Offroad novice Jane Nicholls learns to drive Toyota’s funky FJ on the sort of terrain that made its forefathers famous.

What seems like a lifetime ago, when I was a very junior journo, I worked across several outdoorsy specialist magazines, including Overlander 4WD, where I got to drive the odd 4WD to photo shoots barely on the outskirts of the city. That was fun.

The horror was when I had to drive the magazine’s company car, a Jeep CJ-8 Overlander. It was a monster of a thing to drive, and early in its life developed an unholy orchestra of rattles, grinds and squeals. I was not a fan (and let’s not mention the fan belt, or the fuel pump). Had I been asked to take it off-road, I would have insisted on a support convoy, such was its evil capriciousness (its accelerator pedal had a terrifying habit of suddenly sticking to the floor as you were driving; you had to be ready to flick it back with your right foot … fast).

In the intervening years, I’ve owned and loved a couple of Subaru Forester AWDs, which never went more off-road than a long country driveway. And when I lived in New York, we owned a Jeep Grand Cherokee V8. I guess I’d overcome my 1980s Jeep trauma, but not enough to ever drive the thing, especially on the wrong side of the road. But with my husband at the wheel, it navigated the concrete canyons of Manhattan with ease, including in snow storms, and took us over a few  dirt roads on Long Island. (He still coos when he sees the same model Jeep in Sydney, so I guess he loved it.)

That’s two paragraphs to let you know that I’m no four-wheel drive expert. So when I first saw the Toyota FJ Cruiser that was to be my chariot for the Girls Got Grit weekend on Fraser Island, I couldn’t recall ever seeing one in the wild before. I’d looked it up online and my husband was jealously showing me photos of it and enthusing about its specs. The Silver Surfer — as the FJ was known on the two-way radios over the weekend — was a fine-looking machine, solid and sleek, especially alongside the Patrol, Land Cruiser and HiLux which were also in our convoy.

We threw our bags in the boot and found it pretty roomy.  The rear door pivots open, and I prefer this side-opening door style to the upward, forehead-clipping style of my Ford Territory.   The rear window is hinged to flip up, for when you just want to throw something small in, or don’t want to risk a large load creeping out.

One FJ feature I’m conflicted over is the “suicide doors”, a term I’d never heard before but it means the rear doors have hinges at the back of the door, not the front.   Apparently suicide doors are so-named because of their propensity to fly open accidentally while the car is moving, though that can’t happen with the FJ, as the front door has to open before the rear doors.


Searching for a plus, I can see how this open-kimono door arrangement affords easy access to the FJ’s interior, once you get used to it. And when the doors are open, it also gives you a little bench to sit on, on the car’s running board inside the clamshell doors, to take your morning coffee before the next leg of your adventure.

But on the downside, I was in the back of the FJ on one occasion over the weekend and when the front-seat passenger got out, she forgot my needs and shut the front door. Once that front door was closed, I couldn’t work out how to get the back door open from where I sat. After about a minute, they remembered me, opened the front door again, and I could then open my rear-hinged back door from the inside. I can imagine this back-seat entrapment could be a pain if the FJ was your family car or you were using the back seats often. I have no complaints about the amount of room in the back, just the sense of being trapped. I guess you can climb over into the front if you have to but, oh, the indignity.

Finally, I think the door arrangement could be an issue in a crowded car park in the city … you really have to open that back-door clamshell nice right out to be able to exit. No sideways shimmying like most of us have to do in a car park from time to time.

The styling is distinctive. Who says Toyotas are boring?

That’s it. I’m done with my criticisms of the FJ. I needed to get rid of the kvetching first, and the rest of this review is pretty much a love-fest.

“My” FJ had been driven to Hervey Bay from Brisbane by Jodi Clark, one of the hard-working PR people hosting the weekend. An experienced 4WDer, born of necessity given her years working for Kingfisher Bay Resort on Fraser Island, Jodi was hugely enthusiastic about the FJ’s highway comfort, saying that it had driven and handled like a nice big SUV. For the short stretches I drove it on bitumen on Fraser Island, I found the same thing … no heavy, truck-like characteristics here; it felt as smooth and easy to drive as my Ford Territory.

