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FJ Cruiser takes on the Supercross

The plan was to drive an entire lap of the dirt track, a half-kilometre of trucked-in bumps and berms designed to make motorcycles fly.

  • Power supply for electric car charging. Electric cars charging station. Power supply plugged into an electric car being charged.

Chris Greenfield loves his truck. He’s loved the FJ Cruiser since he first sat in one at the Toronto auto show in February (though it was an ugly yellow), and ever since he test-drove the first one to arrive at his local dealer.

He loved it so much that he plunked down the deposit the very next day without even haggling over the list price and, 28,000 kilometres later, hasn’t looked back since.

Unfortunately, like most SUV owners, the great majority of his driving is back and forth to work in downtown Toronto, dropping the kids off at school in Milton (where I see him while dropping off my own children) and listening to the radio in traffic.

So when I suggested last month that he find out what his FJ is really capable of, on perhaps the most challenging course for an off-roader that’s available in Toronto, he was quick to accept. I suggested we ask Toyota nicely for a similar vehicle so that his would remain unscathed, but he was adamant that he drive his own truck. It would look better with battle scars, he said.

This should have been my first clue that the guy’s nuts.

We drove together to the Rogers Centre and onto the field, where the Supercross course was being constructed. The plan was to drive an entire lap of the dirt track, a half-kilometre of trucked-in bumps and berms designed to make motorcycles fly.

But as soon as we saw it up close, we realized it couldn’t be done. Forget the steepness of the climbs, the jumps were just too narrow at the top: the FJ would “turtle” itself, and if the wheels can’t touch the ground, there’s no way to drive it.

We could give it a damn good try, though. “If we go fast enough, we should make it over,” said Greenfield.

The track builders looked dubious, and concerned. Their jumps are designed for 200 kg of bike and rider, not 2,000 kg of truck and crazy driver. We were asked to practise first, on a half-built berm.

Despite all the commuting, Greenfield’s done a fair amount of off-roading in his FJ. His brother lives on the other side of Algonquin Park near Deep River and the Toyota has seen plenty of visits to the Crown land there.

“The first weekend we went up, a couple of weeks after I got the FJ, we went off-roading there,” recalled Greenfield. “You know it’s serious four-by-fouring when the road signs start having bullet holes in them. We drove on some logging roads and through a lot of puddles. I had my kids in the back and they though I was like Moses because the water just kept parting for us.

“Then we came to a river and I went in with my waders and it seemed to be okay. So we drove through and the water came up to the running boards and then just cascaded away to the sides… Now, whenever I think of an image with my truck, it’s that one.”

There was no water on the Supercross course, but even the half-built berm looked impressive seen from inside the truck and approaching at speed, clutching the grab handle and trying not to listen to the driver’s “yee-hah!”

We leapt from the top of the mound and landed hard in the narrow valley on the other side, thumping the bumper against the next berm.

But the truck rose up over it and flew over the next mound, as if it was driven by Ricky Carmichael himself.

Jeez!” called the track builders, who’d been standing beside the photographer at a safe distance. And one of them piped up: “That’s a hell of a truck! Last time I saw a truck do that, it was a Ford Explorer and all the airbags went off!”

The airbags. We’d forgotten about them.

Greenfield and I looked at each other, then looked down at the dash, where a red light was illuminated saying the passenger airbag was active.

“I think it knows when you’re off-road and turns off the airbags,” he said, without much certainty or explanation of the intuitive engineering.

We pulled out the manual and looked up “airbags.” There was nothing about turning them off, just an explanation of how they’ll explode in your face if the truck deems it necessary to protect you.

We got out and looked at the front of the truck. Each of the cosmetic plastic supports at the sides of the front bumper were now dented where it had been pushed slightly back, but other than that, it was like new.

Armour plates beneath and a high clearance had kept it safe and sound.

“That looked good — can you do it again?” called the photographer.

It was Greenfield’s truck and the choice was up to him. So we climbed back in, revved the engine and with one eye each on the airbag covers and the other eye on the advancing mounds of dirt, we let loose in repeated airborne displays of mind over matter on some of the lower hills of the track that were still under construction.

The bags never did go off, and at the end of it all, we parked victoriously and inspected the truck again. There were no more dents. It was ready to drive home to Milton, in traffic on the 401.

“You’d have to do some pretty fancy driving to set off the airbags in the dirt,” said Toyota engineer Larry Hannon later. He was curious about the FJ’s performance since we hadn’t told anyone at Toyota about this adventure.

“There are two sensors in the front and one in the middle, and they sense the speed of the truck, the angle of the impact and the speed of the deceleration.”

The side curtain airbags are apparently not roll-sensing — unlike many SUVs, they don’t automatically inflate when they detect the vehicle is tipped over too far. High-end SUVs usually have a switch to turn these off when you go off road. Instead, the FJ’s side airbags only go off when something strikes the door hard.

“It’s impossible to answer how fast you have to hit something to set off the airbags,” said Hannon.

“If you hit a steel bridge square on, they’d go off; if you glance off a row of trees, they might not go off. But if you hit something hard enough and square enough that they do go off, on the road or off the road, you’ll be glad they did.”

This was heartening news to Greenfield, who plans to cover many more kilometres on those Crown dirt roads in his FJ. He says he’d like to hear from other off-roaders who would invite him along on their drives.

“You know,” he said over a drink afterward, “I really love my truck. I’m a pretty practical guy. It fits three car seats side by side and the dog fits in the back and it’s a comfortable ride.

“If I won a million dollars tomorrow, I’d probably buy a sports car, but I wouldn’t sell my truck.

“It gets me from Point A to Point B and doesn’t use any more gas than my old minivan, but then on weekends it gets me wherever I want to go. It allows me to be someone else, and it doesn’t get better than that.”

Mark Richardson is the editor of Wheels. mrichardson@thestar.ca

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