The 2007 FJ Cruiser is anything but your father's Toyota. With all of the reliability and quality the brand is known for and none of the stodginess, the FJ is infused with the soul of a Gen-Xer.
Starting at $22,315 for the two-wheel-drive model with automatic transmission, it has sold briskly (and even produced month-long waits at some dealers on the coasts). The FJ Cruiser four-wheel-drive model ($23,905), available with a six-speed manual transmission, is designed for those who plan to incorporate off-roading into their lives.
Striking off-beat design -- some of it inspired by the original 1960 FJ40, some from the cult-classic Mini and the urban-style-statement Hummer -- is the first thing you'll notice. Standing next to the Sun Fusion (school bus yellow) model I tested, all I could do was laugh and thank my maker for my youth. With its in-your-face styling and undeniable sense of cool, the FJ is not designed for drivers older than 40 (and the rear-opening "suicide" doors lead to a less-than cushy backseat).
The FJ's trucklike, body-on-frame construction is meant for rough riding and comes standard with mud/snow tires. These features didn't come in too handy in urban driving, but even the worst mid-construction roads elicited nary a rattle. Fuel economy isn't commuter-friendly, though: 17 mpg city and 21 highway.
Even so, the FJ drives smaller than it looks and feels surprisingly agile on the road. Braking (with standard ABS) is solid and the ride is smooth, as you'd expect from Toyota. Steering feels appropriately heavy for a SUV of its size (a bit more than 15 feet long, including the spare tire in the rear).
The flashy exterior is mirrored inside with body-colored trim around the center console and optional matching door inserts. The inserts are part of a $2,620 upgrade package that includes a six-CD changer, multi-info display, a rear subwoofer and a set of three retro-looking dash-mounted gauges: an exterior temperature gauge, a compass and an inclinometer to show how precariously the vehicle is angled when you're off-road.
Rubber, industrial-textured floor mats (part of a $422 package) and an abundance of handholds complete the image. The designers of the FJ clearly focused on the FUN in functional.
Surprisingly, though, it does come standard with safety features such as traction and stability control. You'll pay $650 for front side airbags and curtain airbags that cover both rows. In fact, getting equipped for off-roading and adding such convenience features as remote keyless entry and a steering wheel with audio and cruise controls could easily push the price well over 30 grand (our test model was priced at $31,579).
The biggest downfall of the FJ is the lack of visibility. With enormous C-pillars (just behind the rear doors) and a short, stubby windshield and rear window, city driving can be more than a little nerve-wracking.
Another word of caution for urbanites: An upgraded FJ doesn't go well with low garage clearances. I was nearly denied from our garage (6-foot-6-inch clearance) because, with the optional roof rack ($1,167; includes hitch, harness and spare tire cover), the FJ came in just an inch or so under the wire.