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The Black Sheep: Transforming the FJ Cruiser into Off-Road Ready

You’d be forgiven if Toyota’s FJ Cruiser wasn’t at the top of your list for relevant 4x4’s in 2020. Originally shown as a concept at the 2003 North American International Auto Show, the mid-size SUV featured retro-styling indicative of the iconic FJ40. Riding the same retro wave as the redesigned fifth-gen Mustang, PT Cruiser, Chevy HHR, and New Beetle, the FJ Cruiser offered competent off-road performance with the same bones as the contemporary Land Cruiser Prado, 4Runner, and Lexus GX. Toyota had a hit, and early sales were strong.

Toyota FJ Cruiser

When the mid-2000’s recession hit however, sales took a nose dive and never really recovered as the Cruiser sat largely unchanged until its final year in 2014. Looking at today’s automotive landscape, its almost inconceivable that a vehicle like this failed, as the automotive market is absolutely stoked for anything nostalgic and anything off-road. The FJ Cruiser deserves a comeback, and as a starter for an overland rig, it’s nearly perfect.

FJ Cruiser with Nitto Ridge Grappler Tires

Perfect Overlanding Platform

For owner Jamie Thompson, the FJ Cruiser stood out as a solid platform to begin his overland project. He stated that when considering his options, he priced out similar Wranglers and Cruisers at a sub-$20k price point, but ultimately landed on the Toyota citing the bulletproof powertrain and better on-road manners. The only catch was that while the Jeep could be flat-towed behind an RV without modification, the FJ did require an aftermarket driveshaft disconnect.

Modified FJ Cruiser

Suspension Upgrades

To begin the transformation, Jamie used a combination of a Rancho 2” quick lift front coil spacer for the front, and Icon 2” rear coils for the rear. Rancho shocks were used at all four corners. When FJ Cruisers are lifted, the ability to adjust caster is lost from the front-end alignment. A set of JBA Offroad upper control arms fixed that problem, ensuring that a safe, proper alignment was possible.

Lifted Toyota FJ Cruiser with Nitto Ridge Grappler

Bigger Tire, Better Off-Road

Utilizing the extra space under the chassis, the SUV could now fit a set of 305/70/17 all-terrain tires. He chose the hybrid tread pattern of the Nitto Ridge Grappler that provides the grip of a mud-terrain with the on-road drivability of an All-Terrain tire. A set of 17x9 Black Rhino Primm wheels give the FJ Cruiser an aggressive stance and black-out aesthetics.

Nitto Ridge Grappler on Black Rhino Primm Wheels

Functional Armor

To round out the first stage of the build, a Smittybilt M1 front bumper was installed with a matching 9,500lb Smittybilt XRC Gen II winch. The setup should be more than enough to handle recovery if the Toyota finds itself in any sticky situations. A rear bumper and All-Pro rock slides are next on the list to complete the functional off-road aspect of the project.

Smittybilt bumper and winch for FJ Cruiser

Although the FJ Cruiser lacks the open air design of the Wrangler, it’s a capable alternative for those that prefer an import base for their build. Compared to its Toyota siblings, the FJ Cruiser is more purpose built than the 4Runner or GX, and cheaper than a Land Cruiser or LX. It is also the only one of those contemporary options that is available with a manual transmission. With a mild off-road build like Jamie’s, the FJ Cruiser is a perfect starting point for a more extensive overland project.

Rear Shot of FJ Cruiser

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