Rugged Youth Utility. That was Toyota's codename for the 2003 concept vehicle that inspired the company's FJ Cruiser, and it aptly summarizes Toyota's intent for the off-road market's freshest new offering. Built on a modified version of the Prado short platform, it is part of the Land Cruiser 120 Series-as are the current Toyota 4Runner and Lexus GX470. The FJ Cruiser combines the Land Cruiser's sound off-road capability with in-your-face design inspired by the FJ40 introduced in the U.S. during the 1960 model year.

All models come with the 1GR-FE 4.0L V-6, which is also in the Tundra, Tacoma, and 4Runner. According to Toyota, this powerplant generates 239 hp@5,200 rpm and 278 lb-ft of torque with 91-octane fuel. We achieved a fuel mileage of 17 mpg in the time that we had the vehicle. The model we drove was a 4WD with a five-speed automatic transmission (six-speed manual tranny is also available). Technologies such as anti-lock brakes (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution (EBDS), brake assist (BA), VSC (to control under- and oversteer), and TRAC (for maintaining steering control in slippery conditions) all help the driver keep the FJ Cruiser on the narrow path. A-TRAC (active traction control) can be activated with the push of a button on the dash and is handy for tricky off-road conditions. The rear diff can also be locked. All in all, the FJ Cruiser is quick in traffic but no rocket and can handle the mountain twisties with confidence you wouldn't expect from an off-road vehicle.

The body color (bright yellow, in our case) carried onto the center console, dressing up what appears to be a hiply austere interior. But looks can be deceiving. Costly goodies like navigation or satellite radio will probably never make it into the FJ Cruiser. But amenities such as power windows and locks and lots of little storage pockets (including a dual glove box, so to speak) offer some contemporary conveniences, while a compass/outside temperature readout/pitch-yaw indicator clustered atop the dash, a boom box-looking subwoofer in the rear, water-resistant seats, and an interesting audio innovation (two "exciter" speakers in the ceiling that use the headliner as a diaphragm, creating a giant overhead speaker) lend a unique thumbprint to the inside styling and functionality, and give a wassup to the FJ Cruiser's target demographic. The plastics in our pre-production model were smooth, but production versions will have a gray texture. Second-row seating has a 60/40 split. All in all, the FJ Cruiser seats five and has a fair amount of room for luggage (or climbing gear) in the very back.

And did I mention that the FJ Cruiser looks cool? Its squat, sloped shape with its reinterpretation of the classic FJ resembles a vorpal beetle with its game face on. Pedestrians were not shy about shouting out their appreciation for the FJ Cruiser, a fact that I can unscientifically attest to after a week of driving the FJ Cruiser in the urban environs of Los Angeles and Orange counties, and the mountains that border the L.A. Basin. The remarks typically manifested as a great convergence between the spontaneous combustion of automotive enthusiasm and the Doppler Effect as we drove by, sounding something like: "...hey COOOL truuuuck...!" Now, it's not unusual for any of us at Truckin' to receive random accolades for a vehicle we are driving that most people haven't seen before. But the most notable comments we received for the FJ Cruiser were those that were seen and not heard. There was the photographer standing at the side of a hillside road, presumably to photograph the scenic view, who noticed the FJ Cruiser and quickly raised his camera to snap a pic of it as I drove by. And then there was the woman behind the wheel of her car at an intersection who spotted the FJ Cruiser approaching and mouthed a succinct "Woah!"