Pros: Strong V6; excellent off-road capability; cool styling

Cons: Poor fuel economy; cramped back seat with awkward access; unwieldy on-road feel; bare-bones cabin

Introduction

The 2012 Toyota FJ Cruiser is a stylistic heir to the legendary original Toyota Land Cruiser, so it should come as no surprise that the FJ is an off-road champ. But how many people really take their new $25,000-to-$30,000 SUV off-roading in their spare time? Well, quite a few, actually. There's no doubt that the FJ Cruiser is an intriguing alternative to the formerly peerless Jeep Wrangler in this regard, which is a real credit to Toyota's performance engineers. Nonetheless, the question remains: can the FJ hack it on the pavement as well, or is it the proverbial one-trick pony?

It's a tough question. The 2012 FJ Cruiser is easily more civilized than the Wrangler, but that's like saying President Obama is a better golfer than Charles Barkley: it doesn't really tell us much. If you're researching vehicles of this type, you might like to know how the FJ stacks up against less hard-core SUVs that were designed for mundane tasks like commuting and carpooling. The answer is that while the FJ is far from terrible under such circumstances, it's not exactly the best choice, either. Put it this way: the FJ isn't truly in its element until the tarmac gives way to dirt and dust.

Still, there aren't many vehicles that can multitask like the 2012 Toyota FJ Cruiser. If you like the FJ's styling and toughness, you might even be pleasantly surprised by how livable it is on a daily basis.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Toyota FJ Cruiser is so straightforward that it doesn't even have distinct trim levels. You simply choose your FJ based on the drivetrain, so the three options are 4x2 or 4x4 AT (automatic transmission) or 4x4 MT (manual transmission). Standard features include 17-inch steel wheels, skidplates for off-road protection, water-resistant cloth upholstery, and a six-speaker audio system with iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity. Among the notable options are keyless entry and cruise control (nope, they're not standard), a rear-view camera, an 11-speaker stereo and two different styles of alloy wheels.

Keep in mind that neither a navigation system nor Toyota's new smartphone-based Entune system is available on the FJ Cruiser. This is definitely a back-to-basics kind of vehicle. However, the new-for-2012 Trail Teams Special Edition package adds unique styling cues, Bilstein shocks and an electronically locking rear differential, and numerous additional off-roading accessories are available from your Toyota dealer.

The FJ Cruiser's steering wheel doesn't telescope, and that's a problem for long-legged drivers. The front seats are less memorable for their support than for their water resistance. It can be easy for water to get into the cabin when you're deep in the bush, but thanks to the FJ's special fabric, you don't have to worry about getting doused through an open window.

We have to call out the back seat, however, for being both cramped and difficult to access. Now, a cramped bench might be tolerable by itself; after all, off-road enthusiasts routinely give the Wrangler a pass for its inhospitable back row, and the FJ's rear quarters are palatial by comparison. But check this out: the FJ Cruiser's rear doors are of the backward-opening "suicide" variety, and you can't open one unless the corresponding front door is already ajar. That makes the FJ handier than a two-door contraption like the new Land Rover Range Rover Evoque, but not by a whole lot. Your rear passengers will likely roll their eyes unless they're blinded by love for the FJ's off-road chops.

The FJ Cruiser's instrumentation is clear and simple, but it's not Lexus crisp like the related 4Runner's available Optitron gauge cluster. The dashboard, however, is straight out of the 4Runner's playbook, a sea of hard plastic panels and oversize, almost toylike controls. We actually don't mind it in the FJ, though, as it's consistent with the vehicle's no-nonsense mission, whereas the 4Runner has some upscale pretensions.

Ergonomics are generally excellent, but the FJ's distant, nearly upright windshield takes some getting used to-it's hard to think of a current windshield that's farther away from the driver-and rear visibility is dismal.

Cargo space measures 27.9 cubic feet behind the second row and a competitive 66.8 cubic feet with the 60/40 split rear seatbacks folded flat.

Technology

To the FJ Cruiser's credit, it comes standard with iPod/USB and Bluetooth integration, so chances are your smartphone and portable music devices will be accommodated. But we're surprised that Toyota doesn't even offer a factory navigation system or the company's new Entune mobile app touchscreen interface. At least it's in keeping with the FJ's minimalist attitude.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The 2012 Toyota FJ Cruiser can be had with rear-wheel drive, but only with a five-speed automatic transmission. Four-wheel-drive FJs come with either the five-speed automatic or a six-speed manual-and if you get the manual, the electronically locking rear differential comes standard, whereas it's optional with the automatic. Any way you slice it, the engine is a 4.0-liter V6 rated at 260 horsepower and 271 lb-ft of torque.

Like the 4Runner, which shares this 4.0-liter V6, the FJ Cruiser can tow up to 5,000 pounds. It can also get out of its own way, as the big V6 has plenty of torque down low. We noted some harshness near the redline, but realistically, most FJ drivers will keep the revs down to reasonable levels, and that's where the V6 does its best work.

Fuel economy is not the FJ's strong suit, to put it mildly. Automatic-equipped models are EPA rated at 17 mpg city/20 mpg highway, while the manual-transmission FJ drops to 15/18 mpg.

Safety

The FJ Cruiser is outfitted with six airbags: two front, two side for the front passenger and two full-length side curtain bags. Stability control and active front headrests are also standard.

The government hasn't crash tested the FJ Cruiser; the only rating it gave the FJ was three stars out of five for rollover resistance. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the FJ its top rating of Good in every category except roof strength, for which the rating was Acceptable.

Driving Impressions

The FJ Cruiser rides surprisingly well for a rear-wheel-drive truck-based SUV. Still, there's no disguising this beast's primary purpose in life, which is to pound off-road routes into submission. As such, the FJ has a tendency to bounce and jiggle over broken pavement. It's highly capable, but "refined" isn't an adjective that comes to mind when you?re behind the wheel - and the severely compromised rear visibility doesn't help matters. In the dirt, of course, the FJ is a revelation, using its ample ground clearance and generous approach and departure angles to tame trails where only the Wrangler and a select few others would dare venture.

Other Cars to Consider

Nissan Xterra - The well-mannered Xterra is probably the closest thing to the FJ on the market, boasting similar toughness and 4.0-liter V6 power along with four conventional doors and a decent back seat. If you're not totally sold on the FJ's styling, you might find more all-around satisfaction in the Nissan.

Jeep Wrangler - Finally blessed with a powerful motor, the Wrangler is better than ever, and if you want more than two doors, the Unlimited model has four. It's more rudimentary than the FJ, but serious off-roaders swear by it.

Kia Sportage - We know, this is a stretch. But ask yourself: Do you really need the FJ Cruiser's bushwhacking abilities? Because if you just want a cool-looking SUV, the Sportage is tops among pavement-friendly crossovers, and you can get into a swift turbocharged Sportage for FJ money.

AutoTrader Recommends

Might as well go with the Trail Teams Special Edition. It looks great and has all the hard-core hardware you could ask for, including off-road lights.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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