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Review: 2009 Toyota FJ Cruiser

Travel to the farthest reaches of civilization and you're almost guaranteed to find a Toyota Land Cruiser of some sort. The term ubiquitous doesn't even begin to describe the Land Cruiser in much of the world, where it has earned a reputation for reliability and capability. Toyota hoped to capture some of that mystique when it introduced the retro-styled FJ Cruiser to the North American market for the 2007 model year.

Sold alongside the luxurious (in North American specification) Land Cruiser - with which it shares little more than a handful of switchgear pieces - the FJ Cruiser harks back stylistically to the FJ40 that was produced in various workhorse iterations up until the mid-1980s. The FJ40 left a strong impression on off-road enthusiasts in the United States - restored and modified examples sell in the tens of thousands.

It was this historical mystique - a relatively rare thing for a Japanese vehicle to posses in North America - that encouraged Toyota to introduce a retro-styled off roader, the FJ Cruiser.

What is it?
It's a shortened 4Runner with vintage Land Cruiser styling touches. The FJ Cruiser is a two-door body-on-frame sports 'ute with a pair of mini suicide doors (think Mazda RX-8). In four-wheel-drive guise, it's one of the most capable rigs on the market today, though Toyota sent us a 4x2 to evaluate - a sad realization that most FJs won't leave the pavement.

What's it up against?
At over $30,000 as tested, you could put yourself in a freshly restored vintage FJ40. More realistically for most buyers, the FJ Cruiser competes directly against the Jeep Wrangler and Nissan Xterra and it's probably stealing some sales from the 4Runner.

The FJ Cruiser doesn't compete against the 2009 version of its namesake, the Land Cruiser. Though still a rugged and capable vehicle, the least expensive Land Cruiser lists for more than double the price of our FJ test vehicle.

Any breakthroughs?
In this day and age of crossovers with the rough-road capability of a pinewood derby car, the FJ Cruiser's 4x4 credentials stand out. Even our 4x2 tester featured an electronic locking rear differential, 265/70R-17 tires and a dash-mounted inclinometer as a part of the Upgrade Package 2.

The FJ Cruiser also packs three windshield wipers, which are not only fun to watch, but also provide a great party trick.

How does it look?
From some angles, you'd swear you were looking at a vintage FJ40 built with modern materials.

The FJ is a statement-making vehicle for its buyers, so Toyota was free to exercise little restraint designing this off-road runabout. Slab-siding, a blocky grille and retro Toyota badge, an upright greenhouse, a tailgate-mounted (and view-blocking) spare tire and, of course, a white roof all serve as reminders of the FJ's predecessor.

Swathed in Sandstorm paint, our FJ looked appropriately rugged despite the lack of a front differential. For urban cruisers, the only discernible exterior difference between 4x4 and 4x2 models is a small badge on the FJ's rump, so rest assured that the average citizen won't know you're only rugged on the outside.

Most importantly, the FJ Cruiser represents a dramatic departure for conservative Toyota. Rather than designing cars by committee with the intention of rocking the sales charts, the FJ Cruiser was designed from the start to be a niche vehicle - one of few such vehicles Toyota has ever marketed to North Americans.

And on the inside?
Color-coordinated plastic panels on the doors and center stack set the tone by matching the FJ Cruiser's exterior hue, fortunately the subdued Sandstorm beige in our test car. The interior isn't quite as retro as the exterior aside from a dashtop-mounted trio of gauges - a compass, an inclinometer and an outside temperature gauge - but it's functional and fairly comfortable.

Oversized knobs for the climate control and a rather plebian-looking radio (which flashes "FJammer" when you turn it on) dominate the center stack, but if you keep looking down, you'll encounter a vertical panel full of buttons that control everything from the optional subwoofer to the locking rear differential. It's a haphazard arrangement that would be out of place elsewhere but seems appropriate on this trail-ready platform.

You sit low in the FJ Cruiser and the front seats don't offer much adjustment or lateral support. We've never quite understood why so many off-road-oriented vehicles force the driver to sit so low in the cabin - we'd think that sitting higher would give you increased visibility.

A tall, upright dash and narrow windshield mean the FJ Cruiser doesn't give ideal forward visibility and things don't get much better when you look behind you; the C-pillar could hide an Abrams Tank or six. For 2009, Toyota has somewhat rectified this by offering a rearview camera built into the optional atuo-dimming rearview mirror with the Convenience Package.

The back seat is small relative to exterior dimensions, but the suicide-style mini-doors make getting in and out a breeze for a two-door. There's a fair amount of cargo space in the back, though the optional subwoofer (part of the Upgrade Package 2) looks childish.

Materials overall are acceptable but nothing special. We appreciate the rubber mat that takes the place of carpet in this rugged vehicle - it's easy to clean and, again, seems appropriate here.

But does it go?
With Toyota's 239-horsepower and 278 lb-ft. of torque, 4.0-liter V6 under its long hood, the 4,200 lb. FJ Cruiser feels downright muscular. Throttle response is terrific and the five-speed automatic transmission in our tester (a six-speed manual is standard on 4x4s) was usually prompt about downshifts. The torque peaks at a low 3,700 rpm, ideal for off-road foraging or urban commuting.

A specially-tuned exhaust gives the FJ Cruiser a pleasing grumble around town and a ferocious roar under liberal application of the throttle. We found ourselves looking for highway on-ramps just to hear the growl - that Toyota can get this sort of sound out of a V6 is impressive.

With its tall tires and ground clearance, the FJ Cruiser has a high center of gravity expected in a vehicle of its ilk. We didn't attempt to take our 4x2 tester off road beyond one light dirt trail, where it rode softly and did a nice job absorbing the rutted terrain. Around town, the FJ Cruiser has a taut but compliant ride, a virtue of stiff shocks and springs but big, absorbent tires.

The steering has a nice weight to it, but any feel it could have had is eaten up by the tire sidewalls. Still, the FJ Cruiser can be thrown into corners with more aplomb than a two-door Jeep Wrangler. You won't confuse it as a corner carver, but the FJ Cruiser is reasonably comfortable around town.

We averaged well below the 17/21 mpg city/highway the EPA rates our 4x2 tester, but that's because we enjoyed gassing it to hear the exhaust rumble.

Why you would buy it:
You're nostalgic for a "real" Land Cruiser, but you want to be cushioned and cosseted with modern conveniences and luxuries.

Why you wouldn't:
You want something that blends in with the crowd and you have no intention of leaving the pavement.

Leftlane's bottom line
The Toyota FJ Cruiser represents renewed interest in off-road capable vehicles. As mainstream buyers move away from truck-based SUVs like the Ford Explorer into unibody crossovers more adept at tackling the challenges of suburbia, one could fear that the small legion of responsible off-roaders could be left behind. Fortunately, the FJ Cruiser shows that the automakers aren't abandoning those who actually know what a transfer case can do - even if our test model, which represents the volume model in Sunbelt markets, doesn't have a transfer case.

2009 Toyota FJ Cruiser 4x2 base price, 23,320. As tested, $30,162.
Convenience Package, $2,175; Running boards, $345; Upgrade Package 2, $2,550; Floor and cargo mats, $199; Security alarm, $479; Towing hitch, $349; Destination, $745.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.