Recapturing the spirit of a 1960s icon
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, Equipped with the optional Trail Teams Special Edition Package,  
Toyota's off-road ready FJ Cruiser looks like it's ready to go on a  

There's no mistaking the 2010 Toyota FJ Cruiser. Especially when equipped with the optional Trail Teams off-road package, it looks like a giant Tonka toy - a cartoonish mashup of a full-size Hummer and a Lunar Rover.

The exaggerated styling can be forgiven because the FJ is just about as off-road capable as a Hummer, which was originally built for the U.S. military. But it looks as out of place as a Lunar Rover everywhere else. In other words, this is not a ride for the shy and retiring.

The FJ Cruiser is Toyota's retro version of the original off-road vehicle that helped put the company on the map in America, the original FJ40 Land Cruiser from the 1960s. It won praise for being every bit as tough as the legendary Range Rovers from that era, but more reliable. At the same time, the no-compromise design punished occupants when driving around town with a stiff ride, a balky manual transmission and tiny fold-down back seats.

Toyota corrected many of these shortcomings in the new FJ Cruiser, which was first introduced in 2007. For starters, the ride is much softer, more like a large van that a rock crawler. A five-speed automatic transmission is available for those who don't want to mess with shifting, even though the six-speed manual is light years ahead of the original version.

Despite the improvements, the FJ that continues into 2010 still has some around-town limitations. For starters, visibility is more limited than in the earlier models. The windshield is so low that drivers need to lean forward at stoplights to see them. And the side windows do not completely wrap around to the rear door, creating large blind spots on both sides.

The designers also compromised access to the back seats by trying to retain the original FJ40's three-door styling. They can be reached by opening small suicide doors behind the front doors. To maintain the three-door appearance, the only handles are on the inside and reached from the outside by feeling around for them. The arrangement works, but is awkward. Rear leg room is pretty good, though.

Maybe the designers should have remembered Toyota also offered a four-door Land Cruiser - the FJ55 - in the 1960s and produced an extended-wheel base version with real back doors. After all, the four-door version of the Jeep Wrangler is selling well, and it looks retro, too.

But - and here's what counts - the off-road performance of the FJ Cruiser is still uncompromised. That is largely because it is a genuine pickup-based SUV, not a car-based crossover. It shares components with Toyota's rugged 4Runner SUV but has higher ground clearance. A part-time four-wheel drive system is available with the automatic transmission, while a full-time all-wheel-drive system can be had with the manual. Both combine traditional mechanical components and modern electronic means for improving maintaining traction, including an availlable A-TRAC system that helps reduce wheel spin and redistribute torque.

The first year it was introduced, the FJ Cruiser won the award for best off-road vehicle in the $25,000 to $34,999 at Mudfest, the annual competition staged by the Northwest Automotive Press Association.

And the CJ Cruiser's off-road capabilities are improved even more when equipped with the Trail Teams Special Edition Package that came on our test vehicle. The package - a $6,695 option - includes large beadlock-look wheels with beefy BFGoodrich all-terrain tires, a locking rear differential and Bilstein shock absorbers. It also includes a unique a Sandstorm and black-out paint scheme that boosts the vehicle's rugged looks.

The package also included a backup camera integrated into the review mirror that made parking a little easier. Unfortunately, the image was small and only a slight improvement over looking through the rear window, which is partly blocked by the spare tire mounted on the tailgate.

Regardless of options, the FJ Cruiser only comes with one engine, 4.0-liter aluminum-block V-6 with variable valve timing. Improvements boost the output to 260 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque this year. Although that's enough power to move the 4,295 vehicle with authority, it's not nearly as fast as other mid-size SUVs that are available with V8 engines.

Who knew what Chrysler was starting when it released the retro PT Cruiser in 1999. With its classic hot rod looks, the Neon-based five-door won favor with aging baby boomers who embraced its American Graffiti styling cues. By now many manufacturers have released retro models, with varying degrees of success. Ford has a winner with the current Mustang but discontinued its revived Thunderbird after only a few years.

The FJ Cruiser includes many retro touches, from the single headlights to the bare metal plate that holds the large control knobs for the climate control system. At the same time, both the exterior and interior styling have contemporary twists, like the two-tone seats in our test vehicle. It also included durable fabric floor mats instead of the rubber ones that came with the original FJ Land Cruiser.

Beginning at around $26,000 and topping out at just over $35,000 with the Trail Teams Special Edition Package, the 2011 Toyota FJ Cruiser is a lot of vehicle for the money. The retro styling is not for everyone, of course. But for those looking to stand out from crowd - and get away from it - the FJ Cruiser is hard to beat.

• Model: 2010 FJ Cruiser.

• Manufacturer: Toyota.

• Class: Midsize SUV.

• Layout: Front engine, rear and four-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five-door swing-out hatchback.

• Engines: 4.0-liter V6 (260 hp, 270 ft-lbs).

• Transmissions: Six-speed manual; five-speed automatic with manual settings.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 17/21.

• Price: Beginning at approximately $25,700 (35,057 as tested).

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