What better place to put a serious 4WD through its paces than the narrow sandy tracks, dunes and beaches of Fraser Island.
Our arrival at Hervey Bay coincided with the news of a large bush fire on Fraser Island. The famous Kingfisher Bay Resort had been evacuated with at least one guest treated for smoke inhalation. Luckily we hadn’t booked into the resort which had been one of our options. We were on the Fraser Coast to shoot our regular NAFA Good Gear Model feature (page 117) and that included a day on Fraser Island.
Also on our list was to do a thorough evaluation of Toyota’s FJ Cruiser. We had picked it up in Brisbane from Toyota headquarters and the four of us (Photographic Assistant Stuart Macdonald, Makeup artist Kara Jade Bevan, and of course our model Kate Johnson) drove the approximately 300km to Hervey Bay.
The west coast of Fraser Island was still smouldering from the fires as we drove off the ramp onto the sand. We were fortunate to have our own personal guide vehicle for the day: Jason Hill (Hilly) and Ryan Simpson (Simmo) both grew up in Hervey Bay and have made many a fishing trip to the island. They travelled ahead of us in Hilly’s 12-year-old Prado.
I was surprised at how much attention the bright blue-and-white FJ received. At one stage on the barge, you would have thought there was a mini-expo going on, given the number of people converged around the car and the questions they were asking.
“You’re going to put her through her paces, are ya mate?” one wiry, leather-skinned old fisho asked. He and Mum were driving an older troopie with beach rods on the racks and the tyres already well deflated for the sand.
Our plan was quite simple: we would drive across the island from the west side to the east, taking photos along the way where an opportunity presented itself, and plenty more once we reached the wet sand and breakers. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get to beautiful Lake McKenzie due to the fires, but Lake Birrabeen was a good fallback. These are both perched lakes, one of 40 that sit up to 100m above sea level. There are actually over 100 freshwater lakes on Fraser.
World-heritage-listed Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world. It is well-known for its flora and fauna, in particular it birding population — there are over 350 birds species on the island — and its dingoes. Fraser dingoes are reputedly some of the last-remaining pure dingoes in eastern Australia so dogs are not allowed on the island to prevent cross-breeding. It’s estimated there are about 110 dingoes remaining on Fraser.
A network of sand tracks criss-cross the island, with excellent signage. I found it a far cry from when I first visited Fraser in an old Landrover in 1975. This was actually my fourth trip over the years, and I can tell you it was a lot of fun in the FJ Cruiser.
I didn’t worry about letting the tyres down as I had a sneaking suspicion it wouldn’t be necessary.
FJ On The Sand The first real test for the vehicle was when we took a wrong turn (at least Hilly did; we just followed). It was no big deal; we simply finished up at a picnic spot off the track and getting back on the track required charging up and round a slope of powdery white cream sand. This was not really a 4WD challenge; not if you know what you are doing. You simply select LOW RANGE 4WD, put it into 2nd or 3rd gear, take a run-up and power on up and through. However, I was more interested in challenging the FJ.
In a past life, Stuey was a motor mechanic and still has a passion for all-things vehicular.
“What do you reckon, Stu, I might just leave it in HIGH 4 and see what happens?”
“Blood’ oath, we’re not here for a haircut!”
We watched Hilly’s ageing ---Prado charge up and dig its way round the bend, the rear end sliding sideways back and forth. We knew he would have been in LOW range.
I took a bit of a run up in 1st gear HIGH range before hitting the slope…the FJ drove up and around the bend with about the same level of difficulty as pulling into a supermarket car-park!
“That’s awesome!” Stuey spruked…and it certainly was.
After that manoeuvre, we threw out more challenges to the FJ. Fraser tracks are narrow — basically single lane — and traffic each way can get busy. At least a couple of dozen times we passed 4WDs going the other way. Invariably, we would find somewhere to pull off the track or the other oncoming car would. Often when we pulled over, the other car would stop and ask about the FJ. Surprisingly, it was the only one we saw on the island.
We were there on a Friday and I imagined how heavy the traffic would be on weekends.
Back to the challenges, we got to the stage where we would stop on the softest, deepest sand on the tracks and drive off as slow as we possibly could in HIGH 4. Each time, the FJ would do just that: slowly drive off. It was like you were on bitumen. Stuey was beside himself with praise for the FJ’s offroad capability.
“This car’s just amazing on sand!” he’d say. “And it doesn’t knock you around getting through.”
We chatted about the possible reasons for its sand performance, concluding a combination of factors: the powerful 4.0L V6 petrol engine which pumps out 200kW of power and 380Nm of torque for one; the largish wheel-base (about the same as a Prado) being another; and its overall light weight (420kg less kerb weight than a Prado) being yet another. Clearly, Toyota’s high-tech Active Traction Control didn’t hurt its performance either.
FJ On The Open Road As we had the opportunity to drive the FJ fully loaded from Brisbane to Hervey Bay return, and all around the Fraser Coast for a week, we really did get to know this vehicle well. I found it a beautiful car to drive on the highway, and it absolutely ate up any road trains we had to overtake…just zapped by them. You’d expect this of course with a big V6 petrol donk. The front seats are super comfortable and driving long distances was both easy and pleasant.
The rear passenger doors on the FJ open out backwards and, when you peer in, the seating definitely looks like it would be a bit cramped.
Surprisingly, that’s not the case at all. Both Kate and Kara are tall (well taller than Stuey and I, that’s for sure), and they have long legs. I quizzed them for their honest appraisal of the seating room and comfort in the back and both said it was fine…not a problem at all.
The shape of the FJ lends itself to fitting large cabin windows which provide excellent, all-round vision. Taking into consideration the fact that the FJ is priced at what you might call “budget” for a 4WD, it has plenty of great Toyota features that you might not have expected. These include: cruise control, ISB port for phone and iPod, 3.5mm input jack for other MP3 players, Bluetooth for hands free calls and audio streaming, and all audio controls on the steering wheel. There is a multi-information display and an 8-speaker audio system with CD stacker and central locking. Six cabin airbags cater for driver and passenger safety, which is just fantastic, I reckon. There are rear fog lamps, privacy glass, rear parking sonar, and air conditioning. Bloody hell, there’s even a camera monitor screen built into the driver’s reversing mirror. That means you can look at the morror and what’s on the camera at the same time…brilliant!
The 4.0 Litre V6 petrol engine provides 200kW of power and 380Nm of torque, whilst suspension is double wishbone front and torsion bar/coils at rear for excellent ground clearance.
Seating is water-resistant with an easy-clean rubber floor. We had a lot of gear to stow in the back and the FJ accommodated our needs efficiently.