Pay­ing our re­spects to 2011’s 4X4OTY.

Much more than a Prado in fancy dress, Toy­ota’s mighty FJ Cruiser is un­for­tu­nately no more.

4 x 4 Australia - - Contents -

JUMP in our time ma­chine for a quick spin back five years. It’s the end of 2011 and we are lin­ing up the pick of the year’s crop for our slugfest known as 4X4 of the Year. Given we only al­low newly re­leased 4x4s into the con­test, not all years are as strong as others. But that cer­tainly wasn’t the case in 2011, which pro­duced a bumper crop of se­ri­ous con­tenders.

Start­ing equal favourite was the then-new and still ef­fec­tively cur­rent WK Jeep Grand Chero­kee, fit­ted for the first time with a diesel en­gine (a high-tech, Euro­pean-sourced 3.0-litre V6, no less). The WK had taken the pre­vi­ous year’s ti­tle on de­but, due to its petrol V6 and stun­ning value for money, so it wasn’t to be taken lightly.

Look­ing equally good, given Toy­ota Land Cruis­ers rarely lose a 4X4OTY con­test, was the 200 Se­ries GX – a stripped-back, no-non­sense new price­leader in the 200 range.

Range Rovers also tra­di­tion­ally do well at 4X4OTY, so the new 700Nm 4.4-litre V8 bi-turbo-diesel Rangie was look­ing good. As was the brick-dun­ny­tough Mercedes-benz G-wa­gen G350 diesel – triple diff locks and all. The Merc was back in Aussie show­rooms off the back of its then-new Aus­tralian De­fence Force con­tract.

The fi­nal con­tes­tant was the con­tro­ver­sially styled Toy­ota FJ Cruiser, the only one of the five short­listed ve­hi­cles not to fea­ture a mod­ern turbo-diesel en­gine. Back then, a turbo-diesel donk was seem­ingly a pre­req­ui­site for suc­cess at any level, so no one gave the FJ Cruiser a chance.

Af­ter a week of rig­or­ous test­ing, the six judges – with more than 200 years of col­lec­tive 4x4 ex­pe­ri­ence – saw it dif­fer­ently. In what was a tri­umph of the un­der­dog, the FJ Cruiser came from the clouds to sweep all be­fore it.

Fast forward to 2016, and word is out that pro­duc­tion of the FJ Cruiser is com­ing to an end in a mat­ter of months. This fol­lows its with­drawal from its key (and birth) mar­ket, the USA, in 2014, and ef­fec­tively brings to an end the short life of a very re­mark­able ve­hi­cle, both in terms of how it came about and what it did once it made it out into the world.

THE HIS­TORY

THE idea for the FJ Cruiser didn’t orig­i­nate from Ja­pan’s Toy­ota HQ; it was born in the USA. It dates back to the mid-1990s, when some US Toy­ota em­ploy­ees thought that some­thing with the rugged, go-any­where abil­ity of the orig­i­nal FJ40, but with con­tem­po­rary un­der­pin­nings, might get the in­ter­est of young US males – a mar­ket where Toy­ota con­sid­ered it was los­ing touch. In other words, it wanted a Jeep Wran­gler com­peti­tor.

In 1999 at the Chicago Auto Show, the ‘Retro Cruiser’ was re­vealed. This was a mod­i­fied 1967 FJ40 cre­ated by off-road racer and ve­hi­cle builder, Rod Millen. The Retro Cruiser was more than a con­cept ve­hi­cle, as it was a run­ning pro­to­type com­bin­ing a con­tem­po­rary Land Cruiser chas­sis and V8 en­gine with an FJ40 body.

With back­ing from Toy­ota HQ in Ja­pan, the project was handed to Toy­ota’s Cal­i­for­nian de­sign stu­dio, which de­liv­ered the FJ Cruiser Con­cept at the 2003 North Amer­i­can International Auto Show in Detroit.

It sparked enough in­ter­est for Toy­ota to de­cide the FJ Cruiser was a vi­able com­mer­cial propo­si­tion.

The pro­duc­tion ver­sion, with es­sen­tially the same ex­te­rior styling as the con­cept ve­hi­cle but with a toned­down in­te­rior, de­buted just two years later at the 2005 Chicago Auto Show. Its de­but fol­lowed rig­or­ous test­ing and de­vel­op­ment, in­clud­ing ex­ten­sive of­froad eval­u­a­tion at var­i­ous lo­ca­tions such as the Ru­bi­con Trail.

The FJ Cruiser didn’t ar­rive in Aus­tralia un­til mid-2011. By that time it was ef­fec­tively a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion model, as the orig­i­nal FJ was based on the 120 plat­form, whereas the Aus­tralian-de­liv­ered FJ had many of the changes that came with the 150 Se­ries Prado.

BE­HIND THE WHEEL

THE FJ Cruiser is a ve­hi­cle you have to drive to ap­pre­ci­ate. Just look­ing at it – even if you know it’s es­sen­tially a dif­fer­ent body on a short­ened-wheel­base, part-time-4x4, petrol-pow­ered Prado – won’t tell the whole story.

