OJAI, CA – Loyalists may find the new FJ Cruiser pretty far out, as Toyotas go.

One thing is for sure, it's not a Scion – in spite of a boxy appearance that draws comparisons with the youth brand's popular xB model.

Toyota FJ Cruiser boxy, versatile.

Considering its grownup stance, this midsize SUV is mindful of a Mini Cooper on steroids. Despite its rugged demeanor and off-road prowess, it's kind of cute.

The 2-tone color scheme – a white roof, colored body panels – ensures it will stand out in traffic. Even dressed in boring burgundy, the FJ garners flirtatious glances from both men and women here in the well-heeled hills of Santa Barbara.

Toyota is hoping the FJ Cruiser will transition buyers from its Scion brand and snag rugged types who enjoy off-roading and “like to drink beer…any beer,” says Jim Farley, vice president-marketing.

Built off a modified version of the short-wheelbase Land Crusier Prado (Lexus GX) platform, the '07 FJ Cruiser sports a beefy 105.9-in. (269-cm) wheelbase.

The overall 75-in. (190-cm) width belies the FJ Cruiser's body-on-frame structure, providing a smooth, steady ride.

Styling exaggerates the FJ Cruiser's dimensions. Parked all by itself, it appears large. But sitting next to a Toyota Sienna minivan at a stoplight, the slight difference in height is hardly discernable.

The 2-wheel-drive FJ Cruiser is 70.9 ins. (180.1 cm) tall; the 4-wheel-drive is 71.6 ins. (181.9 cm).

There is no missing the FJ Cruiser's prowess, powered by Toyota's proven 239-hp 4L, 24-valve DOHC V-6 found in the Tacoma and Tundra pickup trucks.

The engine features variable valve timing with intelligence (VVT-i), lightweight pistons with resin-coated skirts to lessen friction and noise and Toyota's distributor-less Direct Ignition System.

A 5-speed automatic is the only available transmission in the 2WD model, while the 4WD FJ also offers a 6-speed manual.

The manual transmission comes with a clutch-start cancel switch, which allows the vehicle to start in gear without depressing the clutch. This is a useful feature when climbing a steep upgrade, especially off-road.

Manual models also have a full-time front differential used by 4Runner V-8 models. FJ Cruisers with an automatic transmission receive Toyota's Automatic Disconnecting Differential, borrowed from the 4Runner V-6 and Tacoma 4x4 models.

The FJ Cruiser has an independent, double-wishbone front suspension, which allows for 7.9 ins. (20 cm) of wheel travel. In the rear, Toyota uses a solid axle 4-link coil-spring suspension system, enabling wheels to travel up to 9.1 ins. (23.1 cm). Tubular shock absorbers and an anti-roll bar are employed both front and rear.

An automatic limited-slip differential, which is operated by an advanced traction-control system designed to allow the vehicle's rear wheels to grip when slippery conditions arise, is standard with 2WD.

An electronic locking rear differential with an 8-in. (20.3-cm) ring gear is optional on the 2WD model and standard with 4WD.

Standard wheels are 17-in. steel with a 6-bolt pattern; 17-in. 6-spoke aluminum wheels are optional. There is 9.6 ins. (24.4 cm) of ground clearance for 4WD models and 8.7 ins. (22.1 cm) with 2WD.

All FJ Cruisers have ventilated disc-type brakes and can tow a maximum 5,000 lbs. (2,268 kg) with the optional hitch.

On a treacherous off-road course featuring 4-ft. (1.2-m) deep potholes, the FJ Cruiser is a surprising performer. A quick flick of the rear-differential lock button gets the vehicle up a particularly slippery slope.

Even so, as with the majority of “rugged” SUVs, the FJ Cruiser will spend more time on paved roads and in parking lots than traversing the Rubicon Trail.

For this reason, Toyota has done a good job of making the interior not only utilitarian but comfortable.

Interior has color-keyed dash panel.

Seats are firm but not overly so, making a long road trip bearable.

Rear legroom is adequate at 31.2 ins. (79.2 cm). Front-seat passengers will enjoy stretching out a bit, thanks to 41.9 ins. (106.4 cm) of legroom.

Cargo volume is 66.8 cu.-ft. (1.9 cu.-m) with the rear seats folded and 27.9 cu.-ft. (0.8 cu.-m) with the seats in place. Rear seats fold 60/40, and the cushions are removable.

Interior materials are pedestrian: not overly flashy or complicated but durable. Seat fabric consists of five layers of water-resistant polyester in a dark charcoal shade, and floors are rubberized.

In the pre-production models tested here, interior surfaces are awash in a shiny hard plastic that appears prone to marring, but Toyota assures these parts will get a textured treatment in production form.

The dash is long and rectangular, with tubes running the width of both the top and bottom. The radio surround is color keyed to the body and, in models with the optional upgrade package, door trim also matches the exterior paint.

Notable exterior styling cues include the aforementioned white roof; a long, skinny grille with round headlamps; clean undersides and short overhangs; and silver-colored side mirrors and door handles.

To more efficiently clean the FJ Cruiser's short and extra-wide windshield, there are three wipers.

Taillamps are placed high, and the bumper is integrated with the body. A spare tire is mounted on the rear door, which swings out to the left. Also making exit and entry easy for backseat passengers, the rear doors open 90 degrees.

The FJ Cruiser's premium FJammer audio system is especially impressive. NXT SurfaceSound transducers convert the vehicle's ceiling into a speaker diaphragm and sound is pumped out to passengers from every direction.

The FJammer audio system is part of FJ Cruiser's upgrade packages.

The first level upgrade includes the convenience package that consists of keyless entry; cruise control; power side-view mirrors with image lights; rear parking sonar; rear-locking differential; active off-road traction system; a multi-information display featuring a compass, inclinator and temperature gauge; and the 8-speaker FJammer system with 6-disc in-dash CD changer and 400-watt inverter.

A ninth speaker, a rear subwoofer, is added in Upgrade Package Two.

Toyota's 5-star safety system, which includes antilock brakes, electronic brake force distribution, brake assist, traction control and vehicle stability control, is standard.

It would have been nice to see Toyota make side-curtain and side-impact airbags standard. Only advanced dual-stage front airbags are standard at present.

Pricing will be released closer to the late March launch date. Toyota says to expect to pay about $25,000 for a nicely equipped model.

The auto maker is calling for sales on the order of 46,000 next year and 60,000 annually in the first full year. (See related story: FJ Cruiser Sales Pegged at 46,000)

It is a safe bet demand will be greater than supply. And thanks to its relatively compact dimensions, roomy interior and eye-catching design, it is a safer bet the FJ Cruiser will appeal to more than just rugged, outdoorsy, beer-swilling males.

After all, about half of all buyers of the Nissan Xterra, a competitive vehicle, are women.

cschweinsberg@primediabusiness.com