But we weren’t here for a road test. We were here to see how the FJ conquers the soft sand and ruts of Fraser, 4WD mecca and the world’s biggest sand island. We were also here to learn how to do that, safely and expertly, under the experienced and completety unfazeable tutelage of Dave Darmody of Australian Offroad Academy. There’s a separate story on the Girls Got Grit weekend program, where I detail how I learned to be such an ace 4WDer in under four hours.

But imagine I was on Fraser Island without Dave. Here’s why I’d want to be behind the wheel of an FJ Cruiser.

Of the six vehicles in our group over the weekend, the FJ was the only one never to be bogged. Sure, it had a little moment on Dave’s training course, but only because he made sure of it. But out on the sand tracks of Fraser, up hills and down terrifying dales, across rutted, sand-guttered stretches, and down rocky bypasses, speeding along the sand highway of Fraser’s famed Seventy-Five-Mile Beach, it never faltered.

I could tell you that this assured performance was because the car was being guided by two freshly minted 4WD aces, myself and Elle Hunt, my 20-something co-driver (a fellow journalist whose previous driving experience centred around an ancient Toyota Starlet), but that would be a lie. The car looked after us and transformed our newbie 4WD driving skills into those of much better operators.

The FJ has pretty good clearance, even on the standard-issue tyres, but more than that, it has an amazing array of high-tech in-built intelligence to assist you. You need to know how and when to operate it. We had Dave on hand to tell us that, but there are detailed instructions in the manual and online, too. Dave pointed out that there are plenty of people who buy clever cars and never use the features to their full capability — so don’t be one of those. Find out how your car’s gadgetry can act as the best back-seat driver ever, and call on it. Don’t ask me to explain to you how it all works, but trust me that it does.

Up in the roof are the the controls for A-TRAC (or A-TRC, short for TRACion) and the rear locking differential. The dial is CRAWL, which Jane explains in this story. Twiddle the dial to set your speed, and then just steer!

For starters, Dave told us to activate the A-TRC, or active traction control, to cope with really uneven terrain on his test track. Once you’ve put the car into this mode, it automatically controls the distribution of power across all the wheels, so if one’s in thin air, it won’t spin like a top into nothingness … the grunt will be delivered to one of the wheels that’s still grounded, helping the car to move on out of trouble. Dave directed me to drive into a patch of track to ensure I’d have one wheel off the ground, and the FJ didn’t miss a beat, and drove straight on out. Pretty neat, right?

We had to work a bit harder driving it up one of Dave’s carefully constructed jump-ups, a short, steep hill designed to test the 4WDs and their drivers in either direction. This was the only time the FJ paused, as you can see in the video. With the A-TRC engaged, it was just a matter of reversing back down and attacking the hill with a bit more speed on the next attempt, and we were up and over. The other vehicles didn’t fare so well.


A slightly spooky intelligence feature of the FJ is CRAWL. Basically it’s an auto-pilot, taking over the acceleration and braking of the car to enable you to steer, like cruise control but at walking pace. It’s recommended for use in really sticky situations when you’re flat out concentrating on steering through the rocks and ruts, so the car keeps itself moving forward at low speed, employing the other features to distribute the power where it’s needed and lower the chance of slippage and brake lockups. Dave got me to try this on his test track, and it works fine: the car moves along slowly as you steer it. I felt that it would take some getting used to – what’s that about me being a control freak?

Elle the Toyota Starlet expert commented that some of those features seemed “almost too clever by half, which some people might not like”. And I knew where she was coming from, especially with CRAWL. But I agree with Dave’s advice that we should all take the trouble to understand our car’s features and learn how to use them — then decide whether you want to or not. “You feel quite removed from the actual mechanics of the car and what it’s doing,” said Elle, who obviously had felt very close to her Starlet’s engine. We did have a moment when we had put the car into one of its settings and it made a terrible sound — I think we’d locked the rear diff but I’m not sure. We quickly hit the same button and the sound stopped. Again, if the car was ours, we’d take the time to be across which switch did what — and that would be important.

The Silver Surfer attracting admirers. And it’s not even moving!

Both Elle and I had some trouble shifting the FJ in and out of 4WD (done via a secondary gear stick), but unabashed FJ fan Dave reckoned that could have been because we had a media car and journos tend to flog those poor beasts (not these journalists, I hasten to add).

