- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 28, 2006

One of the world’s more conservative carmakers, Toyota tends to stay within its comfort zone — to color within its long-established lines.

Even when it takes a leap of faith, as it did with Lexus nearly 20 years ago, the very idea is more radical than the product. When the FJ concept began showing up on the auto show circuit three or four years ago, it was hard to believe Toyota would consider something as whimsical as an updated version of its venerable FJ-40, MIA from its product portfolio for two decades. But what do you know? Not only did they consider it, they built a production version.

Here’s the thing: Had Toyota continued producing that model, in the succeeding 20 years it could very well have evolved into the FJ Cruiser. So is it really whimsy or just Toyota doing what comes naturally? Either way, the FJ Cruiser is one highly capable midsize SUV.

A number of very clear-cut styling cues reference the old FJ-40. The vertical windshield, wraparound back light, white top, round headlamps and vertical grill are all nods to the old-school SUV. Overall, though, the updated styling is rounder, chunkier and more refined. Only one two-door body style is offered. The two full doors, however, are supplemented by two rear-hinged half doors providing access to the three-passenger 60/40 rear split bench seat.

Considered the entry-level FJ, it comes with a five-speed automatic transmission and is priced at $22,315. Carrying on the off-road tradition of the original FJ, are two 4WD versions. For $23,495 you can get the FJ with a six-speed manual transmission and fulltime 4WD. In addition to a four-wheel low gear, it has locking center and rear differentials. At the top of the FJ lineup is the $23,905 version with five-speed automatic transmission and part-time 4WD. It also has a low gearing and locking center differential with the locking rear differential offered as an option.

At the top of the FJ lineup is the $23,905 version with five-speed automatic transmission and part-time 4WD. It also has a low gearing and locking center differential with the locking rear differential offered as an option.

If there is any question regarding FJ’s basic mission, its relatively short approach and departure angles are a clear indication of its off-road aspirations. Sharing the 4Runner’s platform and some assorted underpinnings, the FJ is 11 inches shorter in overall length, but gives up only 4 inches of wheelbase length to 4Runner.

Already campaigning in the 4Runner, Tacoma and Tundra, the 239-horsepower 4.0-liter V-6 found in the FJ provides a satisfying amount of performance. Where the old FJ, armed with a 135-horsepower inline six, accelerated with all the suspense of a rerun of “This Old House,” the new FJ moves forward with restrained gusto. The six-speed manual gearbox on the FJ provided for this evaluation was smooth and solid. Fuel economy varies based on the transmission and number of drive wheels, but the fulltime 4WD edition has an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 16 miles per gallon in town and 19 mpg on the highway.

Although the new FJ targets buyers with off-roading ambitions, unlike its ancestor it is quite civilized over the pavement. It has a four-wheel independent suspension consisting of a double wishbone arrangement up front and multilink in the rear. The ride is surprisingly compliant. There is a bit of lean in the corners, but its low profile and wide stance minimizes the acrobatics. No matter which FJ edition you choose, it arrives with 17-inch steel wheels. These seem quite appropriate for the manual-transmission-equipped FJ, completing the down-and-dirty appearance of this version aimed at the off-road enthusiast. Opting for the aluminum replacements will set you back $650.

Toyota has thrown its arsenal of ABS technology at the FJ. It comes with four-wheel disc brakes with antilock, stability control, traction control, brake-force distribution and brake assist. To increase the safety quotient, Toyota combines front-seat side-impact air bags and front/rear-seat side curtain air bags into a $650 option.

Form follows function in FJ’s passenger compartment. The understated styling puts utility ahead of aesthetics. The lines are bold, but simple. Everything is easy to find and operate. Even the least of the FJs is not stripped down. Every FJ comes with air conditioning, power windows and door locks, and a six-speaker audio system with CD player.

For another $1,840, the Convenience package adds remote keyless entry, cruise control and power outboard mirrors among other features. The water-repellant seats (leather is not available) are comfortable and offer adequate side support. While the front area is roomy, the rear-seat area is a little tight. Sitting behind a driver over 6 feet would be uncomfortable for an adult. Even with the rear half-doors, getting in and out of the rear seat requires a contortion or two. There is nearly 28 cubic feet of cargo room behind the back seat. It is accessed through the side-hinged rear door. Folding down the rear seat expands cargo room to 67 cubic feet. With the rear seat folded down, the cargo area can accommodate a 4x4-foot panel.

The only real complaint is rearward visibility. Thick C-pillars and the rear-mounted spare tire conspire to restrict the view, but not to the point of being dangerous. Otherwise the FJ Cruiser is the sort of well-executed, dependable vehicle for which Toyota has become known.

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