Tonka or Toyota?
The new, toylike FJ has charm to spare.
By Alex Taylor III

(FORTUNE Small Business) – Let me say right at the top that Toyota's FJ Cruiser isn't my kind of vehicle. The truck is designed to climb rocks instead of dodge highway potholes, and its Mars Lander styling will appeal to single, 30-year-old males, a tribe I was banished from long ago. But the FJ is hard not to like. It has loads of character and delivers more than it promises. Among the bland offerings in Toyota's lineup, it stands out like Tabasco in a bloody mary.

Everything about the FJ is in your face: the vertical windshield, protruding fender flares, and aggressive stance. All models (regardless of color) come with a contrasting white roof, silver-painted door handles, and a rear-mounted spare. Inside, the FJ reeks of testosterone, with big, brawny controls, metal-finish trim, and knobby rubber mats that wouldn't be out of place in an Abrams tank.

The FJ is supposedly inspired by the old two-door model of the FJ40 Land Cruiser, which Toyota stopped producing in 1983. The new vehicle's major components, though, come from the modern-day 4Runner. Toyota is a master at sharing parts among its products and disguising the result, so instead of a suburban people hauler, the FJ presents as a flashy competitor for the Jeep Wrangler, Nissan Xterra, and Hummer H3. Unfortunately, Toyota decided not to equip the FJ with four full doors, so if you're taking clients to a job site, they'll have to use "access doors," those gatelike contraptions that can't be opened unless the front doors are opened first. Along with the vision-obscuring pillars in the rear window, they sacrifice convenience for style, never a good tradeoff.

On the highway the FJ runs more smoothly and quietly than you'd expect. Everything works with Toyota's traditional slickness. The 4.0-liter V-6 hurls the FJ from zero to 60 in the high seven seconds. Fuel economy is respectable at 17 miles per gallon city, 21 on the highway.

Back in the early 1970s I paid $1,400 for an old beat-up Land Cruiser, and I got my money's worth; it was rough as a buckboard and wouldn't start in wet weather. By those standards and most others, the FJ is a great value: $21,710 for the two-wheel-drive model; $23,300 for four-wheel drive with automatic transmission. Toyota plans to build only 46,000 this year, compared with about ten times that many Camrys, so there's little danger that you'll see yourself coming and going. And when you pull up for a meeting in a truck this noticeable, you can be sure that the rest of the world will see you.


[*] All prices for 2006 models, nicely equipped.