Words and pictures by Grant Spolander
Toyota took their time to treat the South African market to a vehicle as boldly out-there as the fiery FJ Cruiser. We got hold of one and found that although it’s not the ideal overlander, it’ll make an entertaining mockery of just about any off-road terrain.
That the FJ actually made it to our end of Africa is a shock to me. As far as model options go we never get the cool stuff from Toyota, like the Supra, the Tundra, the Celica and the original Ferrari-fast MR2. Even the Land Cruiser 76 with its TDV8 engine. No, we got the 4.2 straight-6 naturally aspirated diesel donk.
Forget the FJ’s abilities – I love this vehicle simply for its uniqueness, its boldness, and the fact that it’s unlike any Toyota this country’s ever seen.
Let me start with a warning: if you’re a family man and you buy an FJ you deserve to be reported to child welfare.
Try and imagine a dark cell with limited legroom, poor ventilation and nothing but a small sealed window to peep through. That’s the second row of seats. Small, confined spaces don’t usually bother me but I couldn’t last for more than an hour on the FJ’s second row.
Those rear seats aside, the FJ’s cabin is surprisingly pleasant and roomy. Sure, most of the windows are comparatively small when measured against similar-sized SUVs, but the FJ’s not as incarcerating as it may seem from the outside. I think the cabin’s relative roominess can be attributed to its upright windscreen that’s more than an arm’s length away from front row occupants – that distance gives you some breathing room.
The FJ’s interior doesn’t have carpeting and features are limited; however, the radio / CD unit works well, the steering wheel boasts cruise control and all the driver aids are cleverly grouped together on the lower dashboard. What more do you need?
Three ergonomics snarfus: on several occasions I bumped my knees getting into the FJ’s driver seat; the one and only 12 V power point is awkwardly positioned in front of the drive-selection lever; and, ingress / egress is difficult when accessing the rear seats.
On a more positive note, there are lots of stowage compartments and cup / bottle holders, the centre console boasts a deep storage bin with no lid (you can stash tall items too) and there’s an adjustable armrest for both driver and front seated passenger.
It’s taken me three years to decide that I like the FJ’s retro looks. I first saw the Cruiser in ’08 when attending the SEMA Show in Las Vegas, and I couldn’t make up my mind. Then the FJ launched in SA and again I wasn’t sure if it was for me. Finally, this test model arrived at our office and I thought to myself, “Yip, it’s actually quite cool.”
I don’t know why it took me so long to make up my mind, but whatever the reason I appreciate that Toyota took a gamble – they’re supposed to be the play-it-safe guys, the ‘All Bran’ of vehicle manufacturers.
The FJ’s styling is loosely based on the original FJ40 model from the 60s. Shared design traits include a white roof, mesh grille, arrow-like bumper, closely set headlights and an upright windscreen. The windscreen’s an interesting one; because it’s pitched at a near 90° angle it offers little deflection to flying stones. Our test vehicle arrived with four stone chips in the front windscreen, sure testament to the fact that this is a vulnerability.
Thanks to the FJ’s rear suicide doors (reverse hinged) the vehicle looks like a short 2-door SUV, the rearmost door handles are hidden on the inside – you have to open the front door, reach inside and pull a lever to open the rear doors. The reverse doors may not be to everyone’s taste but I quite like the fact that they don’t close on you when parked uphill – a common scenario when driving off -road.
With its small windows and large door panels it may look like a super-sized SUV but the FJ’s total length (4 670 mm) is actually 35 mm shorter than the Fortuner and 260 mm shorter than the Prado. It’s also a little dumpier in height (1 830 mm) and wheelbase measurement (2 690 mm). However, at 1 905 mm the FJ’s wider than most SUVs yet still easy to park.
What a jol! I haven’t had this much fun testing a 4×4 since the Jimny or the Rubicon. And that sums up the FJ’s place in the 4×4 market: much like the Suzuki and the Jeep, this Toyota is designed for having fun on hardcore off -road terrain.
