It sounded like a simple assignment. Jin Kim and two other designers at Toyota Motor's (TM) Calty design studio in Newport Beach, Calif., were asked in early 2002 to come up with competing prototypes for a new vehicle that would target young buyers.
The challenge was also, in the design, to recall the company's classic Land Cruiser off-road vehicle line. Kim, who was just 25 at the time, honed in on the company's legendary FJ40 model. An outdoor enthusiast, he even sought design inspiration from his pet pit bull.
The result was the 2007 FJ Cruiser, an SUV starting at $21,000 that will be hitting Toyota dealerships this April. Combining head-turning design with serious off-road capabilities, the FJ Cruiser is expected to be a hit. Toyota projects sales of 46,000 this year. "I think they'll sell every one of them they build," says George Peterson, president of AutoPacific, a consulting firm. "It's retro but modern at the same time. It'll appeal to off-roaders as well as people who just want to look cool."
That was the formula for its predecessor, the FJ40. First introduced in the U.S. in 1960, the Jeep-like vehicle became Toyota's top seller in the early 1960s, helping the then-fledgling exporter build an international reputation. By that time someone had driven its Japanese ancestor, the BJ, halfway up Mt. Fuji -- the farthest any motor vehicle had gone. And in 1974, a nearly stock FJ40 won the tortuous Baja 1000 race in Mexico. "They're extremely heavy duty," says Marv Specter, whose Specter Off-Road in Chatsworth, Calif., specializes in old Land Cruiser parts. "They're like driving a four-wheel-drive tool box."
HEADPHONES ON A FROG. Although discontinued in the U.S. in 1979, FJ40s are still coveted by collectors, many of whom may well buy an FJ Cruiser. "It absolutely makes sense," says McKeel Hagerty, whose Hagerty Insurance covers hundreds of old FJ40s. "People will have a new one they drive every day and an old one that's a collector car."
That's why Kim shrewdly kept many of the FJ40's signature design elements, including its two round headlights, flat-fronted windshield, and white roof. The new FJ Cruiser is larger than its inspiration, weighing two tons and rising an impressive nine inches off the ground. It also has a much less boxy shape and makes its own design statements, such as giant side-view mirrors that stick out from the vehicle and look like headphones on a frog.
The FJ's distinctive look was a hit when the prototype debuted at the Detroit auto show in January, 2003. So Toyota decided to release the production version with few changes. "You couldn't even get near it when they showed it at the dealer show last year," Specter says.
A CLEAN MACHINE. Toyota has taken some risks with the FJ Cruiser. Its two rear-opening, "suicide" doors, which take up less room than full-sized doors, are almost guaranteed to scare off some buyers, particularly families with young kids who'll need better access to the back seat. Also missing will be options such as leather seats, DVD players, and an in-dashboard navigation system that are big draws on higher-end SUVs.
The company hopes to score points instead with a mix of practical features and ones that will resonate with younger buyers. The FJ has three windshield wipers for removing mud and trail dust. It has larger dashboard knobs so users can turn them with gloves on. It also has water-resistant upholstery and rubber-like floor mats for easier cleaning. It has options such as flat-panel speakers mounted in the roof to turn the whole top of the car into a subwoofer.
Toyota has had more success than most carmakers with its strategy of targeting younger buyers, notes Neal Oddes, director of product research at J.D. Power & Associates. Its youth-oriented Scion boasts an average buyer age of 41, youngest among the big car brands. Toyota will be borrowing some of Scion's approach to advertising, running no TV commercials for the FJ and instead promoting it in off-road specialty publications and at events.
MY GENERATION. The FJ also illustrates how much more seriously even mainstream carmakers like Toyota are taking design. "We're seeing a lot more special-interest, niche vehicles," says Stewart Reed, chairman of the transportation department at Jin Kim's alma mater, the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. "It's very difficult to have one vehicle that has mass appeal. You're seeing risk-taking on lower-volume vehicles."
"I was a skeptic," says Lance Williams, owner of Iron Pig Offroad, a Land Cruiser specialty shop in Fredericksburg, Va. "It really sounds like it's going to suit the needs of a modern generation the way the FJ40 met the needs of an older one."