control, compass, clock, heading gauge cluster, mirror-mounted spotlights
Safety features: Dual-level front air bags, 3-point belts, LATCH belt system; traction and stability control; theft alarm, DRLs, tire pressure monitoring system
Brakes: 4-wheel vented discs with ABS
Steering: Power-assisted rack-and-pinion; 41.8-foot turning circle
Suspension: Front: Double wishbone with stabilizer bar; rear, 4-link with lateral rod, coil springs, stabilizer bar
Tires and wheels: P265/70 R 17-inch all-season, aluminum wheels
MSRP: 2WD with manual transmission, $22,315, including $605 freight; 4WD, $23,495; 4WD with 5-speed automatic transmission, $23,905
The competition: Jeep Wrangler
Where assembled: Japan
PLUSES: As cool as Toyota styling can get! Fair pricing, great utility, three windshield wipers show rain no mercy.
MINUSES: No NAV system, curtain air bags optional, may be too intense for some audiences.
Jerry Garrett is a freelance auto writer and contributing editor to Car and Driver magazine.