The Smallest Man On The Moon

One can see absolutely nothing charming, interesting, appealing or pleasant about Edinburgh airport*. Only this object captured my attention but my camera could not capture a good image.

Toyota FJ-Cruiser

We have here a Toyota FJ-Cruiser, one of those periodic examples of a strong, brave design that leads nowhere at all. The Fiat Multipla, Isuzu Vehi-Cross, Nissan Pike Factory cars, and Renault Avantime would be other members of this esteemed club. The FJ-Cruiser follows the trajectory of a concept car shown to wide acclaim for its arresting appearance which the public then largely ignores and makes the rest of the car industry shrug its shoulders.

The problem may lie in the design’s retro-industrial character. Much of what is present in the design, though nicely organised, has already been seen in some form before. And the new aspects of the vehicle can’t be readily deployed. In contrast, influential cars like the VW Golf or Ford Focus Mk1 invite a productive response: what else can you do with the format (the VW Golf) and what can you do when creative rules are ignored or bent about a bit (the Focus).

Not Edinburgh. 2012 Toyota FJ-Cruiser: source

The FJ-Cruiser originated as a re-interpretation of the FJ-40, a long running and rufty-tufty off-road utility vehicle whose production ended in 1984. The Cruiser’s early development took place as a “basement”** project led by senior management, product planner David Danzer, and a Toyota VP, Yoshi Inabi.

The vehicle appeared as a concept car in 2003 at the Detroit Auto Show. Everyone loved it. Production commenced in 2005 after intensive and extensive prototype testing; Toyota intended the car to have proper off-roading ability rather than just to look off-roaderish. The road clearance heights, break-over angles and approach/departure angles all serve the purpose of mucking about on rough terrain.

The interior also featured tough, cleanable materials. While it looks like a 2-d00r, the car has suicide doors in the style of the Mazda RX-7, another “cool” idea that few seem to want to bother with (consider how little thanks Opel got for putting them on the Mk2 Meriva).

The underpinnings come from the Toyota Land Cruiser Prado and several other Toyota SUVs of the time. It’s not all that big: 4.6 metres long but the letter-box windshield (almost vertical) and slab-sides maximise the impression of bulk.

The car has a familiar sales trajectory: huge demand in year one and two followed by steep market decline to a steady 11,000 or so units a year thereafter. While Toyota intended it for the US market, sales began in Japan in 2010 and in other parts of the world until head-office ordered a halt to production in 2018.

I get the impression sales could have continued indefinitely at 15,000 units a year, making the FJ-Cruiser something like the Defender or Jimny. For Toyota that kind of production volume is small beer so despite a steady performance, the FJ-40 had to bow out.

Like many such curiosities, the market may have been small but the FJ-Cruiser created intense devotion. Made robust and durable, and perched on a BOF chassis, FJ-Cruisers will probably soldier on almost indefinitely, much like the Nissan Figaro I espied yesterday in Dundee, the only old car I saw in four days.

Not Edinburgh. 2011 Toyota FJ Cruiser (c) zombdrive

* And the same goes for Copenhagen airport. All of it is a product of sensible planning and responsible engineering that results in screamingly inhumane environments. Is there a single architect who would stand up to defend these masses of grey steel panels, dirty concrete and useless patches of gravel and grass?

** probably a very nice basement. This was no Peugeot 205 or BMW Z3-type of skunkworks project.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

24 thoughts on “The Smallest Man On The Moon”

  1. Haven’t seen one of those around in ages. What a huge blind spot this thing has… You probably mean the RX-8 instead of the RX-7.

  2. I’m not sure quite what to make of the FJ-Cruiser. Its utilitarianism seems somewhat contrived. The “suicide” doors improve access to the rear, a good idea, given that the short wheelbase prevents the use of conventional rear doors. However, once you’re in there, it must be very dark and claustrophobic, given the (wholly unnecessary) width of those C-pillars. Its sales performance suggests it was briefly a “must have” fashion item, then the fashionistas moved on, and it ultimately had no direct replacement.

  3. I quite like it, despite it reminding me of the offspring of a Ssangyong Korando and a Hummer.

    I feel a bit sorry for manufacturers who are encouraged to make something only for it to disappoint in the marketplace; the Toyota 86 is another example. That said, the FJ costs twice as much as a Jimny, second hand.

