An ex-girlfriend with whom I still have somewhat of a volatile relationship lives in Birmingham, Alabama. This would generally be rather unimportant, other than I felt like I needed to go and stare down the city she bailed on me for. So when Toyota offered me and three other various internet personalities a shot at going rock crawling outside of the 'Ham in celebration of the new FJ Cruiser, I figured I may as well take them up on it. The ex and I had had dinner plans for a month, which she suddenly and unceremoniously flaked on a couple of days before I left.
Toyota had put us up at the Tutwiler, which touts itself as the grand dame of Southern hotels. And while the people were nice, the cotomer sevis left something to be desired. It wasn't an uncaring attitude; it was just general ineptitude, which, for a hotel described by said ex as the Claremont or Fairmont of Birmingham, was somewhat (and I'm being rather generous here), below par. Plus, Birmingham is like Sacramento without the ready access to the Sierras or the sea. And although I met some very nice people, the overriding attitude — while hospitable — was "You're in 'Bama now, son. Don't you dare ask about the UT game while Auburn's playing." Toto, we're not in Pedro, anymore. We're about to squeal like pigs.
Even the other Southerners wandered around whistling or singing "Dueling Banjos" when out of earshot of the Alabama types. So while it's safe to say that I felt entirely worthless for being outvoted in favor of this podunk backwater (and I tried to like it — I swear), I'll readily admit that the Grayrock ORV park was an absolutely stunning locale, and the weather was note-perfect for a day of attempted Toyota-bending.
Toyota's taking a grassroots approach to the marketing of the FJ via its Trail Team program, sending crews out to various crawlin' and muddin' events across the nation in an effort to get the hardcores into their new small ute before they launch a mainstream campaign. And after spending a day attempting to break a black-cherry colored model, I have to say that I'm a believer. And with that, let's get the bad stuff out of the way first.
Number one, let's talk about the seatbelts. The front belts are anchored in the rear clamshell doors. Which means if you attempt to open a rear door while the driver or passenger is still belted in, strangulation-related hilarity ensues. Furthermore, on steep inclines, the pretensioners lock, precluding hanging your head out the window, forcing you to release your belt. Then, when the recon is done, you can't put it back on before you get to level ground, which means that you're in danger of bouncing yourself into the roof.
Beyond that, the rear area is devoid of oh-shit bars. And given that the FJ is capable of some serious oh-shitness, that seems like a serious omission. Also, it'd be nice to be able to open the rear doors without having to crack the fronts. We pulled a lot of Chinese firedrills while crawling the trucks, what with photogs jumping in and out and spotters making rapid ingress and egress over serious terrain, and the door setup left a lot to be desired. It's definitely a DINK-mobile. If you have kids and don't go off-road, there are certainly better choices. Also bad: a thermometer that only works over 15mph. On the road? No biggie. But when you spend your day creeping at 10mph in 4WD low, it's a rather amusing to see the thermo reading 45F when it's actually around 70.
But here's the thing. The FJ is the real deal. Our trucks were only slightly altered to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous journos and OHV enthusiasts. Here's the mod list: Full-length custom skidplates, ARB bull-bars with Warn winches, TRD cat-back exhaust systems, TRD wheels shod with more serious off-road tires, and a set of Toyota rock rails. Frankly, if you're going to do mild rock crawling, the rock rails and tires are the only musts. Toyota's equipped the truck with an electronically-locking rear diff, as well as a rather ingenious traction-control system.
And this is where the zen of rock crawling comes in. The first trail I tackled was rather ironically-titled "Bunny Slope #3." About 2/3 of the way up the course, there was a pretty technical section involving a few bomb holes and ruts on one side with alternating rocks, which required some serious spotting. The obstacles come so close together that it requires some sort of preternatural photographic vision/memory that I simply don't have. It took maybe ten attempts to finally power over it using only the onboard traction control.
Later in the day, we tried it again, with Will, one of the Trail Team guys, behind the wheel. It'd taken Tim, who'd spotted me on my attempt, an age to get over it just ahead of us. Will simply engaged the locker and powered straight through in one try. However, that doesn't signify a triumph of old-school lockers over the electronic mind of the traction control system. In other situations, the electronics didn't act so much as a nanny as a guide. Toyota likes to say that they've equipped the FJ with a toolkit, and that's exactly what they've done. The traction control and the locker can be engaged and disengaged at will. And while I think, as a PR move, they used the traction control to show off its technology, there were situations where obstacles could've been traversed more easily with the locker engaged. But that's what's really pretty amazing about the FJ — on the road, it's a very smooth vehicle. And offroad, even in basically-stock trim, it's ridiculously capable for a vehicle at its price-point. You could spend more to get less, easily
The Wrangler is more basic; less advanced and a little less cutesy. With the FJ, if you're going to swap out axles, you're negating the advantage of the traction control, which is truly one of the truck's best features. And with an independent front end, it's hard to lift the thing to the skies. But as a weekend-warrior trail-runner that can double as a work-week commuter, the FJ is hard to match. It's hipper than the H3. It's the metro boy that can pull off the hairy chest to the Liberty's Cialis-popping twink, and it won the respect of a crew of Alabama Jeepers who wanted to see it fail. I'm not a big Toyota guy. Sure, I like my Starlets and early '70s Celica GTs. I *heart* me some '80s post-Hilux and 'glass-backed 4Runner action, and I've always had a soft spot for FJ40s and 55s.
But to be honest, the FJ Cruiser, while largely due to government regulations, is a bit too padded for my tastes, is a ridiculously serious machine for the price; especially in an era of watered-down crossovers. I bought my SUV in V8, rear-drive form because I wanted a station wagon for tow/haul duty. If I were in the market for a genuine off-roader for weekend blasts and work-week slogs, the FJ's combination of styling, prowess and general civility makes it an absolute must-consider. But if I had a family, I'd probably lean toward the Liberty for everyday practicality's sake. And then I'd spend my days lamenting that I hadn't bought the FJ. It's not a perfect vehicle, and it's aesthetically a tad overwrought (although I do dig the basic styling of it) but let it not be doubted that the FJ is incredibly good at what it does.
And here's the deal. I went to 'Bama in a rather bothered state. I was frustrated with the reptitive frustration of the repetitive frustration of the repetitively-frustrating BS I was going through with the aforementioned ex; it seemed like a never-ending slog. But the nature of crawling taught me something. The whole raison d'etere of the sport is that it is a never-ending slog; there's a peace to it — even as you're smoking your tires on slick rocks or high-centering the truck so brilliantly that you could literally change all four tires with no worry of the thing tipping over on you. And well, that, friends, is why God gave us the electric winch.
Disclaimer: Toyota paid for my flight to Alabama, my room at the Tutwiler, all of my food and drink, gas and insurance on the vehicles.