Jeep Wrangler Rubicon versus Land Rover Defender 90 and Toyota FJ Cruiser

The first four-wheel drive scrap began 70 years ago. Those miscreants are still on the prowl and they still wanna start something.

The big question is, what were you expecting? Admit it: you’ve already got an opinion on each of these three fourbies.

It doesn’t matter if those opinions are from experience, hearsay or the mere look of the cars. It’s just that opinions create expectations, but expectations aren’t always fulfilled. And fulfilment is perhaps the most crucial reward any of us is looking for when we buy a 4X4 that targets the heart, not the head. Like these.

They’re all retro-fourbies trading on various degrees of nostalgia, yet despite initial appearances, each satisfies a different heart. If you expect too much, or too little, from any of them, you’ll miss out in a big way.

Having said that, we expect performance from all of them. No excuses, no exceptions. If they want to play the retro game, they’d better show some retro spirit – some of the guts from back in my day when you could buy a real, steel 4X4; when men were men and kids knew their place and, well, anyway...

It’s that love of the rosy past that prompted Toyota to build the FJ Cruiser, a tribute to the company’s four-wheel-drive roots that appeared first as a concept car at the 2005 Chicago motor show. Being stuck in the past when its roses were wilting kept the old Jeeps and Land Rovers in production long past their funeral dates, but that’s turned out to be a good thing now that we’ve taken to watering the flowers of history. So what we have here is a thoroughly modern take on one of off-roading’s formative vehicles lined up against two thriving survivors of the genre’s earliest days.

The Jeep Wrangler is as direct a descendent as possible of the primal Willys Jeep that bounced out of the shell holes of the Second World War and started everything. It has evolved to become one of the most popular fourbies among younger buyers. Land Rover followed hot on Jeep’s heels as the smoke cleared in the late 1940s and this littlest Defender is as true to its roots as the Wrangler is to its. More staid and slower, it sells to a slightly older, more conservative market that’s keeping Land Rover’s production lines busier than ever.

So they’re not really retro. They’re the real deal. This is where the FJ Cruiser is so different. As we’ll see, it is not an FJ40 by any stretch of the imagination. It respectfully tilts its hat to its grandfather, borrows his funky old jacket, turns up the iPod and trips off into the modern world without another backwards look.

Which was when some of us had our expectations dashed, but only the crusty old buggers among us. If you’re 40-something or more and were looking to rekindle your youth in a brand-new evolution of the FJ40, keep walking. That’s not what the Cruiser is about. It’s aimed at a younger market that demands mod cons and ease of use, not character and crudeness.

Four of us headed bush in the three vehicles to find out more about them. There was GT and I, both in our 40s with a soft spot for old junk and suspicion for new stuff we don’t understand. There was Gemma, who’s not only a girl but a 20-something – and at the lower end of that scale. Brendon, our photographer, was somewhere in between with an artist’s slightly different way of looking at things. We were an appropriate mob for this comparison.

“I feel like I’ve just gone back in time,” Gemma said over the UHF, minutes after clambering into the Land Rover.

She said it with more derision than wonder. GT and I laughed. After all, we’d grown up with fourbies with long gear levers, upright driving positions, stiff clutches and no sense of urgency. I pictured her struggling to find the headlight switch, bunny-hopping on the jerky throttle, getting lost in the gearbox and falling behind as the diesel-powered little Tonka trundled down the road.

The Defender is a vehicle only the most eccentric 20-something would like. We older blokes, though, revelled in it. It was a trip down memory lane but without the dodgy carbs, worn out steering and rattly windows. We found lots of character to like and yet felt reassured by the newness and solidity.

Sure, it’s noisier when you’re up to speed, you can see bare metal inside the B-pillar and daylight behind the door seal, but there’s a sense of fun and adventure in every drive because you have to work at it a bit, get active and involved. No, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

There’s a rugged staunchness to the Defender. It lugs a 935kg payload and drags a 3500kg trailer, monstering the other two when an expedition calls. The interior is metal and rubber, just waiting to be hosed out after you’ve found your way from the ends of the earth. Ground clearance, approach and departure angles, gear ratios, suspension travel – they’re all brilliant. Add good off-road visibility, an effective traction control system, matter-of-fact tyres and those two live axles, and you have a vehicle so dedicated to bush work that it’s hard to find fault with it.

