As it happens, I have parked in my garage two vehicles that illustrate as well as any the rapid evolutionary curve of the modern SUV. In one bay sits my wife’s 2014 BMW X5 xDrive35d, nicknamed Axel, the current-generation, diesel-powered version of BMW’s tall-seating luxuro-barge. It’s smooth as a 5-series, comfortable and cosseting, powerful and sure-footed, safe as a vault, a lovely technological tour de force with appealing gizmos galore.
In the bay next to Axel sits something altogether different, a beast from another age of SUV mindset, carved from ingots and giving not two shits to mealy concepts such as luxury or even particular comfort: The Chief.
The Chief is a 2012 Toyota FJ Cruiser, the Trail Teams version (of which Toyota made 2500 that year), painted in blazing Radiant Red from running board to rooftop with the hard bits done up in anodized black. It’s fitted with Bilstein shocks for an even more compliant off-road ride, burly 16-inch alloy wheels over massive and deeply treaded BFGoodrich rubber, slim rock rails and skid plates galore, with a TRD exhaust to give it more of a menacing bark. It is not subtle. And I love it. Or I should say, we love it. But more on that later.
The FJ Cruiser was an anachronism from the start. Manufactured by Toyota in their Hamura, Japan, factory from 2006 to 2014, the FJ was originally designed as an homage to the rightly famous FJ40 utility vehicles that were manufactured for twenty-plus years beginning in the mid-1960’s. The original FJ40 is well known, from the baked Africa plain to the frozen Alaska bush, for its toughness and durability, and continues to be a popular choice for vintage SUV buyers and well-heeled hipsters alike. Even Icon, the California maker of amazing resto-mod 4x4s, has a stunning riff on the original FJ40 (for upwards of $100k, natch). And the collector’s market has begun to inflate prices for pristine examples, with immaculately restored FJs sharing tony auction stages with Italian sports cars and Gilded-Age American classics at places such as Scottsdale, Monterey, and Amelia Island.
From those historical underpinnings Toyota rolled out the FJ Cruiser concept to much delight at the Detroit Auto Show in 2003, and in 2006 production vehicles began arriving in dealerships. Designed at Toyota’s Newport Beach, CA, Calty Design Studio, it was an adorable bulldog of a machine, with Tonka Truck styling and genuine capability to get itself into really nasty places (and then out again). Grins and positive reviews followed in its wake. (Though a few reviewers complained about excessive body roll, missing the point of an off-road vehicle’s malleable suspension. Body roll in an FJ cruiser you say? No kidding, Sherlock.) But while the vehicle was an immediate hit with hard-core fans and off-roaders and earned a somewhat awkward place in Toyota’s lineup, it yearly sales rarely exceeded more than 15,000 vehicles once the initial sugar rush of excitement wore off. As expected, the vehicle was retired with the 2014 model year, another casualty of CAFE standards and fleet averages and softening tastes.
To Toyota’s credit, the FJ Cruiser was the farthest thing from the Costco-conquering Highlander or Sequoia. Engineered as a body-on-frame vehicle and sharing many of it’s mechanicals with the equally old-school 4Runner SUV and Tacoma truck, the FJ stuck proudly to the pure 4x4 model rather than the electronically focused All-Wheel Drive system architecture that’s become so prevalent (take our X5 for example). It’s got locking differentials, an actual low-end transfer case, and a rock-crawling sure-footedness found in few modern vehicles. If you get yourself in a spot you can’t get out of in an FJ Cruiser, it’s your own damn fault.
The FJ Cruiser is powered by a version of Toyota’s venerable 4-liter DOHC V6 making 260-hp and 271 lb/ft of torque, an engine used in variations across many of the Japanese firm’s beefy and durable SUVs and trucks. It’s a great motor for the application, making peak power and torque at 5300rpm, and reasonable fuel efficiency given it’s powering 4300lbs of decidedly old-school construction (no aluminum or carbon fiber to be found). The FJ will tow 5000lbs with ease, and the 5-speed automatic transmission on our model shifts smoothly and without drama. It’s not speedy, with 0-60mph coming at a respectable but hardly urgent 7.8 seconds, and with lateral grip measured at .69 G, you’ll not be winning any auto-cross competitions in your FJ (though it makes a superb tow vehicle to get your tricked out Miata or Mini to the circuit).
