Texas®

I never thought it would happen to me.

You see, I’ve had a lot of companions lately. Strong, athletic Germans have raced through my life. Elegant Brits have danced with my affections. Fiery Italian exotics come for a short passionate visit, only to be replaced by Nordic beauties. Strong, Midwestern wholesome wonders have stayed for a while and dozens of pretty little things from Asia have stopped by.

Sometimes I grow fond of them – rarely they disappoint – but each leaves me with an impression and when they are gone I long to see the next one. Sometimes I miss the really exceptional ones, remembering them fondly long after they are gone. Honestly some never leave much of an impression at all and I have to struggle to think of anything unique. I see so many, sometimes I don’t really get to know them as well as I should.

I am a little jaded, a little spoiled and generally it takes a lot to impress or get under my skin.

That is why I was surprised when this little one snuck up and stole a little bit of my heart.

Everyone has their own triggers. The things that make them go “Oooh!” For me, I have developed a desire for lack of drama; a low-maintenance, easygoing companion who accepts the burdens of my profession. I often have to carry lots of studio and camera gear with me. I love just happening on a country road in the middle of nowhere and turning in regardless of the road’s condition to see where it goes.

On my personal list of things I absolutely require in a partner is acceptance of my four legged friends. I have two large Labrador Retrievers who love to come with me on these trips. They shed, drool and get remarkably dirty when they try, so you really have to be able to handle them too. In my darkest times they are there for me and I would rather spend my limited free time with them than with most people I deal with. So not being able to accommodate them is really a deal breaker.

When Toyota dropped off the 2011 FJ Cruiser I didn’t expect it to hit me so quickly. It looks like a little Tonka Truck and the version left here really looked like someone at Hasbro should get behind it with a GI Joe package.

When they first introduced the FJ my first impression was mixed, I was somewhat disappointed that it wasn’t bigger. Now that I have been living with it for a week I realize I was wrong. Its size is just right for me.

Those who require more of a functional back seat may find the mini-UTE just a little too compact for them, but for me it’s ideal. The size reminds me a lot of the old Ford Bronco II, before it started getting bigger and bigger under the Explorer name. In some ways it is very much like the original couple of generations of Toyota’s 4Runner, equipped with rubberized floor mats and vinyl weave seats. This is about as low maintenance an interior you can find in the market and cleans up with a wet rag. This is definitely a dog approved truck.

The exterior of the FJ is rather unique as well. The wheels are pushed to the far corners leaving next to no overhangs which makes running up and over objects a breeze. It has a high step in for such a little truck but that also means the undercarriage has no dangling bits to obstruct, snag or drag.

One thing you realize when you are driving the FJ is you become aware how many other FJ’s there are out there. Some are totally stock. But I kept running across customized, dedicated off road FJ’s with beefed up suspensions, winches, off-road light packages and stout roof rack configurations. I gotta tell ya’: I like that a lot. It shows acceptance in a very critical market by those who take their off road abilities seriously.

This is a serious little off-road truck capable of grinding down soggy trails or climbing up rocky wash outs. This is something that is very important to me and being a true truck has its compromises, on road it is a little choppy but you can go places you would have to walk to if you were driving a Rav4.

On the highway, the rounded off cube is a little susceptible to gusty wind, you can feel it pushing the truck around and isn’t exactly a speed demon but I love the total functionality packaging, low maintenance interior and legitimate off road abilities.

It is not a huge truck and that is ok with me. In my world, the back seats would be superfluous anyhow, pretty much always folded flat for cargo and dogs. All of the interior surfaces have an industrial grade feel and look which work well with the overall package.

The FJ is one of those vehicles inspired by something from the past. There was a time that Toyota made these Land Cruisers that were blunt tools rather than the leather wrapped tall station wagons parked in the pick up lane at the Montessori school. It was intended just to be a show car or styling display for the auto show circuit as a “Modern” turn on the 1960’s FJ40. The old truck is still on the road all over the developing world renown for its easy maintenance and rugged reliability.

When the public saw the FJ Toyota suddenly realized they had better figure out how to build it

The demand was there from a public looking for a real S and a capital U in an SUV, rather than a mincing pretender crossover. My preference would be to hit the standard 4.0l V6 and manual transmission. I might even gussy it up a touch with an enhanced wheel package, but more likely I would go with the roof rack.

Pricing runs in starting at 25,900.00 and tops out at pretty reasonable mid-thirties. I was kind of chuckling when I realized the low-end of the price point was available in a two-wheel drive variation. I don’t really see buying this one in 2wd. Simply put: It’s just not appropriate.

I’ve been a fan of the 4Runner for a long, long time, but a couple of years ago the footprint of their go-anywhere-truck started to expand. In order to appeal more to those soccer mom’s and pretend SUV purchasers the 4runner gained weight, size and most notably price. The FJ has filled a down market slot that has captured a pretty sizable chunk of customers who might be shopping it and Jeep’s iconic Wrangler.

The Wrangler is a fantastic vehicle, but decades of build issues have tainted it a bit. But this FJ has, for me, a siren song that draws me to it.

