Unintelligent Design

By Hannah Wallace August 31, 2006

In the past half-century or so, since today's early retirees eagerly bought Popular Science and Mechanix Illustrated as children, vehicle design has followed predictable lines.

Cars have become more aerodynamic, much like the sleek family carriers portrayed on old magazine covers. Air tunnel testing provided results computers could use to aid stylists in shaping airflow for better fuel efficiency and a quieter ride.

But there are problems today that didn't exist with older cars. The barrel shape of the sides and roof on many cars mean side windows curve up and inward. And after rain gutters along the roof edges went the way of running boards, the shape of today's cars means water pours into the interior-sometimes onto the occupants and most times onto power window controls-when a window is cracked open in a rain.

New instruments are sometimes harder to read at a glance that older ones. Some are a major problem for the colorblind.

While design has been mostly predictable, an unexpected trend lately has been the retro look. As buyers age with fond memories of yesteryear's vehicles, these consumers become smitten with the likes of a PT Cruiser or a VW New Beetle. Retro is a trend away from the egg cars of a decade ago.

Most people believe that Japan's Toyota surged to popularity as a copycat car company. Even when its top-ranked Lexus line was introduced, few saw the cars as anything more than cheaper imitations of Mercedes-Benz models.

Not surprising then, that when Toyota introduced an off-road vehicle called the FJ40 in 1950, the thing was a carbon copy of the basic American Jeep (the FJ40 came to America a decade later and was Toyota's top seller in the '60s).

But, over the years, the vehicle morphed. The FJ40 became the Land Cruiser and went downhill. The Land Cruiser at one point became a kind of Chevrolet Suburban. Yuck. Then a big SUV like the Tahoe or Yukon. Double yuck. Frankly, it lost its way. It was a nondescript box on any road or offroad.

But at the same time the Land Cruiser was languishing from lack of attention, other Toyota models were rising to the top of best-seller lists.

In 2002, flush with cash and success, Toyota assigned a 25-year-old named Jin Kim the task of designing a new youth-oriented vehicle like the FJ40 of old. Kim works in the Calty design studios in California. He's thoroughly today's kid. And he's the buyer Toyota wanted for its new FJ Cruiser.

To design for the future, Kim turned to the past. Once upon a time, the Toyota offroader was wonderful. Its slab sides and in-your-face front conjured up visions of crossing the African Veldt. Kim wanted to recapture that.

And just look at his results with the 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser. He did it.

It's retro all the way.

It can win comparison competitions with Hummer's H3, the Honda Element in offroad trim and the Jeep Liberty optioned much the same and carrying a similar price of under $26,000.

Yet all of these funky-looking vehicles have similar problems. For the casual driver not interested in frequent offroad adventures, these are not your vehicle of choice.

Look at the location of the exterior door handles on these sport utes. The worst is the Hummer, but even the FJ Cruiser has them so high on the door that small children can't reach them. Same for short adults and those in wheelchairs. There's no need for this, so why do it? It makes as much sense as putting the paper towel dispenser high on the bathroom wall, so water runs down your forearms as your crank. Bad design.

Worse, the rear doors are of the suicide (clamshell) variety. They only open from inside and a front door must be opened first. That means mom has to open the FJ's driver-side door so the kids can scramble into the rear seats after school. What fun in the rain! These doors, found on many trucks and a few cars, are dangerous. Following an accident in which the front doors are buckled, those suicide rear doors can't open. Everyone inside is trapped. Let's hope a fire doesn't break out.

The front end of the FJ is said to have been inspired by Kim's pit bull dog. That's believable. This is about the most unfriendly design that can be created if a pedestrian is struck. A pedestrian cannot be flipped out of the way by a slab-like grille. He or she is just squashed like a bug.

The interior of the FJ Cruiser is attractive, with metallic trim that makes it feel like you're inside a machine. But look around. You can't see outside the FJ well, can you? No. Visibility in virtually every direction is limited or blocked. The roofline is low, so you can't see overhead stoplights at intersections. The exterior rear view mirrors are large (one analyst calls them "earphones on a frog"), blocking the view of pedestrians in crosswalks as you begin a turn and of approaching cars as you curve left. And the rear view is dreadful, with a small rear window, headrests and a tailgate-mounted spare tire blocking your view.

Through the windshield, the main thing you'll see are three windshield wipers. But pull into a service station and try to wash the love bugs off your windshield. You can't reach far enough with this wide-body (worst is the Hummer, where you can't even check the oil without climbing onto a fender).

Driving the FJ in traffic was made difficult by a heavy-duty six-speed manual transmission on the tested 4X4 model. The clutch is very heavy and gear changes must be made constantly. Take heart: An automatic transmission model exists and it's hundreds of dollars cheaper. Unless you have a need for a manual transmission, get the automatic. Shifting an FJ is not fun.

That exterior-mounted spare tire, also found on the old FJ40s, is the bane of the Insurance Institute of America. In test after test, that institute has shown that backing into anything with that tire on the tailgate instantly causes thousands of dollars in damage. The protruding tire renders the rear bumper useless. This FJ setup might look cool, until you back into a pole (because you can't see anything from the driver's seat!).

Fuel mileage with the 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser is 16 city and 19 highway. The engine is a 239-horsepower, 4-liter V6 that's been around for several years. It should be reliable. There will be 46,000 FJ Cruisers made this year. Bets are that Toyota will sell every one of them.

The FJ joins a huge Toyota lineup of SUVs appealing to any taste and pocketbook.

Robert C. Bowden produces The Car Place, a Forbes Best of the Web selection, and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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