But outright engine performance is not the raison d'être of a vehicle like this; going places other machines will not most certainly is. To that end, the FJ Cruiser will ford 28-inches of water with little drama and approaches obstacles with over 30-degrees of approach and departure angles on the front and rear. With a stock ground clearance of over 10-inches and with up to 10-inches of suspension travel on our Trail Teams Edition, the FJ will happily handle obstacles and climb terrain that would leave a hiker on foot wheezing for air.
Owning The Chief was not my idea. Dreamy Wife, who has a penchant for colorful and whimsical vehicles, fell in love with the brute one afternoon and that was that. She’d loved the FJ from the start, but when the one-off all-red version hit the market, we went shopping. So we brought it home and she drove it for a couple of years and then decided she wanted to return to something a bit more posh, but when we talked about selling the FJ, it hit us both: The Chief was a member of the family. We had grown attached.
As a dog hauler and garden store companion, The Chief has seen more than it’s share of slobber and sweat and ground-in dirt. But it was designed for that, so cleanup is simple and easy; no fitted rugs to worry about shampooing, just easy to wash, rugged plastic lining. In the Winter, we don’t even pay attention to the roads. We just go. The Chief has rescued stranded motorcycles, pulled trailers of various shapes and sizes, towed several vehicles out of nasty spots, blasted 24” snow drifts, crawled over gravel piles, and lugged tons of rock and bags of sand and even a rare painting or two, and yet still manages to be useful on runs to the dry cleaners. And while we’ve never made the trek out to Moab, we know we damn well could if we wanted. And that’s a comfortable feeling; the Zombie Apocalypse could be just around the corner.
The ergonomics of an FJ Cruiser can leave a bit to be desired, but complaining about them seems petty, as it’s clear what you’re getting when you sign on the line. The blind spots behind the C-pillars wouldn’t be out of place in a sensory deprivation chamber, so an owner quickly acquaints himself with the fine art of driving with the rear-view mirrors. (The addition of a tiny backup camera on our year’s model alleviated the drama somewhat.) And the two suicide half-doors look cool and function pretty well and provide wonderful access to the rear seats, but in tight spots it’s clear why rear hinges never really became mainstream. Also, we’ve noticed the vehicle has a propensity to smell like wet dogs. (Okay, maybe that’s just ours.)
And now the oddest thing: Cost of ownership. Vehicle depreciation curves tend to be as predictable as the tides and as steep as the lip of a canyon; as the saying goes, “That first step is a killer.” Buying a new car generally introduces the buyer to a financial open elevator shaft of retained value (I’m talking to you, owners of Ford Fiestas and Fiat 500s). But over the life of the vehicle, no single automobile in America has retained more value than the FJ Cruiser. Let me repeat that: The FJ Cruiser has the best resale of any vehicle sold in America. (I’m not including limited production unobtainium hypercars like the Porsche 918 or McLaren P1, wisenheimers, so just don’t.) JD Powers backs this up, as does NADA (the National Automobile Dealers Association). Fun fact: A recent NADA report shows the average three-year-old FJ Cruiser is worth 98% of its original sale price. 98%! Back in 2011 when we bought The Chief, we paid roughly $35,000. To my utter amazement, there are significantly higher-mile versions of the same year and model trading on Cars.com at this very moment for north of that amount. To quote a wise man: “Well I’ll be damned…” Evidently not all depreciation curves are created equal.
Thus The Chief even turned out to be a great buy. But really, that’s just a happy bonue in our household. The Chief makes Dreamy Wife and I happy, period, full stop. We always chuckle a bit when we see it’s bright red top poking above the inevitably shorter vehicles in whatever parking lot it's parked, and while it’s too tall to fit in my office parking garage, that’s no matter. Ruscha and Rocco, our two German Shorthaired Pointers, love to ride around in it and consider it theirs. It provides a feeling of solidity and invincibility in an increasingly fragile and disturbed world. And it makes us smile goofy smiles. And that, gentle readers, is an unquantifiable investment return if there ever was one.