Elle did like the sense that despite the FJ’s big, strong appearance, you didn’t have to be physically strong to drive it. It surprised her how easy it was to steer it. Elle’s not as tall as me and commented that the FJ felt very big when you were in the driver’s seat, musing possibly not for the first time in her life: “I think it would be helpful to be taller.” She did add that she’d probably feel the same driving any 4WD and that the FJ felt more comfortable than the others in our convoy (and I second that emotion … they were much rougher rides).

The stereo system was great, and we found it very easy to hook up our iPhones via the FJ’s Bluetooth connection and blast Taylor Swift and Drake through the eight speakers. Confession: the specs say that a satellite navigation system comes as standard in the FJ. Whether it wasn’t in this media car, or whether we simply didn’t notice it because 1) we were following Dave and also using HEMA Explorer maps to track our journeys and 2) we had a lot to learn already …. we didn’t even notice the GPS. Sorry, Toyota.

In the little parking we had to do, we both found the visibility when reversing took a little getting used to, but the rear-view-mirror’s reverse camera (once we spotted that!) helped. The visibility through the main windscreen was good, though we newbie off-roaders found that moment at the crest of a steep descent a bit daunting (but we were learning from Dave to take the time to scope out iffy terrain ahead of driving it).

Mostly in the FJ we felt comfortable, safe and — as our fellow Girls Got Grit drivers repeatedly got bogged — lucky! Across all of the terrain we traversed on our weekend adventure, even the most bone-jarring ruts were cushioned in the FJ. The river crossing on the beach was a breeze. Even the somewhat scary hill that you must descend as you leave Kingfisher Bay Resort was gobbled up by the fearless FJ.

“I’m not a motoring journalist,” said Elle, who nevertheless had more lead in her foot than me, “but it feels like a Toyota Camry that could drive through a river.” I realise that comparison may make proud FJ owners clench the steering wheel but, trust me, it’s a compliment, and I get where she was coming from. Annoying suicide doors notwithstanding, the FJ feels like a super-safe family car, a pleasure to drive and with a comfy cabin and thumping-good surround sound. With that level of ease and comfort, its superior off-road skills could almost be seen as a bonus (more FJ sacrilege). That said, every FJ deserves a chance to show its stuff — don’t fence it in.


PRICE from $47,900 (plus ORC); WARRANTY three-year, unlimited kilometres; SAFETY not tested; ENGINE 4.0-litre 6-CYLINDER PETROL , 200kW @ 5600rpm, 380Nm @ 4400rpm; TRANSMISSION 5-SPEED auto with Low range and crawl control, part time 4wd; BODY 4.670m (L); 1.9m (W, excluding mirrors); 1.83m (H); WEIGHT 2000kg; Towing 2250kg braked, 750kg Unbraked; seats 5; THIRST 11.4L/100km (95 RON petrol, combined), 72+ 87L fuel tanks

 Want to know how to drive an FJ offroad?  Let an expert explain!

This was not the Silver Surfer and it wasn’t Jane driving. But it could be you….


The FJ Cruiser: a lifestyle, not just a car

Along with the Toyota 86, the FJ Cruiser has spearheaded Toyota’s push to make itself cool and interesting.  The FJ has gathered quite a following in the few years it has been on the market, and it remains not only cool but immensely capable.  Many owners modify their vehicles, and one of Australia’s best is Auto-Craft based in Geelong. Here’s their FJ Cruiser at work:

FJ-2 FJ-1 fj open day front

Want to know more?  Well look what pulled up in traffic next to me, with all the information you need:



Girls Got Grit on Fraser Island, a luxury 4X4 weekend away!


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About Author

Jane Nicholls

Jane Nicholls is a journalist, happily out on the freelancing road after years on the full-time media highway, including editing WHO and four years in New York as PEOPLE’s editor-at-large. In her extreme youth, she worked on Overlander 4WD, but she leaves the auto obsessiveness to her husband. Her daughters Grace and Rosie enjoy playing Spotto for the yellow car, and fighting for the front seat. Her Schnoodle Jack prefers the middle-back seat and hopes the car is taking him to the beach—not to the vet.


  1. Great review…. so what did Toyota do with the Cruiser…?? Discontinue it….. Doah !!! – no doubt for some further Prius rubbish !

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