Rocky trails are my personal favourite, as they test your driving skills while highlighting the need for clearance and traction, two areas where the FJ excels. With approach, break-over and departure angles of 34, 29 and 31° respectively, little stands in the way of this Cruiser. The break-over angle is particularly noteworthy – I don’t know of many 4x4s that boast such an acute angle; ordinarily, 23° would be considered good.
The FJ’s ground clearance measurement is also helluva impressive, sporting a class-leading 245 mm under the rear diff . (The last time I tested a 4×4 with that much ground clearance was in March ’08 when we reviewed the Defender 110.) Most pukka 4x4s top out at about 220 mm but thanks to the FJ’s tall tyres (265 / 70 / R17) it gains an extra inch above average.
But the list doesn’t stop there, the FJ also boasts three off -road traction aids: standard traction control, a rear diff -lock and Active Traction Control (ATRC). As a part-time 4×4 the FJ has the option of 2WD, 4WD high range and 4WD low-range. When driving in 4×4-high the FJ’s standard traction control system does a reasonable job at monitoring wheel spin. However, this system isn’t terribly responsive and requires a certain degree of tyre slippage before it reacts; plus, it’s automatically disabled when low-range is selected.
In contrast, the ATRC system is far more sensitive. Much like the traction control system found in the new Discovery 4, the FJ’s ATRC system has the ability to rapidly react to a loss of traction, quickly sending torque to the necessary wheel. This system can only be activated in low-range and has to be manually selected via a small button on the dash. Naturally, if you engage the rear diff -lock the ATRC system will no longer operate as the diff -lock’s 50 / 50 torque split nullifies any need for traction control.
Die-hard off -roaders will tell you that a diff -lock is the ultimate traction device, but while driving the FJ I favoured the ATRC system. Obviously, if things get really tough I’d like a diff -lock to back me up but what I liked about the ATRC system is that you can leave it activated without affecting the FJ’s manoeuvrability. What’s more, a diff -lock oft en detaches you from the driving experience, making every obstacle seem humdrum and easier than it really is. The ATRC system keeps things interesting by letting you know when its working, both by buzzing and by illuminating a small dashboard light every time a wheel slips.
Lastly, by keeping the ATRC system continually activated it minimises tyre damage caused by wheel slip and tyre dragging – a diff -lock will turn both wheels regardless of traction and it will drag your outside tyre through a sharp bend.
While talking tyres, I’m a bit disappointed in the FJ’s choice: Dunlop Grandtrek AT22s. I’m not saying these are bad tyres but they look far too road-biased for such a capable 4×4, especially given that the Fortuner comes OE fitted with Bridgestone Dueller ATs – a popular brand amongst off -road enthusiasts.
The FJ’s suspension is phenomenal; smooth and pliable on gravel but firm and forceful on tough terrain. Ordinarily, 4x4s with soft independent front suspension have a bad habit of nosediving when descending rocky slopes, however, the FJ does a great job at resisting sudden dips and dives and at no point during our test did we bump the FJ’s front bash plate.
Another commendable suspension trait is the FJ’s articulation. Thanks to its rear solid-axle setup the FJ proves very capable when it comes to maintaining traction; we recorded a RTI score of 460 on our 20° ramp. That’s just 20 points behind the Patrol GRX with its solid axles all round, and significantly better than any bakkie we’ve tested – none have scored more than 380.
Don’t be fooled by the FJ’s sparse cabin – there’s nothing primitive about this Cruiser’s ride comfort and performance. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s on par with many luxury SUVs like the Discovery 4, Toyota Prado and even the Geländewagen G350 with its R1.3 million price tag.
This has a lot to do with the FJ’s engine and gearbox combination, a 4.0-litre V6 mated to a 5-speed auto. This is the same VVTi motor fitted to the Fortuner, Hilux and Prado models. However, there are slight differences in that the FJ and the Prado 4.0 V6 both deliver 200 kW @ 5 600 rpm and 380 Nm @ 4 400 rpm while the Hilux and Fortuner both produce 175 kW @ 5 200 rpm and 376 Nm @ 3 800 rpm.