Com­pared to a Prado, the big neg­a­tive is in­te­rior space and seat­ing ca­pac­ity. The pay­load and tow­ing ca­pac­i­ties are also slightly re­duced, but in just about ev­ery other way, both on- and off-road, the FJ Cruiser is a bet­ter ve­hi­cle.

It all starts with the highly un­der­rated 200kw 4.0-litre V6. This 150 Se­ries en­gine has vari­able valve tim­ing on both cams, not just the in­let cam as per the 120 Se­ries en­gine.

In typ­i­cal Toy­ota fash­ion this is a soft-tune en­gine, where power spread, not peak power, is the name of the game. The en­gine is mated to the fivespeed auto (from the 120) and a part­time, dual-range 4x4 sys­tem (from the Hilux) – un­for­tu­nately a ret­ro­grade step from the Prado’s full-time 4x4.

At 2000kg the FJ Cruiser is around 300kg lighter than the petrol Prado, and this helps to ac­cen­tu­ate the en­gine’s flex­i­bil­ity and its con­sid­er­able top-end urge. The gen­er­ally agree­able five-speed gear­box works well with the en­gine and has gated shift, rather than a tip-shift, for ‘man­ual’ con­trol.

The soft tune of this en­gine helps with fuel econ­omy, one of the sur­prise rea­sons why the FJ Cruiser won 4X4OTY. In that week-long con­test, which in­cluded a fair deal of off-road tracks, it used 15.4L/100km to be the thirsti­est ve­hi­cle there – as you’d ex­pect, be­ing the only non-diesel. But the dif­fer­ence wasn’t much: the LC200 GX used 15.3L; the G-wa­gen 15.1L; the RR TDV8 14.5L; and the Jeep GC 12.2L/100km.

The FJ Cruiser’s re­duced weight and bet­ter mass cen­tral­i­sa­tion of its com­pact body also makes for sur­pris­ingly good on-road dy­nam­ics, even with the sup­ple long-travel sus­pen­sion that pro­duces an ex­cel­lent ride on even the bump­i­est road.

Off-road the FJ Cruiser has many things go­ing for it, not least the best ap­proach and de­par­ture an­gles of any Toy­ota 4x4. For ex­am­ple, com­pared to a Prado, it has a steeper ap­proach an­gle (36 v 32 de­grees), bet­ter ram­pover an­gle (29 v 22 de­grees), steeper de­par­ture an­gle (31 v 25 de­grees), and slightly im­proved ground clear­ance (224 v 220mm). All of that is in ad­di­tion to its ca­pa­ble, Prado-de­rived long-travel sus­pen­sion.

The FJ comes with a driver-op­er­ated rear diff lock and, while en­gag­ing this

negates the nor­mal trac­tion con­trol on both axles, the driver can re­in­state off-road-spe­cific trac­tion con­trol (A-TRC) across the front axle, even when the rear diff is locked. With its en­tire off-road ar­moury lined up, the FJ is clos­ing in on the Wran­gler Ru­bi­con ter­ri­tory in terms of show­room-stock off-road abil­ity.

In­side, the FJ is like no other Toy­ota 4x4, with forward and up­right A-pil­lars and a retro-styled slab dash­board. Two rear-hinged doors give good ac­cess to a de­cent rear bench, while the front pas­sen­gers are treated to the typ­i­cally com­fort­able Toy­ota seats – the driver’s seat hav­ing the ben­e­fit of height ad­just­ment. Not bad lug­gage space, ei­ther.

ON RE­FLEC­TION

MORE than 11,000 FJ Cruis­ers have been sold in Aus­tralia since 2011 (around 180 per month). Com­pared to the Prado, sales of which run at 1200 to 1300 per month, this isn’t sig­nif­i­cant, but given more than 98 per cent of Prado sales are diesels, one can only spec­u­late on FJ Cruiser sales if it was avail­able as a diesel.

Still, you don’t hear own­ers com­plain­ing about the FJ’S 4.0-litre petrol V6 in terms of per­for­mance or fuel econ­omy. And they all seem to ap­pre­ci­ate the FJ Cruiser’s Toy­otatyp­i­cal prac­ti­cal­ity and the fact there’s a good range of af­ter­mar­ket en­hance­ments to back up its off-road func­tion­al­ity. You cer­tainly see a sur­pris­ing num­ber of FJ Cruis­ers out and about on the back roads and bush tracks given their mod­est sales vol­ume.

Af­ter driv­ing the FJ Cruiser once again for this fea­ture, it has stood the test of time and doesn’t feel ready for re­tire­ment in any sense. Above all, the FJ Cruiser was an en­thu­si­ast’s 4x4 de­liv­ered by a man­u­fac­turer renowned for con­ser­va­tive, fam­i­ly­ori­en­tated 4x4s. Let’s hope Toy­ota throws off that con­ser­va­tive yoke again some­time soon.

Toy­ota’s fivespeed ‘Crawl Con­trol’ gets the FJ over tricky ter­rain. 224mm of ground clear­ance helps, too.

Hard-wear­ing plas­tic and easy-to-op­er­ate but­tons and levers. Satnav was added to the FJ in 2012.

In­te­rior is a fu­sion of retro and mod­ern de­sign. Ex­te­rior colour is splashed through the hard plas­tics and cloth trim.

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