First Glance: Good looking and easy to live with
But the FJ Cruiser is anything but dowdy: It has a unique shape derived from the Land Cruisers of the 1960s (in particular a version known as the FJ40, hence the FJ Cruiser's name). In my opinion, it's up there with the Mazda Miata and Ford Mustang as one of the best-looking retro vehicles ever to hit the road.
The Toyota FJ Cruiser I test drove had the $7,265 Toyota Racing Division (TRD) Special Edition package, which ditches the FJ's iconic white roof in favor of a monochrome "Diamond Black" finish. I used to think that the FJ looked best in bright blue or Tonka-truck yellow with a white roof, but the all-black scheme really grew on me. Unique 16" grey wheels -- smaller than the 17s usually fitted to the FJ but with chunkier off-road tires -- are also part of the TRD package, as are TRD-tuned Bilstein shock absorbers, an active traction control system ("A-TRAC") specially tuned for off-roading, rock rails running underneath the body, and a whole bunch of TRD badges.
In the Driver's Seat: Lousy sightlines, but everything else is great
I expected the FJ's tall dashboard and short, far-away windshield to make for an odd driving position, but I had no problem getting comfortable behind the wheel; the standard height-adjustable driver's seat was a big help. The FJ's biggest problem is the super-size blind spot to the right, which the giant mirrors don't quite cover. Rear visibility is lousy, and backing out of a parking spot in the FJ Cruiser is an absolute nightmare. The other big problem is the sunvisors -- when folded down, they block nearly half the windshield.
Despite these flaws, the Toyota FJ Cruiser is easy and relaxing to drive, thanks in large part to an interior layout that shows Toyota's typical attention to detail. Everything is easy to reach and easy to use. The FJ Cruiser has tons of storage space, including a pair of deep cupholders at the back of the center console -- very useful when off-roading. The ends of the dashboard are finished in a girder motif, a detail that can only be seen when the doors are open. That's the sort of attention to detail for which the Japanese are famous.
On the Road: Excellent performance on-road and off
On-road handling is typical of big SUVs: Responsive but sloppy. The FJ doesn't corner with the aplomb of car-based CUVs like the Honda Element and Toyota RAV4. Off-road is where the FJ shines: The broad hood and short windshield make it feel wider than it is, which hampers maneuverability, but the low-end torque of the engine is brilliant. Manual FJs have a clutch-start override; pressing this button allows the vehicle to be started in gear. That way, if it stalls during a climb, you can set the brakes, downshift, release the brakes, and restart the climb by twisting the key -- no need to futz with the clutch.
Journey's End: A great all-rounder; the styling's a bonus
If you're looking for serious off-road chops, the FJ Cruiser gives up a little -- but not much -- to the Jeep Wrangler; the latter's narrower hood and solid front axle give it a leg up. But until you get into vehicles like the Land Rover -- where fancy electronics take much of the risk (and need for skill) out of off-roading -- the FJ is one of the best.
If style is what you want, consider the Honda Element. Though the look isn't as fresh, its Rubbermaid-inspired interior, like that of the Toyota FJ Cruiser, is great for folks who like to do things that involve being outdoors and getting dirty. The advantage to the Element is its car-based unit-body construction; that makes it lighter and much more fuel-efficient. The trade-off is that the Element doesn't really work off-road.
Still, few SUVs can match the FJ's combination of style, space, on-road comfort and off-road performance. Crappy fuel economy and big blind spots are the FJ Cruiser's only real vices, and then there's the TRD package -- granted it adds a lot of desirable equipment, but it balloons the FJ's price by about a third. Find yourself a good-paying job and drive carefully, and life with the Toyota FJ Cruiser will be bliss.