It’s also the only one of this trio with full-time four-wheel drive, a good thing in all circumstances. When traction gets iffy, lock in the centre diff. Its ultra-low crawling gear – low-range first has an overall ratio of 63:1 – lets it idle over anything, the engine’s anti-stall programming adding to the ease with which the Land Rover deals with treacherous terrain.

On potholed dirt roads, the suspension is firm but absorbs big hits that bottom out the others’ struts. It’ll bounce and pitch a bit, but comes into its own when it counts. But truck-like is the only way to fairly describe the ride around town and on the highway. The Defender is not anyone’s idea of an innocuous car...

The only diesel here, the Landie is undeniably slow compared with the two petrol-fuelled V6s. It has endless low-speed grunt, but its powerband is narrow and the peak is only 90kW, a handicap that we noticed when rowing through the six-speed box away from the lights and when climbing big sand dunes.

The former is a matter of patience, which comes with age, but the latter was downright embarrassing as the Wrangler and FJ blasted past the stranded Defender.

In the end, power rules. There’s a big benefit at the pump, though, where the Land Rover saves you heaps.

Land Rover doesn’t really worry about electric mirror adjustment and assumes you aren’t fussed about a serious stereo system, but you do get airconditioning and electric front windows, as well as sliding side windows at the back. Overall, it’s pretty basic.

Jeep has managed to lasso youthfulness and hitch it to the evergreen Wrangler, a fourby that’s like an outrageously fit 80-year-old backpacker. In Rubicon form, the Wrangler is about as hardcore as a 4X4 gets, fitted as it is with a disconnecting front swaybar to increase wheel travel and locking diffs on both of its live axles.

It has great approach and departure angles, and while it’d be better off with some extra clearance under the belly, there’s almost nowhere this one won’t go. When we activated all its good gear, it waltzed up, down and around without batting an eyelid. Yes, it was even better than the Land Rover, which is saying something. Low-range doesn’t take you quite as low as in the Landie, but it’s fine all the same.

The Jeep’s worse for ride comfort, though. The less well sorted rear end skitters sideways as the axle tramps over holes, lumps and corrugations. The Wrangler is part-time 4X4 but feels much more stable on dirt roads if you whack it into four-wheel drive.

In all other ways, it’s easier to drive than the British vehicle. Its power delivery, gear changes, steering and driving position are all familiar in feel and response. The 3.8-litre engine has good power right through the range. It’s not hard to see why these little Jeeps are so popular in the city, being zippy and manoeuvrable (we didn’t mention the Rover’s ship-like turning circle).

The carpeted interior is more pleasant, too, yet can still be stripped and hosed out without drama. Speaking of stripping, that’s one of the most attractive things about the Rubicon, which comes with both a hard-top with quickly removable panels above the front seats, and a fold-down soft top. You can have no top at all, too.

If you’re really keen, the doors come off and the windscreen folds down, though it takes time and doesn’t necessarily leave it in a strictly roadworthy state. For all that, safety is still okay thanks to the roll cage.

Jeep knows that music is a big deal to younger buyers so fits a booming sound system compatible with modern sound-file formats. Option in the big bass that sits in the back and you lose some load space, but it’s a price worth paying for many people.

We doubt many buyers would pay much heed to the fact the Jeep has the oldest driveline in the group, its old-tech engine overshadowed by the advanced designs of the Defender’s turbo-diesel and the Toyota’s quad-cam V6. It doesn’t seem important in this context, especially when its performance and economy are not dramatically different from the FJ’s.

Overall, the Jeep falls between the Land Rover’s conservative simplicity and the Toyota’s efficient modernity. It’s a fun thing that’s brought enough mod cons with it to deserve its success.

