A question has been asked of us many times, and it goes something like this: "I need a new car and I want something with four-wheel drive that is fun to drive. I can't decide between the FJ Cruiser and the Jeep JK Wrangler. Which would you recommend?" Well, folks, here is your answer.
We decided to round up one of each and run them through a battery of tests looking at everything from daily street driving, power and braking, general looks and finish, and of course off-road performance. The judges were spread over a range of ages, occupations, and family status, bringing to the test many different "would this fit my family and lifestyle?" questions. The goal was simple: to answer the question, "Which one would Petersen's 4-Wheel & Off-Road recommend and why?"
In This Corner: The Fierce FJ Cruiser!
The Silver Fresco Metallic '09 Toyota FJ Cruiser in our brawl came with a 4.0L 1GR-FE 24-valve engine with variable valve timing resulting in 239 hp and 278 lb-ft of torque and requires premium 91 octane gas. The engine feeds a five-speed A750F automatic with a 3.520:1 First gear and a 0.716:1 overdrive. The transfer case is a part-time VF2A with a 2.56:1 low range.
The FJ has a double wishbone (A-arm) with coilover independent front suspension with an S20DNF axle. The rear axle is a B20N solid axle using a four-link with a Panhard bar and coil spring suspension. Both axles have 3.727:1 gears and disc brakes, and the rear has a selectable locking differential. The axles also have Toyota's A-TRAC brake-based traction control, which applies the brakes to any spinning wheel, effectively shifting power to the opposite wheel with traction.
The FJ weighs 4,295 pounds and is sitting on a 105.9-inch wheelbase and 265/70R17 BFGoodrich Rugged Trail tires (303/4 inches tall). Toyota claims 16 mpg city, 20 highway; we averaged 15.53 over five fuel-ups during the test. The FJ Cruiser comes with a fullsize spare tire.
In This Corner: The warrior Jeep Wrangler!
We had to decide between the two-door and four-door Wrangler, but because of the popularity of the four-door and the fact that the FJ has four doors, we went with a '09 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon.
The Wrangler has a 3.8L 12-valve V-6 gas engine that's rated at 202 hp and 237 lb-ft of torque and only requires regular 87 octane fuel. Behind this is a four-speed 42RLE automatic transmission with a 2.84:1 First gear and a 0.69:1 overdrive followed by a NP241OR Rock-Trac part-time transfer case with a 4:1 low range. Axles are Next Generation Dana 44s with 4.10 gears, disc brakes, and selectable locking differentials.
Suspension is a four-link with a track bar and a coil spring setup front and rear, all controlled by monotube gas-charged shocks.
The Jeep weighs 4,340 pounds and rides on 255/75R17 BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain tires (31 inches tall) with a 116-inch wheelbase. Jeep claims the Wrangler gets 15 mpg city, 19 highway; we averaged 13.73 over five fuel-ups and various street and off-road testing.
Our test Wrangler was also outfitted with a hard top, Detonator yellow paint, and premium cloth interior. The Wrangler comes with a fullsize spare tire.
The test of these two off-road ninjas was run very similarly to our 4x4 of the Year test. The first day involved street and highway driving interrupted by some inspection of the trucks up on the rack at Off Road Unlimited, followed by four days of trail testing. The inspection gives us a chance to compare and contrast the underbellies of each. This is when we noticed that the ground clearance of the JK and FJ was within 1/8 inch at the front axle, but in the rear the Jeep had over 2 inches more clearance.
Both trucks have very impressive skidplates; however, the tie rod, steering stabilizer, and plastic front air dam on the Jeep are all quite vulnerable, whereas the low-hanging radiator on the FJ requires protection up front. The Jeep does have more impressive-looking recovery hooks front and rear, but the FJ's would work if need be.
The on-road driving portion of the test revealed many things about the FJ and JK. First was the power: The FJ has it; the JK needs it. Yes, the JK is competent, gets you there, and never stops climbing steep grades, but the FJ just does it faster. The Toyota's additional 37 hp and 41 lb-ft of torque were enough to make the Jeep seem dismal on the long grades, and this was with stock tires and only a hard top. Add a lift and bigger rubber (as many of you will), and the JK could be a real slug without proper gearing to compensate.
