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Off-road, the FJ is the real deal.

Photos and text by Larry Walton, Editorial Services West

If you have much experience with off-road trucks, chances are the new FJ Cruiser has already caught your eye.  Several styling cues refer directly to the FJ40 of years gone by including the white-roofed two tone color schemes, head light and grill configurations.

But the new FJ is just turning heads, period.  Everywhere we go this truck is getting attention.  FJs ruled at the huge Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association (SEMA) Conference in Las Vegas this year where modified versions were sporting lifts, bigger wheels and tires, winches, lights, racks and a number of other add-on parts.  This is great news for FJ owners who wonder if parts will be available.

Toyota was even displaying the FJ Cruiser that will compete in the Baja 1000 in the stock class, which brings us to an important aspect of the stylish vehicle’s attributes: it is the real deal in off-road performance.

The FJ Cruiser’s platform is based on the 120 Series Land Cruiser Prado.  “But the tire size and wheelbase is different,” says Akio Nishimura, the FJ’s chief engineer.  Nishimura shortened the wheelbase, allowed for 32 inch tires and tucked the fuel tank up out of harm’s way.

The new FJ’s frame has eight cross members to reduce flex.  Also contributing to the excellent frame stiffness are beefed-up center side rails and rear inner channel reinforcements.  You can feel this attention to detail when the FJ is in a counter-camber situation that would pop glass on a lesser frame.

The frame includes pre-drilled weld nuts for rock rails, which can save you a trip to the local body shop and keep your doors operating after a close encounter with some unfriendly granite on the trail.

You’ve heard us talk about locking differentials at Truck Test Digest and for many off-road situations there’s no substitute.  Toyota’s got a good locker and they employed it on the new FJ.  With over ten years of proven durability the B20N’s electronic actuator locks the side gear to the ring gear via the sleeve, thus locking the rear axles, which adds up to a big time traction boost.

The FJ’s locking dif can handle a matted accelerator in mud or sand but it can also help you crawl at a bumper-saving snail’s pace when precision is the order of the day.  While the best off-road performers have a locking dif like the FJ, there are good reasons that all cars don’t offer a locked dif all the time – basically you can’t turn – well, at least very sharp when traction is restored.

This is where the new Cruiser offers another level of traction in addition to the locking dif.  It’s the Active Traction Control.  You’ve probably noticed that the wheel in the air is the one that tends to get the power.  Toyota’s traction control senses this spinning wheel, applies brakes to that wheel and the open dif transfers power to the other side of the vehicle – you know, to the tire which is actually on the ground.

This A-Trac (aka “8 trac” – not to be confused with 8 track, which is still found in some FJ40s and doesn’t help with traction but can mellow you out, man, far out) system works remarkably well and will get you through almost everything you encounter.

It’s clear that the FJ’s wheeling credentials look good on paper (or on your monitor) but does it perform on the trail?  That’s just what Toyota gave us an opportunity to find out and the FJ did not disappoint.

We recently joined one of the FJ Cruiser Trail Team on a run with the Cascade Cruisers near Brown’s Camp in the Oregon Coast Range.  I drove a bone stock FJ while other team members drove an FJ slightly modified for the Rubicon.  Several club members brought their new FJ Cruisers out on the trail as well.

I have to tip my hat to the Toyota guys who did not preview any of the trails we would see that day.  We just jumped in and the trails proved to be challenging.  Just ask the guys who were acting as spotters because they had plenty of time directing the drivers where to place the wheels to dance around boulders and over logs.

I was surprised by the number of trails through the heavily forested region.  Usually the coast range timber can only be cruised on foot or on the many logging roads, which are built for log trucks to move the precious Douglas Fir from the hills to the mill.

But the Cascade Cruisers had identified a number of elk and deer trails that were approved for off-road use and helped us to identify how the FJ performed on steep terrain, loose dirt and rocks, large rocks and some mud.  Event organizers warned us about one run, which the Rubicon prepped FJ handled unassisted using lockers but the stock truck needed a little more tire height and got a slight winch assist.   Other than that it blazed through all challenges.

I was particularly impressed with how well the A-Trac worked.  When the FJ encountered those stretches where the trail had big holes or was transitioning from a left to a right camber putting opposite corner wheels in the air the system locked the free wheels and put the power to the grounded rubber.  Nice!

We put the skid plates to the test, too.  The smart traction system kept getting the power to the ground while the FJ was getting its belly scratched. High centered is not one of my favorite places to be so I appreciated this assistance from the truck’s computer.

Interior design features of the FJ Cruiser understand that the great outdoors do not always stay outside.  Water-resistant seats and rubber-type floors mean easy clean up for the off-roaders who need to stop by the car wash before their significant others get a glimpse of the residual effects of the FJ’s forays.

Owners we talked with really like the suicide doors to access the back seat, but some in situations where the back seat occupants need to be getting in and out it can be bothersome for the driver who must unbuckle and open the door each time the rear door is used.

Almost everyone agrees that the FJ’s visibility leaves something to be desired.  The hefty roof support pillars that give it its distinctive looks also create some significant blind spots.  I found the large mirrors really helped with this.

The pipe-like dash details look pretty cool but some will find them to be a knee knocker when entering the driver’s seat..  The dash mounted gauge pod, which is a featured item on upgrade packages 1 & 2 look kinda cool but may impede over-the-hood vision for shorter drivers.

Safety features abound.  Three wiper arms provide excellent windshield coverage.  Stability control, traction control, ABS and electronic brake-force distribution help keep the FJ out of trouble.  Plenty of airbag and seatbelt planning should keep occupants safe in most emergency situations.

Daytime running lights improve safety by informing other drivers of the FJ’s presence.  These lights cannot be turned off while the FJ is running, which is usually not a problem unless you are trying to photograph the FJ in action and the new FJ Cruiser is indeed ready for action!

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