Getting a new puppy is actually a lot like buying a rugged off-road vehicle. Broken glass, busted screen doors and the occasional mess on the carpet are expected, much the same way as sloppy on-road dynamics are delivered from a purpose-built off-road suspension. But the second those puppy-dog eyes lock in with your own after the bad deed, it’s easy to forgive and forget… if, you’re a dog person.
|Engine: 4.0-liter V6 that makes 260 hp and 271 lb-ft of torque.
Transmission: Five-speed automatic.
Fuel Economy: 17 mpg city, 20 mpg highway, 18 mpg combined.
Price: Base price $28,540. Our tester costs $37,455.
Same goes for the Toyota FJ Cruiser. It’s lovable, quirky styling and amazing off-road capability make it easy to have hours of fun, but you have to be prepared to live with some pretty big compromises if you want all that enjoyment.
But this isn’t just any FJ Cruiser. Our tester is the 2014 Toyota FJ Cruiser Trail Teams Ultimate Edition, a limited edition package put together to celebrate the Land Cruiser FJ40 of the 1960’s. It is also the unofficial send off for FJ, as 2014 will be its last year on the market.
Based on the already capable FJ Cruiser Trail Teams, the Ultimate Edition package adds style and substance. It’s finished in Heritage Blue paint along with black accents and a white grille. Overall, the FJ’s style is plucky and fun, always giving you the impression that its ready to go play.
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Not Just About Looks
A black roof rack helps if you need to strap anything down and is the most noticeable functional upgrade that comes along with the Ultimate Edition. Less visible upgrades are made to the suspension, which runs 66mm front shock assemblies along with TRD race coil springs, lifting up the front end slightly for a leveled-off stance. In the back, 50mm rear shocks with remote reservoirs ensure that hours of punishment on the trail will be endured by diminishing damping fade.
Rated at 17 mpg in the city and 20 mpg on the highway, we only managed 16 mpg in our week with the FJ. Power for every single FJ Cruiser comes from a 4.0-liter V6 that produces 260 hp and 271 lb-ft of torque.
That might not seem like much, but the FJ feels plenty powerful with a broad torque curve that helps it to access its torque at low RPM. Gearing is crucial in any off-road machine and the FJ uses a 3.727:1 rear-end axle ratio, along with a transfer case that includes a 2.56:1 low gear. A five-speed automatic transmission gets the power down and is controlled by a great big black TRD shift knob located in the center console, sitting adjacent to another TRD knob that controls the transfer case. With the automatic, the FJ is fully controllable, so you can run in two-wheel drive, four-wheel drive high or four-wheel drive low. For those who like to do it themselves, a six-speed manual is available, but only with full-time four-wheel drive.
On paper, the FJ clearly sounds like an off-road machine with its low-gearing and transfer case, so it makes sense that cruising down the highway exposes many of this vehicle’s weaknesses.
With the aerodynamics of a brick, wind noise is pretty bad in the FJ’s interior, but outward visibility is the most glaring issue. The small windshield barely allows you to see stop lights in the city, and it makes it hard to gauge exactly where the nose is at times. Combined with small side mirrors, small rear windows and rather large B-pillars, seeing other cars, obstacles and sensing where the wheels are can all be a challenge.
Driving dynamics don’t help the matter. The FJ likes to roll around thanks to its softened suspension that’s meant to eat up rocky roads. Steering feel is fairly tight, but the turning circle certainly isn’t. The FJ takes a massive 40.7 feet to complete a U-turn, more than its 105.9-inch wheelbase would suggest. For comparison, the Toyota 4Runner, which has a 109.8-inch wheelbase completes the curb-to-curb turn in 37.4 feet.
Hit the Trails
The same things that make the FJ tough to drive on the street make it a blast when the pavement ends. Ground clearance of 9.6 inches allows you to clear any moderate obstacle and short overhangs on the front and back make climbing a breeze. The BF Goodrich All-Terrain T/A KO tires fitted to the Ultimate Edition grip the mud with strength and contribute to the overall feeling that in low gear with the rear differential locked, the FJ could roll over almost anything . Climbing steep hills and crossing fast running water up to the bottoms of the door never once slowed us down and even then running in four-wheel high was more than enough.
And once the mud was sticking to the roof rack, we came to appreciate the interior of the FJ. At first glance, the amenities inside seem a little sparse for a vehicle that costs nearly $40,000. There isn’t a touch screen, no navigation and not even a fuel economy gauge.
But, the cloth seats, plastic door sills and thick rubber floor mats make cleaning the interior especially easy. What’s more, the squared-off dash design and oversized controls add an almost toy-like quality, making the FJ reminiscent of the power wheels you had as a kid. It just adds to the fun-loving quality of this purpose built machine.
The back seats are also hard to access thanks to forward-hinged suicide doors, but the rear-seat space is surprisingly livable once you’re in.
To get a FJ Cruiser Trail Team Ultimate Edition, of which only 2,500 will be produced, you will have to drop $37,455. Considering the capability you get, that price seems fair, even when compared to a loaded-up Jeep Wrangler. It’s at the base end where the Toyota loses its edge. You can pick up a base, stripped out Jeep for $23,390, while a bottom-of-the-barrel FJ will cost $28,540. The value proposition weighs heavily in the Jeep’s favor, coming with four-wheel drive straight out of the gate while the base FJ only powers two wheels, although the FJ does get two extra doors and more cargo room.
So what really sells an FJ? Its style, character, capability and charisma make it fun to drive, and easy to love. You must be prepared to overlook some glaring compromises to appreciate the fun-loving and capable nature of this off-road buggy. If you’re not willing to forget about the small things and you could care less about leaving the pavement, the FJ Cruiser is the absolute wrong vehicle for you.
But, if you value getting into the great outdoors and tackling the elements above all else, the FJ will be a competent partner that will return many miles of absolutely joyous motoring. And let’s face it, when you think back to your childhood puppy, you don’t recall the broken glass or busted screen door, you just remember sunny days playing fetch in the park. That feeling is what the FJ is all about.