On 14 December 2021, Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC) revealed a spate of new EVs that it plans to launch this decade. In addition to mainstream bZ series models, the future Toyota electric car lineup includes some recreational cars, one of which is the ‘Toyota Compact Cruiser EV’ concept which is also called the Toyota LiteCruiser, given away by the text on the instrument cluster and rear registration plate. However, some of these EVs have hit a snag in the early stages of their development.
Toyota FJ Cruiser-inspired Compact Cruiser put on ice
According to an exclusive report Reuters published on October 24, 2022, Toyota has suspended work on the Compact Cruiser EV and several other models it announced in December 2021. The company is taking a second look at its publicly announced EV roadmap.
Toyota has put a team at work to formulate a plan for an improved version of its existing EV platform (e-TNGA platform) or a new architecture. The company may develop a successor to the e-TNGA to reduce costs and release future EVs at more competitive prices than the bZ4X.
Toyota’s production capacity will also need to be reviewed as EV sales are picking up faster than expected. Furthermore, the report suggests that the company’s production costs are not as low as Tesla’s, so it would need to rethink its methods. EV thermal management is another area where Tesla leads and Toyota wants to improve.
Customer interest in off-road capable EVs on the rise
There has been a significant rise in interest in electric off-roaders since 2020. Looking at the reservations some new and upcoming electric off-roaders are gathering—over 1 million (unofficial) for the Tesla Cybertruck, 90,000 for the GMC Hummer EV series, and 90,000+ for the Rivian R1 family—it’s evident that there’s a huge demand for electric truck models in the United States.
Volkswagen Group is already taking note and plans to launch an all-electric pick-up and rugged SUV under a new Scout brand in 2026. Stellantis is bringing a raft of electric SUVs under the Jeep brand, including off-road-focused models like the Jeep Recon. JLR’s looking at possibly two zero-emission Land Rover Defender models, a BEV and a hydrogen FCEV. Its posh Range Rover Electric and Range Rover Sport Electric SUVs due in 2024 would also be capable on the trail. The same year, Mercedes-Benz Group plans to release the all-electric Mercedes EQG with high-density batteries.
B-SUV concept designed in Europe
In an interview with Auto&Design magazine, Simon Humphries, Design Senior General Manager, Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC), said that the company designed this model at ED2, its European design center located near Nice, France. Humphries said that the differences between Europe, Asia, and the U.S. have significantly reduced in the last two decades. A small B-SUV like this concept could work well in Europe and Asia as well as the U.S. and Canada.
A boxy body, upright A-pillars, clamshell bonnet, flat roof, large windows, beefy wheel arches, and chunky bumpers and rocker panels convey the ruggedness of the concept. Toyota says that it borrows a few styling cues from the first-gen Land Cruiser, including its off-roader silhouette and simple, strong body sections. Like many special off-road-focused Toyota models, including the FJ Cruiser and the new Land Cruiser 300 GR Sport and Tundra TRD Pro, the Compact Cruiser EV features a classic brand logo with the Toyota wordmark in block letters at the front.
However, this new model couldn’t have led to a direct Toyota FJ Cruiser successor, with its size and ‘Lite’ in its name indicating it is not as capable on the trail.
The target customers of the Toyota Compact Cruiser EV would be young professionals in urban areas who enjoy outdoor adventures like skiing, surfing, hiking, camping, and more. Based on these popular outdoor leisure pursuits, Toyota has imagined the Compact Cruiser EV in several accessorized versions. The small electric SUV could appeal to even young people like students looking for their first vehicle who are not that outdoorsy but wish to characterize themselves as someone who stands out.
Pros & cons of a small AWD SUV
Affordable: The Suzuki Jimny is a testament to the fact that many off-roading enthusiasts and adventurers prefer small AWD SUVs. For first-time customers, a small AWD SUV offers a great start at a low price. It’s a good platform to acquire off-roading skills without overspending on something like the Rivian R1S or the GMC Hummer EV SUV. Plus, many customers may not even need large, serious off-roaders. A small AWD SUV could be sufficient for their basic off-roading needs, and easy to maintain.
Visibility: In addition to being affordable, they provide a good view of the road ahead because of their small footprint and higher seating position.
Urban mobility: In cities and towns, a small AWD SUV is easy to drive and park. Narrow streets, tight parking spots, and busy areas are easily manageable when the vehicle has a small footprint.
Limited off-roading capability: Small dimensions may not allow packing the most sophisticated powertrain and off-roading hardware.
Limited range: There might not be enough space to fit a large battery pack, meaning traveling long distances for adventures could be challenging in places where the charging infrastructure is basic.
The interior design of the Toyota Compact Cruiser EV is in line with its rugged and old-school exterior, but it’s contemporary wherever one would expect. A fully digital instrument cluster and a large floating touchscreen infotainment system are mounted on a single panel. The infotainment system appears to have a split-screen function, with a small preview of the navigation visible in the upper left corner and the rest of the screen area available for other features, like music, for instance.
The horizontal dashboard appears to feature a wide, slim air vent. A scale model of the concept sits as a decor piece in the middle of the dashboard. The center console is ergonomically placed, and it looks like a floating panel, which hints at free cabin space for a storage compartment beneath. Another interior highlight is a chunky two-spoke multifunction steering wheel with flattened top and bottom spokes. The image below shows white seats with wide headrests and orange inserts, and orange door pads as well.
