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!"

Not that everyone loved the FJ Cruiser's chiseled lines and bold yellow demeanor, not even in our office. Its take-it-or-leave-it design forces people to quickly develop an opinion of the vehicle (not a bad thing, in my opinion). One clear drawback, however, is caused by the wide C-pillars and narrow windows. Both contribute mightily to the FJ Cruiser's aggressively quirky countenance but make glancing over the shoulder to check traffic before a lane change a futile gesture. Use the big side mirrors to check your flanks. And there's an on/off button on the dash for the rear ultrasonic parking assist sensors. Glue it in the on position so that you won't be tempted to go mano-a-mano with the now-huge blind spot behind the FJ Cruiser. Looking through the rearview mirror is an exercise akin to squinting through a periscope, and I had to fight the urge to constantly adjust it in the unreasonable hopes of getting a better view.

Toyota expects the FJ Cruiser buyers to be male, a third of them age 30 years and younger. The company is going to focus on marketing the FJ Cruiser to the off-road enthusiast first in order to build the vehicle's cred as the young man's vehicle to outdoor adventure. It's a conservative but reasonable approach when you consider the reputation and brand equity of its competition (Wrangler Rubicon, Hummer H3, etc.), and perhaps necessary in light of any new model's need to stand out in today's ultra-competitive automotive market. But when you consider that a well-equipped FJ Cruiser will likely be priced in the mid-$20,000 range, that an entry-level FJ Cruiser will be available with 2WD, automatic transmission, and a proven V-6, and that it will be wrapped in love-it-or-leave-it styling that's hard to ignore, it wouldn't surprise me to see the FJ Cruiser attain some mainstream success sooner than the folks at Toyota expect.

'06 Toyota FJ Cruiser 4WD
Price Not established by the manufacturer
Engine 1GR-FE 4.0L V-6
Horsepower 239 hp@5,200 rpm (SAE)
Torque (lb-ft) 278 lb-ft of torque (SAE)
Transmission Five-speed automatic 4WD
Suspension Independent with coilovers (f),
four-link rear (solid axle with Panhard rod)
Brakes 4-wheel disc, 4-wheel ABS
Angle of Approach/Departure 34/30 degrees (4WD)
Max. Trailer Weight 5,000 lbs
Seating 2/3
MPG 17/21 (EPA) 17 (as tested)

Long Term Update
2006 Dodge Ram 1500 SLT Mega Cab 4x4In case you missed our Truck and SUV of the Year coverage in Issue 1, the 2006 Dodge Ram 1500 SLT Mega Cab 4x4 took the top spot in the pickup truck evaluation. From the winners came the spoils, as we convinced the manufacturers to loan us the Truck and SUV of the Year for a period of one year. In that time period, we will be giving you updates in just about every issue of what we did with these vehicles and how they took it.

Right off the bat, it's painfully obvious that the Dodge Mega Cab isn't going to be parking in the front row of anywhere. With its Titanic-like length and wheelbase, parking is best suited with room to roam. Maneuvering in and around the bothersome little cars is best accomplished by shoving the menacing chrome nose of the Dodge squarely in the dinky rearview of any driver that thinks they should be in front of you. Your only other choice is to be patient. Nah

In my stint as the leadoff driver for the long term, I spent about 99 percent of my time behind the wheel of the big truck simply driving it on the freeway. My grind back and forth to work sees almost 60 miles of SoCal's finest (not really) paved swaths. One major flaw, so to speak, of the truck is the extremely rough ride on the freeway. Dodge designed this Ram to make life simpler for the working class by including a seriously heavy-duty suspension. The bed was meant be filled and the trailer hitch loaded down, and the trade-off for that hauling capacity is an empty bed that bounces up and down over expansion joints like a kid hopped up on sugar. Fuel mileage was 11.6 mpg over 3,905 miles. I struggle to think that the truck's 5.7L Hemi drank 338 milk-jugs worth of gas over a 3,905-mile period, but it was on par with the 11.4 mpg that we logged during our Of the Year evaluation. It could have been worse, I guess, if the engine didn't have cylinder deactivation.

Where the Mega Cab glistens in my book is in people capacity and interior space. My daughter is a cheerleader and her team does quite well on the competition circuit, so she needs to be all over the place during the course of the season. My wife and I go, as well, to support our offspring. But the clincher is the grandmothers who would be my mom and the mother-in-law (insert haunting theme music here), and they want us to ride all together in one vehicle like one happy freakin' family. I got nothing but praise about the amount of legroom and the reclining design of the rear seats, underscored by the grinding edge of twin backseat-drivers about my speeding. Legroom will cover any human up to the 6-foot, 6-inch range. I didn't get to test it myself, but my 10-year-old daughter gave two thumbs up for the included optional DVD rear seat entertainment system.

As six weeks of empty-bed bouncies ticked by on my calendar, I had come to love/hate the Mega Cab. When my time was done, I passed the keys to the next editor and rode home in our five-year-old Ford Super Crewzer project. Turning onto the freeway on-ramp and heading south, I got smacked by the reality of what a bucket our Crewzer really is. Darn it. Can I have the Dodge Ram back please?

Toyo Opens Georgia Manufacturing Facility
We recently crashed the grand opening of Toyo Tire's first-ever North American tire manufacturing and warehousing facility. Located in White, Georgia, this $180 million dollar, 150-acre, almost 1-million-square-foot facility will roll out over 2 million tires per year, with plans to ramp up to 6 million tires per year, and will initially employ 350 people. Why should you care? Simple. Many of those tires will be the popular Toyo Open Country A/T and M/T and the #1-rated Nitto Terra Grappler and Mud Grappler.

Design a Grille Sweepstakes
Do you think you have seen all there is in the world of replacement grilles, but you're still not satisfied? Here is your chance to design your very own custom grille tailored exclusively to your vehicle. AIM Industries is offering a one-time challenge to any Truckin' magazine reader over the age of 18. The winner of AIM's limited Design a Grille sweepstakes will have AIM make an exclusive grille style. For more details on how to enter and the complete set of rules for eligibility, go to www.truckin.com/grilledesigncontest.

Spinal Tat
More to come next issue. This spine image is brought to you by the truck suspension and accessory folks at AIM Industries, Dept. TR, 260 S. Hibbert, Mesa, AZ 85210, (800) 289-9980, www.aimind.com.

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