Dirt In Its DNA

Toyota FJ

GREENERY: The Catskills are alive with it, sprouting and vibrant with the first flush of spring. My passenger, Miranda, seems alarmed that I keep mowing over said greenery with massive 32-inch tires, but I'm feeling pretty vibrant myself behind the wheel of Toyota's new FJ Cruiser. And it's not like I'm mowing down trees or anything. Just weeds and mossy boulders and, well, anything else in my so-called way.

Among the hordes of SUVs to come down the pike in the past decade, a rare few are designed for off-road use. The FJ is genetically predisposed to love mud: Its granddaddy was the FJ40, a rugged 4x4 sold in the States from 1960 to 1983. The FJ40 was extremely short on creature comforts but remains a darling of the 4x4 restoration community. Reconditioned models fetch as much as $50,000.

Wisely, and amazingly, Toyota has remained faithful to the original concept. The Cruiser looks great in a retro-military way, with a windshield rake of nearly 90 degrees, a squared-off snout, bullish grille and long, white-capped roof. The stance suggests solidity, like that of a bulldog. Meanwhile, funky three-dimensional taillights and a plastic patina—like that of a fun Tonka truck—keep it from seeming too entirely old-school. I've been getting appreciative shouts from middle-school kids who've never seen the original.

But it's the guts of the thing I'm having the most fun with. Outside New Paltz, N.Y., I've found a network of marshy, muddy roads, and the FJ eats them up. With almost 10 inches of ground clearance, excellent approach and departure angles (so your front or back end won't get caught up on abrupt elevation changes), a locking rear differential and the almost unheard-of (these days) solid rear axle, the FJ is the kind of meaty ride that customizers who spend big money beefing up existing production vehicles will love.

The model I'm testing—a six-speed manual with all the goodies—costs a modest $23,495. Yes, it chugs gas greedily, and it rides rough on the highway, so it's more of a practical toy than a daily driver.

Still, it'll work well in both summer and winter, and it has ample room in back for all the accessories of an active lifestyle. The two back-seat "suicide doors make it easy for rear passengers to get in. Forward visibility for rear passengers is limited, but I'm driving, so it's not my problem. Another thing I'm loving: the engine torque. The 4-liter V-6 moves the Cruiser along crisply, with 278 ft.-lbs. of torque, and a reasonable 239 hp ensures it will power over both boulders and boulevards.

Miranda rolls her eyes as I find yet another mound of debris to smash. We started the day with a blue vehicle; now it's universally mud-colored. "Having fun? she asks as I throw it into a splattering skid. I nod, grinning. Hey, is that an uprooted tree over there?


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