I am smitten. If the guys from Toyota are looking for me on Monday to get their truck back, well, um… I will be back, sometime. I just didn’t want to give it up just yet.

Coke, Budweiser, hot dogs and baseball are among the most American of Americana, but in the automotive world the Jeep name carries its own status. As a “brand” I don’t think there is another car company that can pull its own subset of products like Jeep has.

I actually own Jeep branded luggage, Jeep branded coffee mugs and Jeep branded camping equipment, but the story of Jeep is a unique one. The new Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara has developed into a vehicle, which if you looked at in the vacuum of today, shouldn’t exist.

If you look at the boxy, semi-exposed block of steel and aluminum, the design is not very efficient in aerodynamics or capacities. The traditional 2- door Wrangler’s wheel base is too short overall to be comfortable for long road trips. The interior is utilitarian at best and styling is, well unique. I am not saying this as a put down, but just expressing my perspective: if you sat down with a pen and paper to design a modern off–road, capable of go-anywhere vehicle, you would probably come up with something looking more like a Hyundai Vericross than the slab-sided Jeep.

Jeep or JP for General Purpose Army Transport was born during war. Originally conceived by the Willy’s Overland Company and built by Willy’s, General Motors and Ford, hundreds of thousands of Jeeps were produced for World War II. (Thousands were actually built right here in Dallas at Ford’s now shuttered Grove Street Manufacturing plant that was located just south of Fair Park.) After the war, Willy’s tried to market the rugged little utility vehicles to farmers, ranchers and other industrial users. Due in part to the astounding number of war surplus jeeps in the market, they had a very hard row to hoe.

The brand persisted mostly unloved under Willy’s. Then, as many faltering brands like Studebaker, Hudson and others united under the brand American Motors, Jeep began to go through a rebirth with the CJ5 and CJ7 (CJ literally Civilian Jeep). Off- road capabilities, exploration and the minimal technological appeal of a Volkswagen Beetle, brought the Jeep into the collected American consciousness as the embodiment of cool, low maintenance, rugged and good looking. Think Marlboro Man on wheels and that is the space occupied as the original SUV before SUV’s became tall station wagons for soccer moms.

The gentrification of sport utilities started with the introduction of the Ford Explorer and Jeep Cherokee, and their success suddenly meant EVERYONE wanted to be an SUV. Jeep ended up, as a component of American Motors (AMC), part of a deal with France’s Renault. Then with the failure of AMC, Jeep was swallowed up by Iacocca’s Chrysler. As part of Chrysler, Jeep then became owned by Germans during the Mercedes “merger” and now Italians at Fiat. The venerable vehicle created to do battle in WWII has now been owned by two companies based in two out of three Axis powers it was born to battle.

During all this turmoil, Jeep suffered its own problems of identity, quality and reliability. It also spawned a subculture of rock climbers, desert duelers, and trail riders who gave birth to an absolutely huge aftermarket business. One of the largest aftermarket Jeep companies in the world is actually located in Wiley Texas. Collins Brothers Jeep, owned by Dennis Collins, specializes in taking off-the-shelf jeeps and taking them from good to great in extremes of off road.

The Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara, provided to Any Driven Sunday, is a four door version of one of the longest serving design strategies in the automotive world. It is longer than the two-door and, beyond increasing the capacities of the interior; the added length helps overall on-road manners of the Jeep. The longer wheelbase means a more comfortable ride, but with this the Jeep still maintains its rugged appearance and honest off-road abilities.

There are only a couple of vehicles in the world that can do what the Jeep does right off the showroom floor. With high ride height, squarely placed knobby tires and one of the best four-wheel drive suspension and transmission systems, the Jeep can only be outpaced in its capabilities by Land Rover products that cost twice the Jeep’s $26,000 base price.

With the Wrangler 4×4 you can pick your passion, the base Sport Package is stripped down pretty well and depending on how much the on -road comfort or off -road grunt means to you, you can choose the Sahara (base $29k) Rubicon (base $32k) or Mountain (base $29k). The Sahara is well turned out with satellite radio and convenience packages while the Rubicon has more rugged bits for off–road, and the Mountain strips off all the chrome for blackout stealth mode with the most rugged package.

Each variant of the Wrangler has its own personality, but the overall package of the Unlimited has very few compromises. It one of the few SUVs in the market that still is a truck with a full frame and is a little jarring as a daily driver. It is not perfect, but perfectly imperfect, if that makes any sense. I honestly can see purchasing a Wrangler Unlimited for my own vehicle. It meets all my basic requirements and exceeds many others. The Unlimited does not limit you to paved or even gravel roads, and it has the ability to tow. It has a rugged frame that supports my lifestyle of having multiple dogs and taking random left turns off the highway just to see what happens.

With any tall true SUV, you have to be aware of the elevated center of gravity. Making sudden highway maneuvers is not a good idea. It is noisy due to the knobby tires and the removable top is rather burdensome to remove, the ergonomics of the interior and rough ride will spill your Starbucks 2 out of 3 times. But for a classic bit of Americana, the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara package is a great way to explore this amazing country. Just make mine with a standard transmission please.