    Re the airport; Wikipedia says that Sir Robert Matthew, a modernist, was one of the architects.

  4. Interesting those suicide doors that makes four models now with the Meriva, Mazda and BMW i3, can anyone think of more?

    1. In North America: Second gen Saturn SC, Honda Element, Most extended cab pickups from the Detroit three, Toyota and Nissan.

      Regarding the FJ Cruiser, the interior has so much hard plastic. It is probably high quality and durable, but the design exudes an atmosphere which is drab and harshly spartan, rather than cheery or playful like the exterior. From twenty paces, the vehicle says “I am a hardcore fun adult toy, let’s play” but step inside and suddenly it is a penalty box. When it comes to plasticky interiors the FJ Cruiser is exactly the polar opposite of Twingo Mk 1, I would want to own one but loathe the idea of spending time inside. I think this is what killed desirability, compare with the Multipla’s interior. The fit and finish on the Fiat is comparatively abysmal, but where would you rather sit?

    2. A good and, indeed, thought-provoking comparison. I am not in the SUV market. Still, might I suggest that the FJ-Cruiser´s harsh look was design to appeal to the tastes of its users? They want something butch and unpleasant. In that sense, the severe style is pretty much what I expect and not, say, the refined Modernism of any LR product (these are perhaps the best Modern interiors now available).

    3. Hi gooddog,

      I think it’s perhaps a very Japanese thing to have a conservative-looking interior that doesn’t match a cheerful or ‘fun’ exterior. They have Kei-cars as cute and toy-like as the Twingo 1 but step inside and it’s most often a sea of dull greys and beiges with rectilinear styling.

    4. ….And looking again at the Multipla’s dashboard makes you think about what went through Fiat’s mind regarding THAT center console. How messy does it look ? It’s as if they grabbed all the controls and just chucked them in a pile at the last-minute. Almost makes you yearn for the more Zen-like and Feng shui-ed FJ Cruiser’s interior.

    5. ……Also, as much as the door’s round plastic thing is cute, it’s strange to have an item like the handle, usually solidly anchored in the door card, look like it might come off altogether, intentionally or not.

    6. Not a car, but the Ford Ranger pick-up offers three different cab options, two-door, four-door and something between called a Supercab, with rear-hinged rear doors and “jump” rear seats:

      The Rolls-Royce Phantom and Ghost both have what they call “coach” doors, where the rear doors are rear-hinged. The previous Mini Clubman had a single rear-hinged rear door on the right-hand side:

    7. If it counts, the Hyundai Veloster Mk1 had a 2+1 door arrangement, where the passenger side had a rear-hinged half-door as well as a conventional front door. Unlike Mini Clubman Mk1, the Veloster switched the door for LHD/RHD markets. The Mk2 Veloster retains 3-door access, but all doors are forward hinged, and the RHD situation is unknown, as they have not made it yet.

  5. You are correct Richard, not necessarily unpleasant, but function must come before beauty. Since off-roading must be done with the windows open or your head will smash into them, those well-placed grab handles and perhaps the tubular dash top would be welcome for bracing one’s self. Also the interior of an off-roader should be easy to clean.

    Toyota interiors have never been known for breathtaking design, until the recent Lexus LC. Actually Toyota can do beautiful grab handles, they can do better than merely ape Mercedes (original highly lauded Lexus LS), or in the case of the FJ Cruiser, Jeep.

    For further comparison, here is an old FJ-40 dashboard, one which threatens to dislodge teeth when used as designed, again note the grab handle but I don’t find it as surprisingly unpleasant looking as it’s modern counterpart.

    1. The interior I critiqued is almost studiously Brutalist. That is what I find not only disconcerting, but odd and incongruent and totally uncalled for about it. It is like if one replaced the pyramid outside the Louvre with the Atomium. One is controversial, the other would be.. well, a matter of taste, I guess.

    2. The Lexus door casings are really old-fashioned, or seemingly so. And yes, nice handles.
      I really don´t find the FJ-Cruiser bad to look at it. It´s like a Duralex bistro glass: does the job, won´t break. Ignore.

