WE ARE fortunate enough to have had all manner of vehicles gracing our driveway – some whose pedigree ensures they are practically sold out before the first car hits the showroom floor, others that will have little hope of sales entering triple figures.
Some that cost more than the national debt of a small African nation, others that cost considerably less but still impress.
Some that surprise and delight, others that frustrate and annoy.
But never have we ever experienced the hoo-hah created by the Toyota FJ Cruiser, its voodoo blue exterior and sparkling white top casting a spell on all that set eyes on it. From the curious kids on our street that stood still with jaws dropped and eyes open wide to the traffic policeman who stopped me just to look at the interior.
From the veiled glances at traffic lights to the elderly man on his mobility scooter at the doctor, too old to care about disguising his interest. At the supermarket and at swimming lessons, at the park, the post office and Saturday morning markets, the FJ Cruiser got tongues wagging.
It is certainly striking to look at and Korean-born designer Jin Kin seems to have satisfied Toyota’s brief for a rugged 4WD that will capture the hearts of the young.
It is based on the FJ40 introduced in the 1960s as the Japanese manufacturer’s answer to the Jeep. They came to be a symbol of fun and reliability in tough conditions and more than 120,000 found homes here.
Not only are the Cruiser’s seats supportive and well moulded but a special water-resistant resin means that they don’t get wet and it is easy to get rid of mud and any kid-associated goo.
The floors are covered in grooved plastic allowing just a quick hose down after a bout of bush bashing to get the Cruiser in tip-top condition again.
Keeping with the industrial look, the cabin has a sheet of metal in the same colour as the exterior with more of the same on the door trims.
Instruments, including a compass and gradient gauges, are well set out and easy to read but the dials and other plastics are pretty much stock-standard Toyota.
Room for the front-seat occupants is extremely generous while those in the straighter-back rear pew don’t do too badly either especially if there are just two sharing the space.
Cargo capacity is excellent with the rear seats able to fold flat should you need more.
On the road
The FJ Cruiser is certainly a surprise package with drive performance far better than we were expecting. It has borrowed an engine from the Prado but delivers a better refined performance thanks in part to the 17-inch alloys and changes to the suspension tuning. The 4.0-litre petrol V6 is mated to a five-speed automatic transmission that seems genuinely up to most tasks.
It zooms along on the highway showing an enthusiasm to lead from the front and for such a large vehicle is quite nimble around town with an exceptional turning circle.
That turning circle is also one in a long list of features that makes the Cruiser such a complete off-road vehicle.
The FJ40 was a great adventurer and the Cruiser manages to emulate that with some ease.
To enhance its pedigree, it boasts a 36 degree approach, 31 degree departure and 29 degree break over angle – among the best offerings in its class.
What do you get?
A full suite of safety features includes anti-skid brakes with electronic brake force distribution and brake assist, stability control, front seat head restraints and six airbags.
Despite a utilitarian look, the Cruiser has a host of luxurious features such as an eight-speaker sound system, iPod and USB ports, Bluetooth capability, reversing camera, rear parking sensors and electric front windows.
Competition is limited but present in the Jeep Wrangler ($46,000), Suzuki Grand Vitara ($35,990) and Mitsubishi Challenger LS Wagon ($49,400) .
The all-coil suspension with double wishbones at the front and a five-link rear system goes a long way to ensuring a comfortable and consistent performance both on and off the tarmac.
The reversing camera is displayed in the rear-view mirror instead of the 11cm screen used for audio entertainment.
This has drawn criticism from some sectors but we like that it allows you to use both the camera and the judgement of your own eyes without shifting focus.
One thing we didn’t think was too practical was the Cruiser’s rear-hinged back doors.
They have no external handle, meaning that either the driver or passenger door has to be open to ensure access.
We found it difficult to load and unload the kiddies as well as the seven-foot neighbour.
Visibility, though, is great with the large windscreen and extra-big side mirrors eliminating most blind spots.
There is no diesel option and the Cruiser is quite thirsty with Toyota’s claimed 11.4 litres/100km a bit of wishful thinking.
At $44,990 out of the box, the Cruiser is cheaper than you would expect and it is backed by the Japanese manufacturer’s three-year/100,000km warranty with the first six log-book services capped at $210.
Jin Kin says apart from the FJ40, he also used his pet dog (an American pit bull) as inspiration.
When you look at the Cruiser you can imagine the pit bull’s broad shoulders, crouching low ready to pounce.
The Cruiser also pays homage to the FJ40 using the same shape grille with mesh screen, white roof, round headlamps and straight windscreen.
Both the old and new combine for arresting good looks.
It seems the FJ Cruiser was worth the wait.
It has excellent on and off-road capabilities, is more affordable than you might assume, has plenty of space to house the kids and is funky enough for them to enjoy the ride.
The lack of a diesel will hurt but it will be extremely surprising if the Cruiser is not as successful for Toyota in Australia as its predecessor was.
Model: Toyota FJ Cruiser.
Details: Five-door large SUV.
Engine: 4.0-litre V6 petrol generating maximum power of 200kW at 5600rpm and peak torque of 380Nm at 4400rpm.
Transmission: Five-speed automatic.
Consumption: 11.4 litres/100km combined average.
Bottom line: $49,990