x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Road Test: 2013 Toyota FJ Cruiser

How the Toyota FJ Cruiser might be retro in its styling, but is still a brilliant car.

The FJ Cruiser is an inexpensive, rugged, comfortable and well-built car that performs brilliantly on and off the road. Kevin Hackett / The National
The FJ Cruiser is an inexpensive, rugged, comfortable and well-built car that performs brilliantly on and off the road. Kevin Hackett / The National

I like to think I'm man enough to admit when I'm wrong. After all, I'm a married man and admitting you're in the wrong could be considered a prerequisite for a blissful relationship status. Even if you really think (or indeed know) you're in the right.

When it comes to cars, I have been guilty of forming negative opinions before I've even tried them out, sometimes based on the road manners - or lack thereof - displayed by the people that tend to own them. And the Toyota FJ Cruiser is one such car.

They're everywhere here, which is hardly surprising given the fact that its big brother, the Land Cruiser, is a bona fide part of UAE culture. And when I received a call asking if I fancied having one for a few days, I felt I owed it to myself to see if my preconceived ideas had any foundation.

Was the FJ Cruiser a genuinely good all-rounder, or was it a case of style over substance? There was only one way to find out, and I arranged to ditch the Scirocco for a few days in favour of a car that I really didn't want to be seen in.

Looking like a distant relative of the now-dead Hummer H3, the FJ Cruiser is unashamedly retro in its styling, taking cues from the original Land Cruiser (of which many are still seen soldiering on in the region) and the Land Rover Defender, which is basically a metal box with a wheel at each corner.

The FJ's roofline is low enough to look as if it's been through a modifier's shop and the chunky tyres give a distinct clue that its natural habitat is not on the road. Which is one of my reasons for not wanting to drive it on the commute between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It's easily the most distinctive Toyota, however, and I find myself begrudgingly accepting, even liking, it because of that alone.

I clamber up into the cockpit and marvel at how macho it all is inside. The dashboard is massive, all flat surfaces and rounded edges. The steering wheel is rubbery, the dials simple to read. The buttons and switches look like they're from a child's toy, but they're operable even if you're wearing thick gloves.

The seats are upholstered in material that would probably survive a fire and the door mirrors look like they're fashioned from pieces of rock. I feel like I should be wearing a chest wig - clearly I'm not manly enough to be in here.

It has a rear seat, but room in the back is at a premium. There are two rear doors, which only open if the fronts are, in suicide fashion just like the Mini Clubman (which, bizarrely, only has one). The boot space is adequate for most uses, though, so an overnight camping adventure should pose no problems whatsoever.

What does pose a problem, though, is the FJ's awful blind spots. As I tentatively reverse from my parking space, the car's huge B- and C-pillars effectively blind me and emergence unscathed is down to more luck than judgement. Let's just say I hope I don't have to do much in the way of overtaking.

My car is fitted with a manual gearbox, as if it wasn't manly enough already, and it's my first really pleasant surprise. Slick, precise and easy to use, it's a joy. Clutch action is meaty but not difficult and there's enough weight in the steering to make this feel like it's a serious bit of kit. Which it apparently is, at least when it's carving up the UAE's sand dunes. On the road, it's something else entirely.

On the road this huge Tonka toy is actually very pleasant to drive. It's supremely comfortable, there's barely any wind noise and absolutely no tyre roar to raise the heckles. The punchy 4.0L V6 engine, while not exactly imbuing the FJ with electrifying performance, easily piles on sufficient speed, and there's a constant, although not unwelcome, rumble throughout the cabin.

That ride comfort, though, is courtesy of some really long-travel suspension componentry, which endows the FJ with excellent off-roading credentials. A more expensive vehicle, such as a new Range Rover, would be fitted with adaptive suspension that helps provide the best of both worlds, but the FJ's simplicity of construction does manifest itself when you have to hit the brakes with anything more than a feather-light touch. The entire front end takes a dive, which is quite alarming at first.

After five days of living with the FJ, however, that and the blind spots are the only black marks against a car that has well and truly proved me wrong. It's a cheap, rugged and well-built car that's a lot of fun to drive, and I wish I'd got to try one sooner. Better late than never, though, and I'm happy to say that, for your Dh126,500, this is excellent value for money. I wouldn't change my Scirocco for one but it's still a brilliant car that puts a smile on my face. I can't ask for much more than that.