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

Cons: Dismal fuel economy; cramped back seat with awkward access; poor outward visibility; bare-bones feature set

What's New: The 2013 FJ Cruiser is largely unchanged.

Introduction

If you're sick of hearing about the car-like characteristics of modern crossover SUVs, the 2013 Toyota FJ Cruiser just might be the antidote. Inspired by the original 40 series Land Cruiser of the '60s and '70s, the 2013 FJ Cruiser shares not only that model's classic round headlights and other styling cues, but also its back-to-basics SUV character. With tough 4-wheel drive underpinnings and countless Toyota Racing Development (TRD) accessories available, the FJ Cruiser is a serious off-road truck.

But the Cruiser does require compromises in ordinary driving. First of all, it's hard to see outside the vehicle, especially if you're wondering what's behind you. The FJ's blind spots are as epic as its trail-busting ability. And then there's the fuel economy, which struggles to get out of the teens thanks to the Cruiser's box-like aerodynamics.

The cabin is likewise a mixed bag. We love the squared off dashboard with its center-mounted auxiliary gauges, for example, and how the optional automatic shifter looks like a stick shift. But there is not a lot of modern technology included beyond standard iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity, and backseat passengers are stuck with cramped quarters and awkward access through the clamshell-style rear doors.

Compared to the 4-door Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, however, the 2013 FJ Cruiser is downright civilized, and therein lies its unique value. It certainly isn't car-like, but if you're looking for supreme off-road chops in a somewhat pavement-friendly package, this Toyota is at the top of a very short list.

Comfort & Utility

The 2013 Toyota FJ Cruiser is so straightforward that it doesn't even have distinct trim levels. You simply choose your FJ based on the drivetrain. The three options are 4x2 AT (for automatic transmission), 4x4 MT (manual transmission) and 4x4 AT.

Standard features include 17-inch steel wheels, skid plates for off-road protection, water-resistant cloth upholstery and a 6-speaker audio system with iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity. Among the notable options are keyless entry and cruise control (nope, neither is standard), a rearview camera, an upgraded JBL stereo and multiple alloy wheel designs. Just keep in mind that neither a navigation system nor Toyota's smartphone-based Entune system is available on any FJ Cruiser, so cabin technology is definitely not a strong suit.

The Trail Teams Special Edition package adds unique styling cues, 16-in wheels with off-road tires, Bilstein shocks, a standard locking rear differential with either transmission (ordinarily an extra cost option with the automatic) and a rearview camera. Numerous additional TRD off-roading accessories are available from your Toyota dealer.

In our interior evaluation, taller testers lamented that the FJ Cruiser's steering wheel doesn't telescope, forcing an elbows-locked driving position. But the front seats stand out 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 backseat, 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. But the rear doors are of the backwards-opening suicide variety, and the corresponding front door must be opened first. Your rear passengers will likely roll their eyes unless they're blinded by love, whether it's for you or your truck.

The FJ Cruiser's instrumentation is clear and simple, but it's not Lexus-crisp like the related 4Runner's available Optitron gauges. The dashboard, meanwhile, is a sea of hard plastic panels and oversized, almost toy-like controls. We actually think it looks pretty cool, and typical FJ shoppers likely won't be bothered by the lack of luxury. It's probably more important to those folks that you can basically hose out the entire interior without worry, as the floor is covered with a rubber-like material.

The ergonomics are generally satisfactory, but the FJ's distant, nearly upright windshield takes some getting used to, and rear visibility is dismal.

Cargo space measures 27.9 cu ft behind the second row and a competitive 66.8 cu ft 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 that's about it for significant technology offerings. We're surprised that Toyota doesn't even offer a factory navigation system or the company's new Entune mobile-app touchscreen interface; both are available on the humble Corolla economy sedan. Oh well. You'll have your phone, right?

Performance & Fuel Economy

The FJ Cruiser can be had with rear-wheel drive, but only with the 5-speed automatic transmission. The 4-wheel drive FJs come with either the automatic or a 6-speed manual. 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. It's not the most refined motor we've sampled lately, but its ample low-end punch means the Cruiser can definitely get out of its own way. The same trait is also a boon in precise off-road maneuvers. Properly equipped, the Cruiser can tow up to 4,700 pounds, which isn't earth-shattering but does eclipse what most car-based crossovers can manage.

Fuel economy is not the FJ's strong suit, to put it mildly. Automatic 4WD models have an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rating of 17 mpg city/20 mpg hwy, while the manual transmission 4WD Cruiser drops to 15/18 mpg. At the time this was written, the EPA website rated the considerably lighter automatic 2WD model at a mysterious 16/20 mpg; Toyota's materials cite a more plausible rating of 17/22 mpg.

Safety

The FJ Cruiser is outfitted with six total airbags: two front bags, two side bags for the front passenger and two full-length side curtain bags. Stability control and active front headrests are also standard. A rearview camera is available, and given the miserable rear visibility, we consider it a real safety feature in this beast.

The government has not 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 (IIHS) awarded the FJ its top rating of Good in every category except roof strength, where the rating was "Acceptable."

Driving Impressions

The FJ Cruiser rides surprisingly well for a truck-based SUV. Still, there's no disguising its primary purpose in life, which is to pound off-road terrain into submission. As such, the FJ has a tendency to bounce and jiggle over imperfect pavement. "Refined" isn't an adjective that comes to mind when you're behind the wheel.

In the dirt, of course, the FJ is a revelation, using its ample ground clearance and generous approach and departure angles to tame nearly any trail. As with the Wrangler, half the fun is browsing through the factory parts catalog: Toyota's TRD division offers endless upgrades for FJ enthusiasts.

Other Cars to Consider

Nissan Xterra - The well-mannered Xterra boasts comparable toughness and 4.0-liter V6 power, along with four conventional doors and a decent backseat. If you're not totally smitten by the FJ's styling, you might find more all-around satisfaction in the Nissan.

Jeep Wrangler - Finally blessed with a powerful 6-cylinder motor, the Wrangler is better than ever. If you want more than two doors, the Unlimited model's got 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, you can get into a seriously swift turbocharged Sportage SX for FJ money.

AutoTrader Recommends

Might as well go with the Trail Teams Special Edition, right? It looks great and has all the hardcore hardware a new FJ fan 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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