The FJ's major stumble is visibility; changing lanes with the narrow vertical mirrors and massive rear roof pillars is just plain silly. The overabundance of body panels on the FJ will return again and again as a deficit to this 4x4. The JK's hard top does add power-sapping weight, but it offers security and less noise over the soft top alternative tested previously.
Do I look fat?
From top to bottom the styling of these two off-roaders had friends and foes amongst our judges. Even though most chose the looks of the JK over the FJ, there were still some complaints. The Jeep interior was purposely Spartan, which can be appreciated, but the power window controls in the center console, the lousy sun visors that leave too many cracks for the setting sun to blind the driver, and the less-than-wonderful seat material left much to be desired. As for the FJ, it is hard to get into the back seat, you feel claustrophobic when you do get in, and it doesn't have nearly enough power outlets for the modern driver. Both trucks seem obese in styling-wide, bulging, and generally big-but while the JK is a slightly chubby linebacker, the FJ is Fat Albert.
Duel In The Dirt
The real test doesn't start until we're shifting transfer cases into four-wheel drive, so let's discuss these two titans on the trail. The results can be simplified by saying that if you want to go fast, then the FJ is your ride, but if you want agility, visibility, and climbing ability, then the JK lays the smack down on Toyota's cruiser.
The sand dunes and high-speed sections again showed why the engine power of the FJ is best. However, while you would think the independent front suspension would help the FJ dominate, the Jeep's coil-sprung solid axles soaked up the ruts, dunes, and washouts quite well.
In the tight technical trails the FJ did fine, but never as good as the JK. The traction of the front and rear lockers, the wheel travel with the sway bar disconnected, and the lower gearing gave the JK superior control whether it was scrambling over loose rocky hillclimbs or tip-toeing between massive boulders. At the same time the visibility afforded by the seating position in the Jeep allowed the driver to navigate sans spotter more often than FJ pilots could.
The FJ's A-TRAC brake-based traction control just cannot replace a true locking differential because it requires the wheels to spin before it applies the brakes and transfers traction. This results in a herky-jerky dance that is more rockbouncing than rockcrawling. Plus the Jeep's lack of power was rarely noticed in the technical stuff, as the gearing easily made up for it.
So what does this all mean?
Winner! Wrangler Wrangles a win, Barely It was much closer than anyone expected. In fact, if we didn't consider it a copout, we would almost call it a tie. But you need a winner, and we had to go with the Jeep this time.
The FJ Cruiser should have won. It has more power, better braking, costs $8,000 less (yes, $8,000!), and would be perfect for a one- or two-person family, but what on paper is a sure thing isn't so in the dirt.
The additional power of the FJ just didn't translate to the terra firma when traction and control was needed. We've said it before: Brake-based traction control is not a locking differential. The lack of visibility on the trail resulted in our driving obstacles blindly while on the throttle to get the A-TRAC traction control to kick in. This is not as much fun as it might sound.
The styling of the FJ has always felt out of place, more spaceship than 4x4, and the wide body (taillights wider than body panels?!) infringes on both seeing the trail and fitting down it. However, our least favorite things are the suicide rear doors. They make it hard to get in and even worse to ride in the back if you have even a hint of claustrophobia.
The Jeep Wrangler isn't without its faults, but each is a trade-off: The less-powerful engine runs on cheaper gas; the heavy solid axles give greater strength and articulation; the loud soft top can be dropped for even more visibility. When we sat back and asked which of these two we would recommend for the greater number of people, it had to be the Jeep.
The Jeep is dirt-simple. It has lockers, gears, aggressive tires (Toyota, what's with the tame treads?), disconnectable sway bars, and seating for four with gear. Yes, it will be a dog with all that cargo, but everyone can look out and roll down a window (FJ rear windows don't open), and you'll get there eventually. The high-speed stuff and cruising sand dunes aren't the greatest place for the underpowered JK, but you won't be bored. It still has enough power to bounce around. The Jeep is the 4x4 we'd recommend you buy. It does everything well and some things great. Even though the Toyota engineers should have had the Wrangler beat, everything can't be improved just on paper. Maybe they just didn't understand: It's a Jeep thing.