Toyota FJ Cruiser

When Japanese inventor Sakichi Toyoda decided to design cars in the early 1930s, he started a dynasty that not only revolutionized the automobile industry in Japan, but has spread all over the world. His most notable invention to that point was the Toyoda Automatic Loom, whose success financed the Toyota Motor Company. “Toyota” was supposedly easier to pronounce than “Toyoda,” and was thought, in Japanese society, to be luckier. Judging from the success of the company, maybe it was. Toyota has produced a wide variety of vehicles during its history, but none have been more popular than the Land Cruiser line, especially after the company expanded to the U.S. in 1958. The FJ40, built from 1960 to 1983, is still a much sought after item today. Comparable in size and shape to the Jeep CJ of the era, and based on upgrades of World War II designs, the FJ40 proved itself a tough competitor in the civilian market and was the safari vehicle of choice for many years. Although production of the FJ40 ended in 1983, its legacy continues in Toyota’s latest brainchild, the Toyota FJ Cruiser. Many might claim the similarity between the two ends with the FJ moniker, until they take a Cruiser for a spin. After a more than 20-year hiatus, the FJ is back. While the old 40 was utilitarian and somewhat Spartan, the Cruiser incorporates the kind of creature comforts you’d expect to find in a luxury sedan today. With its compact size, getting into the back seat would be difficult if it weren’t for the rear-hinged back doors, which are hardly noticeable until the front doors are opened, since the rear handles are concealed in the doorjambs. This makes the Cruiser look like a two door, and also makes it safer for small children riding in the back seat. My first introduction to the Cruiser was at the 2006 Texas Outdoor Writers Association’s annual conference in Bandera, where I drove one of the dozen prototypes built at a cost of $1 million each. I was impressed, but a prototype is not a production vehicle, so I later spent three weeks driving two different Cruisers, in all conditions. They performed admirably, but I was most surprised by their conduct on the highway. The Cruiser’s 4.0L V6 engine offers 239 horsepower, which is more than enough for its small body size. In the past, Americans driving small cars had to wait for a long hill and a tailwind to pass other vehicles, but the Cruiser has no shortage of power. And the independent front suspension and coil springs make it ride like a luxury car. But the most attractive aspect of the Cruiser is its body. Many modern SUVs seem to emit almost visible vulnerability rays, and are no more off road vehicles than a Dodge Viper. The Cruiser seems to growl even when sitting still. Its designers did not make it look modern, and they did not resurrect the FJ40′ they did both. The best way to describe it would be a Cooper Mini on steroids, with an externally mounted spare tire on the back and a heavy-duty luggage rack on top. Anyone who sees one wants to drive it. Granted, the Cruiser is not a true off road vehicle. With its 32-inch tires, 9.6 inches of ground clearance, and four-wheel-drive option, it has definite off road capabilities, but it is no rock crawler. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Few rock crawlers are appealing to a wide variety of drivers, and the Cruiser seems to appeal to everyone. Four-wheel-drive, it has been said, only allows you to get stuck farther from the road. This does happen to inattentive drivers, but in most cases having four-wheel-drive makes the difference between driving home and hitting the heel-toe freight line. So, while the Cruiser is not a true off road vehicle, the 4X4 option is definitely a plus for hunters and fishers whose favorite spot is a good ways from the beaten path. If I were Toyota, there are actually a couple of things I would change about the Cruiser. One is that I would offer models with the top the same color as the rest of the vehicle. Cruisers come in several colors now, but they all have a white top. This makes them distinctive, but it would be nice if there were more options. The other change would be to offer soft-top and hard-top convertible models. The Cruiser is designed with a very large C-post (the riser behind the rear side window on each side), which causes blind spots for the driver. Short of making that post smaller (which would also be nice), being able to take the top down would eliminate the blind spots and please a lot of dyed-in-the-wool ragtop folks. Building on the FJ40 tradition seems to have been a good idea for the folks at Toyota. Their new FJ Cruiser offers both a blast from the past and a nod toward the future, all at the same time. A combination like that is hard to beat. Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist who did way too much research for this column. Write to him at P.O. Box 1600, Mason, Tex. 76856 or jeep@verizon.net.

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