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NEW TRUCK REVIEW
Toyota hits active-lifestyle mark with FJ Cruiser
  By John Gilbert, special to SNS Interactive

GREENVILLE, S.C. (SNS) – The folks at Toyota who were introducing a couple new 2007 vehicles expressed disappointment because the 2006 RAV4 and Toyota Avalon and Lexus GS and IS models didn’t make it as finalists in either the 2006 Truck or Car of the Year voting.

I suggested that maybe they only need to be patient, because Toyota could be in prime position to sweep both 2007 awards, with the latest generation Camry and the introduction of the entirely new FJ Cruiser.

The FJ Cruiser is a lead-pipe cinch to be successful. It is the latest example of a concept vehicle the springs to life and becomes a major hit. The first utility vehicle Toyota ever built was a primitive Jeep-like vehicle in the early 1950s. The first one was called the AK10, and the second was the BJ, which acquired the nickname Land Cruiser in 1954.

That was a rugged off-road vehicle, and it led into the series of Land Cruisers that evolved to what now exists as the basic large and fully appointed SUV. Two years ago, Toyota unveiled a wild-looking, bright blue auto show concept vehicle that looked like an artsy combination of a Jeep Wrangler and a compact Hummer.

The vehicle met with wild acclaim, and this weekend, at the Detroit Auto Show, the FJ Cruiser will debut as a production vehicle.

Styled after the 1967 FJ40, the new FJ Cruiser is a strange conglomeration of seemingly unrelated parts that somehow come together to make an entirely pleasing and impressive looking vehicle. From the side, the shape is uneven, with large doors and then smaller, thinner rear-hinged "suicide" doors allowing easier access to the rear seat.

Trust me on this, but the FJ with the optional roof rack looks twice as good as the FJ without it.

 

Without it, the FJ looks…almost bald, and not just because they all come with a bright white roof panel.

Toyota, which hasn’t missed on many opportunities to gobble up market segments on its way to inevitably pass General Motors as the world’s largest auto manufacturer, has filled the FJ with every necessary option to impress off-road types, and to appeal to off-road-wannabes who need a vehicle for all seasons but don’t mind creating the image that they are free-wheeling, devil-may-care adventurers.

It doesn’t matter to Toyota if you go mountain climbing, whitewater rafting, sky-diving, mountain biking, or never do anything more adventurous than driving to the mall, you are still "qualified" to buy an FJ Cruiser.

The price is expected to be "mid-$20,000" and they will conquer rugged terrain, because of a tough, fully-boxed frame, two different four-wheel-drive systems with high and low ranges and a center differential lock, and with short overhangs for good enter and exit climbing angles.

The truck-based platform gives the FJ a 180-inch length and 106-inch wheelbase, and it is powered by a 4.0-liter V6 with variable valve timing, extracting 239 horsepower at 5,200 RPMs and 278 foot-pounds of torque at 3,700 RPMs.

That engine, shared with the Tacoma, 4Runner, and Tundra, and either a six-speed stick or a five-speed automatic. Its tow capacity is 5,000 pounds, and its tongue weight is 500 pounds.

The stick-shift models have full-time all-wheel drive that can be switched into high for everyday, on-road driving, high-range/low-gear for off-roading, or low-range/low-gear for ultra-slow rock climbing, up or down.

  For the heaviest off-road duty, you also can start the stick version without pushing in the clutch, to avoid rolling on a steep grade.

A Torsen limited-slip center differential sends 40 percent of torque to the front and 60 percent to the rear in normal driving, but any slippage of the rear can shift up to 53 percent of power to the front, and slippage up front can shift up to 70 percent to the rear.

The automatic has uphill and downhill shift logic to prevent gear hunting on uphill climbs, and will downshift to help control slow speeds when going down steep embankments. A gated shifter allows drivers to manually shift as well.

The shift-on-the-fly part-time four-wheel drive system means you can set it for just rear-drive, or shift into four-wheel drive when you encounter a slippery stretch.

The ruggedness of being based on the modern Land Cruiser frame parts adds to the impressive stance and off-road performance. But the FJ also is extraordinarily appealing to normal, on-road customers, with its wild color schemes, which are repeated on the center dashboard. An optional gauge package can be mounted up on top of the dashboard, as well.

The side doors must be opened to allow opening the suicide doors, and the second row can be folded down on a 60-40 split basis to create a flat cargo floor. Seat materials are water-repellant, covered with a breathable resin for easy cleaning.

Floor surfaces are covered with rubbery stuff, and an enormous subwoofer can be installed on the rear compartment wall to enhance the audio system. Rear household plug-in sockets are also available.

All of Toyota’s latest safety elements are in place, from child seats to airbags to four-wheel disc brakes with antilock and electronic brake distribution, as well as a traction control system and a systemn for detecting and offsetting slides and skids.

Toyota says the FJ will compete with the Jeep Rubicon, Nissan Xterra and the softer but similarly aimed Honda Element.

 

Toyota expects to build 46,000 of them for 2006 calendar year sales, with 93 percent of them 4x4s.

When Toyota recently brought out the RAV4, I remarked that by making it 14 inches longer than its predecessor, mounting a V6, and adding a third row of seats, Toyota might gain new customers, but it was abandoning the "cute ute" consumers who made it a giant success.

Now, I have a new suspicion: Toyota abandoned the cute-ute segment only for a few months, and now it is refilling it with a cuter-uter that slots in smaller than the new RAV4, and should be a sellout.

Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be reached at cars@jwgilbert.com.