Now we step into the modern world. The FJ Cruiser is not an evolution of prehistoric fourbies. It’s a Prado playing dress-ups, with all the benefits that entails. Inside and out, it leaves the other two for dead in terms of civility, creativity, design and usefulness. It’s a bit old school in that it has – like the Prado – a separate chassis and live rear axle, but times haven’t moved so far ahead that we’ll knock it for that; in fact, they’re not a bad thing at all when you’re off-road.

We liked the presence of a lever to engage the part-time 4X4 system, as old-timey as both have become.

Against the two shorter, narrower and higher 4X4s, it’s only a fraction behind them when you venture into the rough stuff. It bellies out sooner and needs more front wheel travel to match them when you’re that committed, but we know how good a Prado is in the bush and this one’s got it in spades. It has a rear diff lock as standard, the electronic traction control is well calibrated, and rear wheel travel is good, so the FJ Cruiser will conquer terrain that would have stopped an FJ40. The thing is no softie. It could use a hill descent control, though, being offered only as an automatic.

Its modern design shines through when you look at how it combines good off-road performance with almost car-like behaviour on the road. Just jump in, turn the key and go, with no need to get adjusted or work things out. It’s as simple and straightforward as the best of Japanese vehicles. Pile in a group of friends and go anywhere in comfort.

So the FJ is no style-over-substance show pony. However, its appealing style is also its Achilles heel. The vertical windscreen is low (so low it needs three wipers) and well forward, so sitting in the cockpit is like being inside a pillbox. The massive C-pillar section restricts vision and makes the back seats a bit claustrophobic. Everyone seems to agree that the front end looks great, but from the B-pillar back it’s not quite right, despite retro touches like the white roof and the wraparound rear windows.

The suicide doors are a clever bit of work, incorporating the B-pillars and all their structural rigidity, and permitting pretty easy access to the back seats. But they beg the question: why? The answer’s logical: these backwards-opening half doors provide the looks of a two-door with the rear-seat practicality of a four-door. Which still begs the question: why?

Why not go for a short-wheelbase two-door like the Jeep and Land Rover, which, of course, are both also sold as longer four-door wagons.

We could talk about that all night (and we nearly did on this trip), but that’s the way the FJ is and, when you get down off your high horse, it’s fine and it works.

And it does look cool. And it does seat five in ways the other two never will. And it is much better finished inside, with a thumping sound system compatible with everything, rear-view camera, arm rests and plenty more. It has rubber floors and water-repellent seat fabrics, and while we wouldn’t hose it out, we’d slosh a soapy sponge about the place. The safety systems are well advanced on the others, the seats more comfortable, the interior more soundproof and there’s lots more to demonstrate why automotive development went ahead the way it did. And why four-wheeled dinosaurs went extinct – well, most of them.

Few off-road enthusiasts don’t believe we have a richer and more enjoyable world for the survival of the old Jeep and Land Rover designs, even if most of us wouldn’t dream of owning one. The Wrangler Rubicon and Defender 90 are unquestionably two of the best hardcore fourbies ever built, able to climb the most difficult mountains and cross any navigable terrain.

That’s down to their old-fashioned values combined with modern build quality and, on the whole, modern technology. But they don’t really bother with the niceties, particularly in Land Rover’s case; the Jeep does make efforts to keep its younger buyers happier.

Toyota has done exactly what it wanted to do in creating the FJ Cruiser. It’s a 4X4 for today, and for today’s young buyers. It’s funky to look at, has a lot of smart features and is well equipped at about the same price as its quite basic competitors. It wins on value, hands down. Just don’t expect it to be a reborn FJ40.

We could pick any winner here, simply by specifying the criteria that’d make it win: the Toyota for all the rational reasons; the Jeep for its carefree performance, functionality and open-topped frivolity; the Land Rover because a couple of crusty old blokes on test just liked it. But if you take a good look at them all in the context of their retro appeal to youthful buyers in the Twenty Teens, it’s very hard to deny that the original is the best. Go the Jeep.

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