Off-Road Icons: Toyota FJ Cruiser

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Believe it or not, the inspiration for the FJ Cruiser comes from the original Willys.

The Toyota FJ Cruiser might be a relatively new model, but decades of off-road experience went into the building of the retro-styled vehicle, and Toyota spared no expense in its development. It is an offshoot of the Land Cruiser nameplate which has taken a different route than its more mainstream cousin. It has seen a decline in popularity, but not for a lack of off-road capability, and the sun has not yet set on the FJ Cruiser. I know you've heard this before, but the FJ Cruiser is a distant relative of the old Willys Jeep.

The story begins in 1941, with the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. An American-made Willys Jeep was captured there, at the time a brand-new model. The captured vehicle was sent to Toyota, who were told to reverse-engineer a copy which looked just different enough from the American vehicle that it wouldn't be obvious what they were doing. The result was the AK10, which never ended up being produced in large numbers or widely used. The AK10 did give Toyota some experience with the Jeep though, and this would come in handy just a few years after the war.

In 1950, the war in Korea meant that the US military needed to get Jeeps to Korea in a hurry, and it was ultimately decided that it would be easier to commission Toyota to build them under license and according to Willys specifications. After all, Korea is much closer to Japan than it is to Toledo, Ohio. Toyota started work on a civilian prototype of their own in 1951, and the name Land Cruiser was applied to it in 1954. It is said that the name was an adaptation of the Land Rover name, although it also happened to be the name of a Studebaker model as well.

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But since Studebaker was discontinuing the model that year, and there was little chance that anyone would confuse the two vehicles, nobody made a fuss over it. The Land Cruiser would become one of the greats in the world of off-road vehicles, becoming particularly popular in Australia, where it would topple the dynasty of the mighty Land Rover. It would continue on like this for many years, but by the Nineties the focus was changing to a more luxury-oriented vehicle. The SUV craze at the time dictated that a nice interior was more important than off-road capability.

The construction was still body-on-frame, and it was still a highly capable vehicle, but the public (in the US at least) no longer thought of it as a true off-roader. To that end, Toyota built the FJ Cruiser, an off-road focused vehicle meant to invoke the 1960-1984 FJ40 Land Cruiser. The name is clearly reminiscent of the older vehicle, as is much of the styling, including the white roof. The word Toyota is spelled out across the front, which is also a throwback, since Toyota started replacing their name with their logo on the grilles of their cars since 1990. The styling has been criticized by some, as it has caused a certain amount of visibility problems, but it still pretty looks cool.

There is a limited-run TRD special edition produced every year, but this doesn't offer much in the way of increased off-road handling enhancement. In the early days of development, the vehicle was internally referred to as the "Rugged Youth Utility", and there was a very real chance that it would have ended up as another Honda Element-esque box vehicle. For some reason, automakers seem to do all of their research about what young people like by watching energy drink commercials, and haven't yet caught on that the mass market of young people don't need a place to stow their surfboards.

Thankfully, reason won out with a design by an actual young person, 24-year-old Jin Won Kim, which gave us the retro off-roader we have now. But don't think the FJ Cruiser is all a marketing ploy, it's a serious trail machine. The FJ Cruiser is sold in a number of different markets, but it was built with the US in mind, and testing was primarily done here. This included notoriously punishing trails in places like Moab, Utah, and the Rubicon Trail. Toyota probably rightly guessed that it would have been bad form to revive the name and look of the FJ40 without making it similarly capable.

Sales started out very strong, but the combination of economic meltdown and rising gas prices haven't been kind to the FJ Cruiser. Poor fuel economy, resulting from the 4.0-liter V6 which is the only available engine, is often seen as one of the biggest obstacles to better sales. Some improvements have been made, and sales are on their way back up, but they have a long way to go if they want to return to pre-meltdown figures. Hopefully they will be able to sort this out before the FJ Cruiser has to be axed, it's just too good a vehicle to have to go out that way.

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