  6. NRJ the Multipla door handle location is where it is due to the drivers proximity to the door. With three individual seats across an armrest on each side would encroach into passenger space hence the reason in relocating them. Ergonomically it makes more sense on a tall vehicle since the seated occupant has a shorter reach to close the door than a handle positioned mid way.
    My i3 has a similar position for the door pull which I find more user friendly compared to previous car which meant I had to lean to center when pulling the door closed with the armrest handle closer to hip height.
    I also think the Multipla dash seems functional even though it’s style may upset, it at least matches the rest of the car both in function and style.

    1. I was thinking the same thing when I saw the photo of the Multipla’s dashboard. Rather than make it look symmetrical, all the controls are sensibly grouped close to the driver. This meant that Fiat had to make different versions for LHD and RHD markets.

      I know two people who owned Multiplas, and both absolutely loved them and were sorry they couldn’t buy a similar replacement. I sat in the “outside” front passenger seat on a journey and the door grab handle is perfectly placed, although being so far forward (close to the hinge point) meant the door needed a hefty push and pull to move it.

    2. Hi D.Gatewood,

      I don’t doubt the practicality, it was more about the design and look of the plastic casing that incorporates the door handle, the speakers, etc… What I meant is that I think it looks fragile, like if you pull it too strongly it’d break, especially as the plastic seems relatively cheap-looking.
      I didn’t mean to dismiss the concept of the Multipla, which is indeed clever in many ways.

    3. Thanks for reminding us of the Multipla interior!

      I find the dash refreshingly colour- and cheerful and can only applaud Fiat for having had the courage to do something so controversial and wish the market had blessed them with something slightly closer to success. Yes the exterior is even more controversial, but if everybody just took themselves a little less serious, driving around in a car some might find very ugly but others find very cheerful would improve our overall wellbeing, I find.

      By the way, good Multiplas are already pretty much nonexistent, since their residual value has been close to zero for a long time. Not sure how much time still needs to pass for anybody to deem the collectible but if I had a spare barn somewhere (and too much spare change) I would put a nice, first generation example in the freezer – if I could find one. (I couldn’t care much for keeping an FJ Cruiser in that hypothetical storage though… IMHO it’s an entirely unnecessary car void of any worthwhile characteristics. The Multipla on the other hand has three seats in the front row which I find nothing short of ingenious!)

    4. There´s no doubt in my mind that the Multipla is the best candidate for “last original car”. Fiat had immense courage and were in a position to serve this up. I think the break-even was 40,000 units a year. Shame on the critics who internalised the views of conservative customers. And maybe Fiat should have made it to a higher standard. The geometry is beyond reproach though. I don´t want to compare it with the FJ-Cruiser as it is in a different market and in a different time.

  7. I don’t see the issue with the styling, it’s not a faux off road vehicle all fur coat etc like so many, it’s basically a Prado 120 series (Landcruiser LC4/5 in uk model designation) so fully capable of everything a Prado can manage, which is rather a lot and will last for ever if someone remembers to service the thing and chuck some rust resisting paint on the chassis every now and again.

    It’s just different is all, and we should be thankful that a maker like Toyota, usually the most conservative (though what they are doing to the front of current Lexus models is a mystery indeed, awful), saw fit to make it, though a pity none made in RHD form.

    1. The styling is fine with me – despite any impression the article might have given. I believe in this car in the way I don´t believe in a Land Rover.

  8. I concur with Richard’s view that ‘the Multipla is the best candidate for “last original car” as I’m struggling to think of another motor car post-Multipla that has offered such bold and original thinking, the original MCC Smart City Coupe from the same era being a possible exception.

    Things could have been very different though had Fiat not had the courage of its convictions. I was told by a very reliable source that a faction within Fiat’s management were nervous about signing off the daring in-house Multipla concept, favouring a more conventional mid-size MPV proposal submitted by Pininfarina; a model that ultimately became the Hyundai Matrix (Lavita in its home market) once Pininfarina had sold its rejected Multipla design on to the South Koreans.

    The Hyundai had the odd design flourish (the unusual dropped door window line having a certain appeal), though its front wheel arch treatment was messy and unresolved, and the model overall being quite bland. Indeed, as you are reading this, you might possibly be struggling to recall just what a Hyundai Matrix even looked like, which certainly will not be the case with the Fiat Multipla. If only Fiat had been as brave and approved its far-sighted 2000 Ecobasic concept for production at the time as well, its fortunes in the small car segment wouldn’t have had to rely so heavily today on being 500-shaped.

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