So what does it mean in the real world? Well, it means the FJ’s bloody ferocious. We recorded an acceleration time from 100 to 120 km/h of just 3.3 seconds, but even more impressive than that is the FJ’s ability to rocket from 120 – 160 km/h in no time at all; it never falters, whimpers or hesitates, it just keeps on pulling until the needle maxes out. Then, even more remarkably, when you drive it around town it’s quieter than a PGA final.
If you race the FJ through tight turns the suspension feels a bit spongy. But it feels worse than it actually is – I drove the test vehicle over Baines Kloof pass with a heavy right foot and the FJ did well, feeling reasonably sure-footed and comfortable on the narrow twisty tar road.
The FJ’s biggest on-road failing is driver visibility; it’s not Hummer bad but it’s bad enough that you need to be vigilant at all times. If you’re daydreaming in the FJ there’s no corner-of-the-eye movement to bring you back to reality – it’s like driving with blinkers on. This is due to the Cruiser’s tiny rear windows and humongous B-pillars – they’re roughly 700 mm wide.
Thankfully, the FJ features a rearview camera for those tricky parking situations and the vehicle’s proportions are clean cut so you know exactly where one end begins and the other ends.
As you can imagine, the FJ’s fuel economy ain’t great given its 4.0-litre V6 engine. However, as far as big capacity petrol motors go the FJ’s consumption isn’t that bad. If you look at our Fuel Consumption Log on page 13 you’ll notice one FJ owner has recorded a consumption figure of 13 l / 100 km. Similarly, some Hilux 4.0 owners have recorded 12.82 and 13.3 l / 100 km, while one Prado 4.0 owner is getting 14.5 l / 100 km.
Toyota quotes a fuel economy figure of 11.9 l / 100 km which is a bit optimistic. We recorded a figure of 14.1 l / 100 km after driving on the freeway, around town and off -road. Not great, but in all fairness not bad for a 4.0-litre petrol engine hauling two tons of body weight on a combined cycle.
Lastly, I’ve heard good reports about this engine’s reliability but I’m keen to hear from the people that actually own a Toyota 4.0-litre, so please send me some feedback. Any information will do, things like how many kilometres you have on the odometer, have you had any major mechanical problems, are the spares / service costs expensive, etc. You can direct your emails to firstname.lastname@example.org
The FJ’s not an overlander’s 4×4. I’m not saying you can’t tour in this Cruiser, I’m simply saying it’s not optimally designed for long-distance travel: the boot’s too small, the rear seats are uncomfortable, the engine’s not particularly economical and if you’re travelling more than 10 000 km you’re gonna have to service it en route.
If you’re a family of two seeking an exciting 4×4 for weekend getaways and off-road trails, the FJ’s your best bet in the fun 4×4 category. That’s to say it’s far better than a Wrangler in terms of space, comfort, on-road performance and the occasional trip across the border. However, at R460k the FJ’s considerably pricier than the Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited (R396k).
Overlanders with kids should steer clear of the FJ. In this instance I’d opt for a Fortuner or a double-cab bakkie – we recently took the new Ford Ranger on a trip to Botswana and recorded a fuel consumption figure of 10.1 l / 100 km while driving exclusively off-road (thick sand, water and gravel).
Given the Cruiser’s tank capacity of 72 litres and fuel consumption figure of 14.1 l / 100 km it should get roughly 510 km on a full tank. Comparatively, the new Ranger has an 80-litre tank so it can cover a distance of 792 km before needing to top up. In other words, the Ranger can travel 55 percent further on a full tank of fuel, plus, it’s got a payload capacity of 1 000 kg versus the Cruiser’s 568 kg. Again, as far as overlanding’s concerned, the FJ can’t compete.
On the flipside, when it comes to tough off-road tracks there ain’t much that can stand toe-to-toe with this funky, fun 4×4. I think I speak for most South Africans when I say, “FJ Cruiser, make yourself at home, you’re gonna love it here!”