OJAI, Calif. - Although few people actually take their SUVs off-road, many automakers still want to sell a legitimate rock-stomper.
Toyota has long marketed its Land Cruiser and 4Runner as serious off-road machines. But those vehicles have climbed the price ladder. Filling in at the lower end - with a youthful design to boot - is the 2007 FJ Cruiser.
The basics: The FJ Cruiser is a platform-sharing cousin of the 4Runner, although the FJ Cruiser has a shorter wheelbase and length. Most of the major component sets are shared.
Toyota designed the FJ Cruiser solely for the North American market, although the Australian, Asian and Middle Eastern markets since have said they want it. Toyota assembles the vehicle in Japan, in cooperation with subsidiary Hino Motors Ltd.
Notable features: The FJ Cruiser is offered with a choice of two 4x4 systems, two locking differentials and an alphabet soup of traction control systems. Standard towing capacity is 5,000 pounds.
For a vehicle with such a narrow greenhouse, the back seat is surprisingly roomy. The body-color center stack houses the climate controls and a Grundig radio. The rubberized floor has much more stickiness than a Honda Element, which means dogs won't be skittering around in the back.
All FJ Cruisers will come with white roofs to offset attention-getting body colors such as school-bus yellow and Smurf blue. The steeply raked windshield comes with three wipers. The chunky door handles, vents, and audio and climate controls were designed for occupants to use with work gloves on. The audio system uses the entire headliner as an audio speaker's diaphragm to complement regular speakers.
Another nice sales touch: All FJ Cruiser buyers will get a paint-matched 1/18th-scale die-cast model of their vehicle.
What Toyota says: "The final goal was to create a rugged off-roader that offered no excuses and no compromises, that delivered truly authentic off-road performance," says Akio Nishimura, chief engineer for the FJ Cruiser. Adds Toyota marketing vice president Jim Farley: "This is not a poseur vehicle."
Compromises and shortcomings: To keep the wild design of the concept FJ Cruiser intact to production, Toyota kept the massive C-pillar. That means a huge blind spot, especially if someone is sitting in the right-rear passenger seat. Toyota should stamp out lots of extra rear quarter-panels for its crash parts inventory.
While the front occupants get two grab bars apiece, the rear occupants get none. The access doors to the rear seat are functional, but hardly elegant. Seat-mounted and side-curtain airbags are optional, not standard.
Nuts and bolts: Toyota expects almost all FJ Cruiser buyers will be male, 70 percent will be single, and one-third will be younger than 30 years old. Even though fewer than 10 percent of 4x4 owners industrywide ever drive in true off-road situations, Toyota estimates more than 90 percent of FJ Cruiser sales will have four-wheel drive.
Personalization will be a key marketing ploy. Toyota invited 60 aftermarket companies to a measuring session at the Specialty Equipment Market Association show, so that there will be plenty of customized parts when the SUV hits the market. Toyota hinted at a supercharger for the V-6, as well as an extreme Moab Edition in future model years. Moab, Utah, is a popular off-road destination.
Toyota expects to sell 46,000 units in the abbreviated 2006 calendar year. It goes on sale in March 2006.
The skinny: The FJ Cruiser has quirky design to set it off from the crowd, while packing the off-road credibility to back up its bluster.