Toyota suggests that the LiteCruiser will be a conversion of an ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) model, where an architecture that is designed for a gas-powered vehicle is repurposed to house the battery and motor. Humphries had this to say while a video of Toyota’s lifestyle EV concepts, including the Compact Cruiser EV, was played in the background:
We believe that truly good products create new experiences for the customer, enhancing their chosen lifestyle directions. From that point of view, each electric vehicle should be unique and special, not only those on dedicated platforms but also those related to existing models.Simon Humphries, Design Senior General Manager, Toyota Motor Corporation (Media Briefing on Battery EV Strategies, December 14, 2021)
Going by the Reuters report, Toyota may have second thoughts about relying on modified ICE platforms for EVs. The company may take the route of a dedicated platform and configuration for its future EVs, which we should learn about in 2023.
ICEV-BEV platform conversion pros and cons
Low-cost: Converting an internal combustion engine vehicle platform into a battery electric vehicle platform involves low development and manufacturing investment. It’s especially advantageous in entry-level models in which price is a determining factor for their success.
Faster development: Modifying an ICEV platform to build an EV on it could be faster than developing a bespoke EV platform from the ground up. The manufacturer is able to launch the electric variant within a couple of years, and can use the same production line.
Technical limitations: Leveraging EV technologies to their fullest capabilities is possible only with a bespoke EV platform. For example, an ICE platform may not allow fitting the largest possible battery pack, a multi-motor powertrain or a wireless charging module.
Space: An ICE vehicle platform modified for an EV would typically not allow as much cabin space as a bespoke EV platform. It has a provision for an engine and parts like fuel tank and exhaust pipe which are unnecessary in an EV.
Not future-proof: A modified platform may have a limited life when it comes to adopting new technologies compared to a new platform developed especially for electric vehicles.
The FJ Cruiser was designed and developed as a basic, capable and affordable off-roader that specifically targeted serious off-roaders. If some of these hallmarks are preserved, the Toyota Compact Cruiser EV’s production model could be a formidable rival to the Jeep Renegade EV that will reach dealers in 2026. The LiteCruiser could be something that’s great for urban driving but also accommodates the occasional off-road adventure. TMC hasn’t revealed the exact release date or product details yet.
The Reuters report suggests that there will be a delay in the execution of the plan announced in 2021 and thus it might not launch a zero-emissions mini off-roader/Electric FJ Cruiser before the decade’s second half.
The FJ Cruiser has created many memories in the U.S.
Despite having been discontinued back in 2014, the official Toyota sales data reveals that 1 unit of the FJ Cruiser was sold in 2021 in the United States. This puts the compact SUV in the category of ‘zombie cars’ sold by dealerships long after the manufacturers discontinue the vehicle. However, the used car market for the 2014 FJ Cruiser in the U.S. is strong, with the SUV being offered at an average price of around $40,000 with about 80,000 miles on the odometer, as seen on iseecars.com. For comparison, the starting price for the Toyota FJ Cruiser in 2014 was $27,680.
However, despite its sales failure, FJ Cruiser owners have many memorable stories. Here’s a special one indeed. An FJ Cruiser owner in North America is about to clock 1 million kilometers (621,000 miles) on his SUV with the help of some mechanics in Airdrie, a city in Canada, according to Driving.ca. Chris Dekker, the owner of the garage maintaining Postmedia photographer Mike Drew’s FJ Cruiser, says that the engine’s health is better than “vehicles with a quarter of the mileage.”
Moreover, in JD Power’s dependability score (PDS) for SUVs from 2014 and 2015, the FJ Cruiser scored an impressive 84. JD Power asked thousands of owners how their SUV performed after three years of ownership, and the rating was based on a scale of issues per 100 vehicles (a score of 100 means at least one issue per vehicle). A score of 84 means FJ Cruiser had less than one problem on average after 90 days of usage. Simply put, the FJ Cruiser is reliable.
In September 2011, Motor Trend‘s road testers reported their collective admiration for the FJ Cruiser. An MT journalist said the FJ Cruiser was for buyers who desired the “capability of the Jeep Wrangler, but the civility of a modern SUV.” Despite its ergonomic shortcomings, it has serious off-road capabilities. It has an inclinometer, analog compass, a water-resistant floor, and a ladder-frame chassis with good ride quality. Another editor quoted that everything about the SUV was silly, yet it remained highly desirable in its heydays.
Does Toyota still make the FJ Cruiser?
If you think that the FJ Cruiser has been axed, well, that’s not the case. The SUV is made alongside the Toyota Prado at the Hino Motors, Ltd. Hamura Plant in Japan, from where it is exported. It still appears on Toyota Middle East’s website, and it’s also available in South Africa and the Philippines.
It’s inevitable: the legendary FJ series from Toyota will soon meet its end as customers migrate to newer and more efficient trucks. However, it’s possible that its influence lingers in Toyota dealer showrooms in the form of a small electric SUV that appeals to amateur off-roaders and city dwellers who want an electric SUV that’s rugged and classical-looking compared to typical crossovers.
While Toyota appears to be taking its time with EVs, if an Electric FJ Cruiser reprise is approved, it could be an interesting alternative to a Jeep Recon or Renegade EV.
Featured Image Source: Noriaki Mitsuhashi/N-RAK PHOTO AGENCY