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Here’s some big news – dare I say good news? Toyota New Zealand has announced that the FJ Cruiser, an SUV that has been on sale since 2010, will end production in August this year.

At the time of its launch Toyota said the retro-styled FJ Cruiser was designed to pay homage to the pioneering FJ40 that laid the foundations for the now famous Land Cruiser.

Trouble is, the FJ was a bit ugly. And as a result only 299 of them have been sold in New Zealand during the vehicle’s six-year career

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In a media release, Toyota New Zealand’s general manager of product Spencer Morris says the FJ Cruiser was a special model introduced as a testament to the original FJ40

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And he adds:  “Although we always knew the FJ Cruiser would have a limited production run, I am confident the model with its rugged capability and retro design will continue as a Toyota icon, sought-after and loved by enthusiasts.”

You think? At the time of the FJ’s launch I remember writing that the FJ Cruiser might have sought to pay homage to the FJ40 of years ago by incorporating various design cues from that vehicle’s looks, but  the end result was less a work of art and more a caricature – and an inefficient one at that.

Gee, my review was tough: “If you’re happy that this SUV’s looks are cute or distinctive rather than wacky or stupid, and you’re happy to come to terms with a few design idiosyncrasies, maybe you’ll go the way of many American motorists and decide that this is just the retro-look SUV you want,” I wrote.

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It’s certainly priced well enough (and it was too, with an RRP $10,000 less than the cheapest version of the vehicle it was built off, the Land Cruiser Prado), and you can guarantee it will prove to be as tough and as rugged as an old boot. But as for me? You’ve got to be kidding.”

HOW IT CAME ABOUT

So now that that FJ is on the way out, let’s remind ourselves why it was built in the first place.

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When Toyota’s FJ40 Land Cruiser first arrived in New Zealand 51 years ago, it had design features that might have been utilitarian, but soon became so recognisable that they are remembered even today.

These iconic design cues included angular lines, round headlights set on either side of a mesh grille that featured TOYOTA in capital letters in the middle, an upright windscreen, wrap-around rear quarter windows, a fold-out back door and a flat roof that was always white.

As a tough, offroad-capable vehicle, the FJ40 did the business too, and for the next 24 years it played a major role in establishing Land Cruiser as a product capable of taking on extreme rural environments throughout New Zealand.

The FJ40 garnered a strong reputation in other parts of the world too, to the extent that years after production ended, people started to miss it. This became apparent in 1999 when, for the Chicago Motor Show, expatriate Kiwi Rod Millen put the bodywork of a 1967 model on to the chassis of a modern-day Cruiser and put it on display as the Retro Cruiser.

This project opened up the possibilities of creating a brand-new vehicle with the iconic FJ styling cues, but with latest mechanical components. One thing led to another, and at the 2003 Detroit Motor Show Toyota unveiled what it called a concept FJ Cruiser.

Designed and developed by Toyota Motor Sales (United States) and Toyota’s design studio in California as a basic, capable and affordable offroader for younger buyers, it featured several styling cues from the original FJ.

American public reaction to the concept was strong enough to convince Toyota to put the vehicle into production, and at the 2005 Chicago Motor Show the production version of the FJ Cruiser was launched. A right-hand version of the model also got to be built, which is how the model got to be launched in New Zealand.

‘IT WAS REALLY BAD’

My immediate problem was that while I could lmost accept the wacky looks of the Toyota – strange as they were – I had difficulty accepting several design elements.

For example, I found the FJ Cruiser rather difficult to get in and out of, largely because not only did the vehicle feature very large lower door sills, but also because it had pseudo-running boards that had to be negotiated. And that was only to get in and out of the front seats. The back seats were worse, because they had to be accessed via small rearwards-opening access or “suicide” doors that could only be opened once the front doors had been opened.

The rear door – the one that accessed the load area – opened to the side, and because it carried a full-sized spare wheel it was very heavy. This meant if you were parked on any slope that leaned the Toyota driver’s side down, the door would not stay open.

Once you were seated behind the wheel of the FJ Cruiser and got used to the cubic, vertical and old-fashioned design of the dash area, you then became aware of the vehicle’s single worst feature – its lack of rear visibility.

It really was bad. Rear window space was restricted by the retrospective design of the vehicle and its big C-pillars, and it was made even worse by the positioning of the spare tyre, which intruded up over the window’s bottom line.

So, from a design point of view my opinion of the FJ Cruiser was that the vehicle was hopeless. But it drove rather well. Powering the FJ Cruiser was a 4.0-litre quad-cam V6 petrol engine that offered 200 kilowatts of power and 380 Newton metres of torque, which was plenty for flexible and powerful motoring.

The engine was mated to a five-speed automatic transmission, which in turn is matched to a part- time four-wheel-drive system with a two-speed transfer and electric- powered locking rear differential operated from the dash.

STILL NOT A FAN

It all worked well, just like any big SUV should. Helping that along was a suspension system that felt very forgiving, providing a medium-to-soft ride over all road conditions.

I took the FJ Cruiser on some lengthy tours, and while I enjoyed the driving experience, I couldn’t really get over the embarrassment of being seen in something with such looks.

So am I happy that Toyota is to stop building the FJ Cruiser? Yep. Do I think it will probably now become something of an indiosyncractic collectors item? Yep. Would I ever want to own one? Nope.

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  Here's some big news - dare I say good news? Toyota New Zealand has announced that the FJ Cruiser, an SUV that has been on sale since 2010, will end production in August this year. At the time of its launch Toyota said the retro-styled FJ Cruiser was designed to...