I’ve had an epiphany. Something has happened; something I never thought ever would. And it hasn’t just happened to me – many of my friends, colleagues and acquaintances are have experienced it too. For the first time ever, there is a cool Toyota on the market. Don’t get me wrong – there have been fast Toyotas (the old Conquest RSI comes to mind) and there have been fun Toyotas (think MR2) but never has there ever been a cool Toyota. At least not one that you could buy in South Africa.

All that has changed though with the local introduction of the new FJ Cruiser. Finally, right-hand-drive markets are enjoying the coolest Toyota ever, and despite the fact that the car has been available in left-hand-drive markets since as far back as 2007, it’s making a huge impact in SA at the moment. How huge? Well, welcome everyone to the coolest car I’ve ever driven. It’s available in three guises (normal, Trail, Desert and Sport) and I was treated to the FJ Sport Cruiser for this test.

Styled to look like the old FJ40 of the 1960s, the new FJ is a retro throwback to some of the toughest vehicles the world has ever seen. To put it into perspective, FJ is to the world of SUVs what the new MINI is to hot hatches. First of all, though, is its sheer size – it’s massive. Massive in a Hummer way – not too wide to get through your gate at home but fat and tall enough to scare many other cars on the road. And then there’s the parking problem (though see it more as a benefit) – you can’t really park the FJ comfortably in a standard South African parking bay. So you end up taking two just because you can, and I love that about this car.

Then there’s the presence. With bold, chunky styling all-round and a cheeky face, FJ is quite a machine to behold. The front overhang is minimal and with slim bumpers you can see the tyres poking out beneath the body. This Sport version features chrome detailing on the bonnet and mirrors too, and only comes in black. The windscreen is wide and narrow, and even has three wipers as a result. Side-on, it looks like a mix of a sports cruiser (excuse the pun) and an SUV, with a high ride height and a slim glass area. By far, the car’s party-piece lies in the suicide rear doors which open backwards to allow rear passengers easy access. The roof is painted white on all models (harking back to the FJ40) and looks like a lid that’s been fitted to the top of the car. At the back, a massive spare wheel adorns the tailgate which is side-hinged and opens with ease. It also features a separate-opening glass window.

On the inside, it’s all about function. A great slab-like dashboard sits up front with chunky switchgear and only the bare necessities, with a large and attractive steering wheel making no bones about its business. Dials are clear and large, and there’s not much in the way of a trip computer (dual-trip mileage only). What I liked was how the cockpit is cocooned in the cabin, so to speak, with the windscreen far away and plenty of headroom. If makes you feel like the car is four times bigger.

Another of FJ’s best attributes was comfort. Big leather seats are on offer all round and it was very easy to find a superbly comfortable driving position. Rear legroom is a tad tight but once I’d raised my driver’s seat slightly, everyone was happy. The front seatbacks also feature grab handles for rear passengers, should the going get rather rough. The best part is that the whole interior floor is finished in a tread-plate-style “hose-down” plastic coating (with carpeted mats) as is the boot, which is very large and with folding rear seats you could easily move house with the FJ.

The FJ also impresses with a good standard features list, which includes the likes of cruise control, a reversing camera with integrated screen in the rear-view mirror, a premium sound system with a roof-mounted speaker and iPod / USB / MP3 / aux / CD / radio compatibility, steering wheel-mounted audio and telephone controls, Bluetooth, air conditioning and electric windows. Safety is taken care of by six airbags, ISOFIX child seat anchors, ABS (anti-lock braking system) brakes with EBD (electronic brake-force distribution) and active head rests.

Now I may be able to tell you about the design and the materials and the great build quality and the fit and finish, but what I find really difficult to relate is the way the FJ Cruiser turns heads. I’m not joking when I say I have never had so much attention in a car as I did when driving the FJ. Whether it was from my neighbours at home, bikers and other cars in traffic, passers-by in a parking lot or a mob at a petrol station – no matter where I took it, the attention was astounding.

People just don’t know what it is, and when they see the enormous old-style ”TOYOTA” badge on the front, they then became flabbergasted at what they’re seeing. I even had a woman corner me in a parking lot for 30 minutes as we discussed why she should buy one. And perhaps that was the most surprising aspect to the FJ – it appeals to a great variety of people, whether they are attracted to it for its looks, road presence or off-road ability.

And while I mention the latter, there is a good reason why my black test car came back completely brown one Saturday afternoon. The FJ Cruiser is simply unbelievable off-road! Even with its fat side steps, the Sport Cruiser was astounding (the Desert model features more off-road-friendly adornments). It’s one of those off-roaders you can just drive over anything, and I mean that! With the short front and rear overhangs your approach and departure angles are excellent (34 and 31 degrees respectively), and coupled to the 245mm ride height and massive tyres, big rocks and dongas mean absolutely nothing.

With an old-fashioned selector lever for the various four-wheel drive modes, it’s also fun to play with, and the lever is easy to use and fathom. Electronic aids in the form of traction control and A-TRC (advanced traction control for off-roading) are on offer as well. Perhaps most delightfully though were the FJ Cruiser’s on-road manners. The high ride height and fat tyres should spell a bouncy ride and wafty handling, but no – not only is the ride beautifully comfortable but the FJ holds the road well and you never get the sense of not knowing where you’re going.

I suppose I need to talk at some point about the power train, so here goes: all FJ models are powered by a silky 4-litre V6 petrol engine, which is mated to a 5-speed automatic gearbox. That’s it – no diesel and no manual. Sure the transmission might not be refined or even remotely new, but the sporadically clunky shifts add so much character to the car I wouldn’t want it any other way. The sweet-sounding motor churns out 200kW and 380Nm and while the car is not fast by any stretch of the imagination, it sure does get going on the road. The 0-100km/h dash takes a leisurely 16.4 seconds and top speed is claimed at 175km/h.

As you can imagine though, fuel consumption is not the FJ’s strongest point, with Toyota claiming 11.9-litres per 100km and carbon emissions of 278g/km. I returned a more realistic 18.7-litres per 100km over my test period, with the fuel warning light burning bright after just 385km on a 72-litre tankful. Don’t cringe though, because if you’re looking for a car even remotely similar to the FJ, emissions and consumption don’t matter.

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