Toyota's Retro Off-Roader
The Good: Low price, wonderful off-road capabilities
The Bad: Wide turning radius, very cramped rear seat
The Bottom Line: A small, Hummer-style SUV at a bargain price
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With gasoline prices soaring, who's going to buy a Hummer these days? The folks at Toyota Motor (TM) apparently figure a lot of people will, if the price is right. The Japanese manufacturer has just introduced its new FJ Cruiser, which could pretty accurately be described as a clone of the Hummer H3, the new "Baby Hummer" that has been selling like hotcakes since coming out last year. You can bet General Motors (GM) is worried that the new Toyota is about to start stealing sales from one of the most successful new models it has on the market.
GM has good reason for worry. Having test-driven both models, I prefer the H3, everything else being equal (see BW Online, 12/28/05, "The Mini Hummer Is Quite Mighty"). But everything else isn't equal because there's a weird sort of role reversal going on in this rivalry. The FJ Cruiser's main competitive advantage is its lower price and bigger engine. Isn't that the way Detroit usually tries to compete against Toyota, not vice versa?
The H3 comes standard with four-wheel drive and starts at $29,500. That price seemed reasonable enough to me until I learned that the FJ Cruiser 4X4 starts at only $23,495 with a six-speed manual transmission, and $23,905 with a five-speed automatic (a two-wheel-drive version starts at just $22,315). The Hummer comes with some standard equipment the Toyota doesn't have (under-body skid pads for off-roading, cruise control, and a year of free OnStar service), but the bottom line is that a fairly well-loaded FJ Cruiser lists for about the same price as the most basic Hummer H3.
It's too early to know if the FJ Cruiser will be a hit with consumers. Toyota only sold 2,784 FJs in March, its first month on the market, about half as many H3s as GM sold. But given the way heads turned when I drove it around town, this new Toyota will probably sell very well. If you're considering buying one, other models to look at in the category are the Nissan Xterra and the new four-door Jeep Wrangler that Daimler Chrysler (DCX) is bringing out this fall.
Statistically speaking, the FJ Cruiser is very similar to a Hummer H3. Both are four-door, five-seaters with a cramped rear seat and a station-wagon-style cargo area in back. The Toyota is smaller, but only slightly: It's 183 inches long, 4 inches shorter than the Hummer, and 71.6 inches high, 3 inches lower than the Hummer. They're both about 75 inches wide, and both have about 9 inches of ground clearance. In both, the wheels are set way out at the corner of the body, so you can mount and descend steep inclines without scraping bottom.
The Toyota weighs just under 4,300 lbs., 400 lbs. less than the H3. But fuel efficiency is almost exactly the same: Both are rated to get 16 mpg in the city and 19 mpg on the highway. In a stretch of 145 miles of mixed driving, I got 16.2 mpg in the Toyota. The Baby Hummer, however, operates on inexpensive regular gasoline, while the FJ Cruiser takes premium. With premium averaging $3.22 per gallon nationwide right now, 30 cents per gallon more than regular, that's a big advantage.
The FJ Cruiser, on the other hand, is more fun to drive than the Hummer (which Consumer Reports clocked doing zero to 60 in a tortoise-like 11.5 seconds). The Toyota's 4.0-liter, 239-horsepower V6 engine is much peppier than the Hummer's 3.5-liter, five-cylinder engine.
My test Toyota, which came with a stick shift, was downright sporty -- it was actually fun to take it out on hilly country roads and throw it into the curves. Both vehicles do surprisingly well on the highway, but the FJ Cruiser has a lot more oomph when you move into the passing lane. I had the FJ up to well over the legal speed limit, and the ride remained smooth and confidence-inspiring.
Off-road, the FJ Cruiser doesn't quite match the Hummer, but it comes close. I took it out on a muddy, unpaved, logging-style path and was able to cruise along at 20 to 25 mph with the same ease as in a Hummer. To save gas during regular driving, the FJ is powered most of the time only by the rear wheels. The manual-transmission version of the Cruiser has a second, stubby little shifter that allows you to put it into a permanent four-wheel-drive mode, or a special low-gear four-wheel-drive mode when you need extra power. Cruising along in the low gear, the engine has a high-pitched whine that makes you feel like you're filming a segment of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom TV show.
For an extra $340, you can get a locking rear differential for rock climbing and other heavy-duty off-road maneuvers. You go into this mode by pushing a button on the dash, which shuts off just about all the electronic extras -- stability and traction control, brake assist, anti-lock brakes. The owner's manual cautions you not to go over 5 mph. I locked down the differential on my test FJ Cruiser and had no trouble powering the truck's right front tire up onto a big, flat, 12-inch-high boulder.
Other sporty accessories include a front under-body skid plate ($425), rock rails to protect the under-door area of the truck's body during off-roading ($575), a trailer hitch ($349), and a $649 roof rack with optional ski ($224) and bike ($274) racks.
Other than that, the Cruiser's options come in three packages. There's a $1,840 basic starter convenience package that includes daytime running lights, cruise control, and a sonar-based backup alarm. On top of that, you can add stability and traction control, a fancy eight-speaker sound system, and 17-inch aluminum wheels for $2,150 -- or $2,210 if you want an even fancier sound system with a subwoofer. Side-curtain airbags are available for $650.
The FJ Cruiser has some cool standard features that set it apart, too. The brainchild of a 20-something designer in Toyota's Newport Beach (Calif.) design center, it has a distinctive retro look meant to recall rugged Toyota Land Cruisers. It comes with a white roof no matter which body color you choose. There are three wipers and an extra-powerful spraying apparatus to keep the nearly perpendicular, Brinks-truck-style windshield clear. Inside, the rear seats fold down for an expanded cargo space, the seat cushions are removable, and the floor mats and upholstery are made of easy-to-wash materials.
One big downside of the FJ Cruiser is that it feels more cramped inside than the H3. Rear leg room is listed at a mere 31.3 inches (vs. 35 inches for the Hummer), which is too tight for comfort for any reasonably tall adult. The Toyota also has relatively small, reverse-opening rear doors that make getting in and out of the rear seat very cumbersome. With the back seats up, the rear cargo area is slightly smaller than the H3's -- 27.9 cubic feet vs. 29.5 cubic feet for the Hummer.
Other negatives: Like the Hummer, the FJ sits high off the ground and has small windows all around, so it's hard to keep track of traffic in urban driving. Visibility out the back is especially poor because the spare tire -- which is mounted outside on the rear door -- obstructs the view out the back window. You also need a lot of space to turn an FJ around: Its turning radius is 41.8 feet, vs. just under 39 feet for the H3, and the difference is noticeable.
Which model is best? If price is your main concern, the Toyota has the edge. But my guess is that a lot of people buy niche vehicles like these after a nasty winter, or after watching disasters like Hurricane Katrina on TV. Unless you're really into off-roading, safety and the ability to power out of just about any predicament are the big appeal. If those are your concerns, the Hummer H3 is a very credible competitor.
To find out more about the FJ Cruiser, click here.