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Old 04-10-2007, 01:00 PM
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Arrow Toyota goes back in time for FJ Cruiser

Toyota's wizardry in the automotive world has been so eye-opening the past few years it wouldn't surprise me to see David Copperfield or Lance Burton conducting employee training seminars at the company's dealerships and factories.

How else do you explain Toyota's magical sales performance in an automotive market that is more competitive than ever? While other companies struggle to retain market share, Toyota has moved to No. 3 in U.S. sales. And it continues to climb.

That climb continues despite the dramatically changing tastes of American car and truck buyers. It's no surprise that Toyota's high-mileage hybrids are selling like ice cream at a summer picnic. But the company's trucks are selling pretty well, too, something most competitors can't claim.

The 2007 FJ Cruiser I recently tested helped Toyota sell more trucks last month than any in its history. Toyota sold more than 56,000 of them in less than 10 months since its March 2006 debut, about 11,000 more than they'd anticipated selling over the course of a full year. At its current rate, Toyota could sell 70,000 FJ Cruisers this year.

How's that for pulling a rabbit out of a hat?

But it would be wrong to assume that someone at Toyota simply waves a magic wand to produce such hits. The FJ Cruiser is a case in point. It is a beautifully executed retro vehicle that shows the attention to detail and responsiveness to consumer sensibilities for which Toyota is known.

For example, the FJ Cruiser in showrooms is very similar to the concept vehicle that Toyota first showed at the 2003 International Auto Show in Detroit. When the show vehicle turned out to be a big hit, Toyota acted quickly to produce a remarkably similar production model.

That model is strongly reminiscent of the FJ40 utility vehicle Toyota sold in the U.S. between 1960 and 1983. Even the garish colors, two-tone paint schemes, and utilitarian looking interior of the 2007 FJ resemble the original.

The other major similarity between the original and the current Cruiser is that both vehicles are extremely capable off-road runners. The FJ40 was Toyota's answer to the Land Rover and the Jeep, vehicles known for being able to go where few others dared. A very brief trek on truly gnarly off-road conditions and a longer stint on much less demanding dirt and gravel trails convinced me that the FJ Cruiser ranks right up there with the most capable utility vehicles.

But modern technology and automotive engineering makes it relatively simple to build an extremely capable mountain goat of a vehicle -- just look at the purpose-built trucks that tackle Pikes Peak and the Baja 1000 for examples. The trick is building a vehicle that's also proficient on pavement.

The FJ Cruiser's ride is comfortable around town and on the highway. Its steering isn't particularly quick -- a desirable attribute off-road -- but it is direct and delivers good feedback. The FJ Cruiser also corners surprisingly well, clinging to the tarmac with totally unexpected zeal. And there is so much less body lean than expected that it seems negligible.

What can't be overlooked, however, are some undeniable shortcomings. Getting in and out of the rear seat is a chore, even with the Cruiser's rear-hinged half-doors and lack of a center pillar. Its nearly 42-foot turning circle is equally unappealing in either a forest or a parking lot. Ditto for driver sightlines adversely affected by high front and rear decks and relatively tiny windows and door mirrors. Also, fuel economy is nothing to brag about to your Corolla-driving neighbors.

Yet the FJ Cruiser is so distinctive and so appealing in other ways that it is one of those rare vehicles that remains endearing despite its shortcomings. And that's pretty magical in its own right, don't you think?

Scott Wasser is a freelance auto writer who has been reporting on cars and motorcycles since 1988. E-mail him at carguysw@aol.com. 1/3/?*=(( 1/3/?*=((

Source: [url=http://www.pennlive.com/business/expresstimes/index.ssf?/base/business-1/1176091642210660.xml&coll=2]Penn Live[/url]
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