Road test: 2015 Toyota FJ Cruiser TRD

The amped-up off-roader is ridiculous yet loveable.

The Toyota FJ Cruiser TRD has a friendly face that helps make it possible to overlook some of it faults. Ravindranath K / The National
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Given that most of the FJ ­Cruisers I’ve personally encountered seem to be piloted by drivers intent on getting acquainted with my rear bumper at not-inconsiderable speeds, it’s doubtful whether a Toyota Racing Division version of the popular four-wheel drive is a necessity, on the road at least. In the roll-call of shame of off-roaders that most aggressively blast along the fast lane of the E11, the FJ is already a (wincingly) close third behind the Nissan Patrol and its own bigger brother, the Land Cruiser.

But stick with us, because while the FJ is inherently ridiculous – a playfully retro, macho motor that appears to have been designed by a 7-year-old with a Duplo fascination – it’s as loveable as a cheeky younger sibling whose indiscretions you can overlook.

On highways overflowing with stylistically anodyne off-roaders, the FJ has the power to turn commuting frowns upside-down with its friendly, permanently-surprised-emoticon mug, while still boasting a short wheelbase that makes it formidable on the rough stuff. And while the FJ was discontinued in the United States after the 2014 model, there was never any danger of that happening in the UAE.

First, let’s tackle the gripes. Hand me a car called a Cruiser and it better darn well cruise with minimum fuss. Except the cruise-control stalk is at approximately 4 o’clock on the steering wheel and incredibly fiddly to use. Whoever designed that little “innovation” should be forced to pootle around for all eternity, operating it with their knees only.

At a normal driving position for an average-height person, the top of the steering wheel obscures the upper section of the speedometer – including the rather crucial numbers between 60kph and 120kph. The rear-­window visibility is in letterbox dimensions, while the tall door mirrors aren’t especially handy at solving sideways blind spots.

On top of all that, the touchscreen infotainment system’s controls aren’t consistently responsive (it also plays DVDs, movie buffs). There are about 15 ways to control your glorified stereo, including a superfluous, awkwardly positioned knob on the centre console and a mini remote control, in case you’re too idle to extend your arm fully towards the static buttons.

Indeed, you begin to realise why more than a few FJ drivers seem oblivious to the world around them while tearing up the blacktop: they’re not ignorant or reckless; it’s that they’re spending half their time craning their neck around the cabin to complete basic functions. It’s a wonder they look out of the windows at all.

The exhaust note from the TRD’s 4.0L V6 is a mite raspier than hoped – more beefed-up strimmer than hairy-chested dune-tamer – but with 270hp, it picks up nicely for such a hearty block of metal, almost teasing you to put your foot down and join its brethren in rapid momentum. Raised springs and shocks give you a king-of-the-road altitude that makes navigating city and highway traffic a breeze, even if the low revs while coming to a standstill occasionally cause panic that you’ve purchased a stop-start eco engine.

The black, 17-inch TRD-branded alloys and the front skid plate stencilled with the TRD logo (presumably to leave its mark on dune faces across the Emirates) lend a requisite prestige for a car that costs Dh155,000. For that wedge, you might expect more luxury in the cabin, although the FJ’s existing design quirks largely gloss over that: the suicide-door rear-seat access; three front windscreen wipers; the largest interior door openers known to man. It’s hard to be mad with something so, well, silly.

Interestingly, the speedo only goes up to 180kph (its quoted maximum is 175kph), which is curious, considering most examples in the UAE seem to comfortably live up to the Cruiser part of its moniker at speeds not much below that upper limit. But those who’ll be using their TRD as more than just a traffic-light warrior are who this is really aimed towards – and the TRD undoubtedly excels on sand, even if the relatively basic seats won’t cushion you through the most vertebra-loosening terrain. The fabric is at least water-resistant, even if that’s more likely to save you from a morning Starbucks disaster than anything precipitation-based in our desert climes. The built-in air compressor, which can apparently inflate two tyres at the same time, is a genuinely handy boon, though.

If all of that sounds like a description of a car with too many trifling annoyances to consider purchasing, I’ve warmed to it significantly, inside a few days. Like saying a farewell to that aforementioned cheeky younger sibling, it’s with a twinge of sadness that I hand back the keys. After all, the (wo)man who’s tired of charging around in a faintly ludicrous off-roader with more character than most of its rivals combined might just be tired of driving itself – even if handing over that Dh155,000 for the privilege is on the expensive side of acceptable.

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