Toyotas are boring. It’s a sad truth but with a sterile model line-up and a dearth of performance offerings, South African Toyota aficionados haven’t had much to look forward to in recent years. Models like the tepid Auris TRD have offered some respite, but it is Toyota’s burly behemoth, the FJ Cruiser, that’s proving surprisingly popular among buyers. Compared with its rivals, the Land Rover Defender and the Jeep Wrangler, the FJ is doing exceptionally well and outselling its nearest competitor by more than 110 units (Dec new car sales). The logic behind its success is quite simple: People want to drive something that stands out from the crowd, something the FJ Cruiser does very, very well, but just how good is it on the black stuff?
Although not to everyone’s taste, the FJ Cruiser’s malevolent demeanour is hard to deny. Other road users quickly move out of the way when the FJ’s imposing figure fills their rear-view mirror. Its retro design language pays tribute to the original FJ40 Land Cruiser from the ’60s but with a modern twist. The front end is bookended by circular headlights and a mesh grill complete with Toyota word mark insignia, while the signature white roof and wraparound rear glass round off the tail.
The vertical nature of the windscreen acts mostly as a giant bug swatter especially on the long road pulverising anything brave enough to fly in its path. The result is that the windscreen is often incrusted with the remains of unsuspecting insects thankfully, the heavy-duty tri-wiper arrangement is on hand to restore vision and keep things nice and clean.
A limited edition, the Trail Cruiser boasts several aggressive styling tweaks that differentiate it from other Cruisers in the range. Equipped with a metallic grey paintjob and heavy duty roof scaffolding with integrated driving lamps, it certainly looks impressive.
Taking a utilitarian approach, the cabin is dressed with easy-to-clean rubber mats, water repellent cloth seats and hard-wearing plastic parts. These practical surfaces mean that the interior is easy to maintain and wipe down after a hard day’s use. Step inside and you’re greeted by chunky block-like knobs, buttons and levers which appear to have been designed for a Springbok rugby player. Even the door handles are oversized. They’re so large that you’ll need the mitts of Bakkies Botha to fully appreciate their worth but they do, nonetheless, add a certain quirkiness to the cabin. Humour aside, the interior is antithesis of retro comprising modern garnishes such as an integrated audio/CD sound system with six speakers and an iPod, external audio and USB connectors, aircon, an extra power socket and cruise control.
The seats are surprisingly comfy and offer fairly substantial support but the outlandish suicide door configuration does make getting in and out of the back quite tough.
One gripe: The massive C-pillar and spare wheel affixed to the rear door make visibility challenging. I often found myself triple checking blind spots when changing lanes in fear of sideswiping other cars.
The FJ Cruiser’s performance abilities belie its plus-size physique. Bludgeon the throttle and the high-compression 4.0-litre V6 petrol engine assaults the speed limit with alacrity think hot hatch. Yip, the FJ Cruiser can sprint to 100kph in just 8.6 seconds, which is impressive for a two-ton-plus vehicle.
Armed with 200kW and 380Nm of rotational force, the FJ produces almost double the power of the original six-cylinder FJ40. All this power, however, does come at a premium horrendous fuel consumption hidden by the absence of an on-board computer. Nursing the throttle, and by nursing I mean driving like a granny, we returned a combined fuel consumption figure of 12.1 /100km. Drive it with gusto and the figure will spike upwards of 14 /100km. The top speed of 175kph is also easily accessible: foot flat, the speedo needle will be running off the clock in the process.
It’s unfortunately only available with a five-speed automatic transmission, but the experience is made bearable by a technology Toyota calls AI Shift control. Essentially, what this program does is vary the shifting algorithms based on vehicle speed, road conditions and throttle position this fosters optimal shifting and nullifies gear hunting. Although the gearbox is more fluent and smoother than a regular automatic, it still isn’t as intuitive as a manual application. What the FJ lacks, however, is the choice of a manual gearbox and a frugal turbodiesel option – the 3.0-litre D-4D unit from the Hilux/Fortuner would be a great addition to the line-up.
To be fair, the FJ doesn’t claim to be the best handling SUV out there, but you would expect a semblance of stability when pushing it through the corners. As expected, the top-heavy FJ suffers from prodigious body roll, so you’ll need to scrub off a lot of speed before entering a tight, sweeping bend.
That said, the FJ fairs well on a dirt road. The high-riding suspension arrangement, comprising double wishbones in the front and four-link suspension with lateral rods at the back, mitigates the undulations and corrugations of a dirt trail with aplomb. You can feel the A-TRAC system working actively behind the scenes to thwart the FJ’s penchant for spinning its rear wheels.
Parking isn’t as bad as you’d expect either. I initially struggled to line it up in the parking yard but after a few attempts I got the hang of it. Reversing is aided by a handy – albeit tiny – camera integrated into the rear-view mirror.
Overall, the FJ Cruiser is a fitting homage to the original FJ40. Not only is it de rigueur, it drives well and is just as capable on asphalt as it is on gravel. Admittedly, many admirers will buy it purely for the bling factor alone but they’ll be happy knowing they’re getting a practical workhorse that’s able to cope with the school run and tow the boat to the lake come holiday time did I mention it’s a proper off-roader, too?