October 1, 1975, Thrilla in Manila, Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier. This has been ranked as one of boxing's finest moments in history, a 3-bout rivalry between two of arguably the greatest heavyweights to ever step into the ring. In one corner you had a flamboyant, quick, and well-rounded fighter that literally moved like a butterfly and stung like a bee, and in the other you had a bulldog known for his sheer strength and durability.
Around this time, and in no specific date, our streets in the Metro and in our provinces were littered with a hard hitting 'bulletproof' vehicle called the Toyota Land Cruiser, codenamed the FJ40. It was incredibly crude, brutally spartan, and immensely effective. It was the default SUV choice for those that opted to join the rise of the Asian car builders as they turned their backs on the cumbersome Americans. Gone were the stratospheric gas-guzzling engine displacements and in exchange were more robust and economical diesel power plants.
A decade after, came the rebirth of an automotive icon that needs no introduction at all, the beloved Jeep Wrangler. This vehicle was making waves in North America, as it united the people in race, religion, and prejudice. Remember, this was the 80's - the rise of cocaine, homosexuality, and big hair. As divided as the United States was with themselves, the Wrangler was the off-road choice of everyone - Black, White, Gay, and Lesbian. It was so diverse and popular that it appealed to the blonde babes who strolled in Rodeo drive, all the way to Pablo Escobar, deep in the jungles of Colombia.
Fast forward to 2016, and we have two of these heavyweights on our shores, and they seem ready for a second round of Thrilla in Manila. Of course, a lot has happened in the world since then and you can see how progress has come to play with these behemoths.
First, the Toyota FJ Cruiser. To understand the existence of this vehicle is to understand the reason why brands like MINI have revived the MINI Cooper, and why Volkswagen have revived the Beetle. The FJ Cruiser is closer in spirit to the Cooper and the Beetle in that it is a full-on throwback vehicle. The personality of the vehicle is no longer the same as the original FJ40, but somehow underneath all the technological advancements and wizardry lays the spirit of its origin.
"THE RIDE QUALITY IS SHOCKING IN THE BEST POSSIBLE WAY"
The design is fresh, modernized, but unapologetically retro. The sharp angles that could once pierce your date's dress have been shaved and tapered off, and I think it looks exquisite. If I am honest with you, the FJ was an SUV that I didn't want to like. In yellow, I thought it looked juvenile, and reminded me of the kid in class that always asked you what score you got in the exam, but really just wanted to boast his score, and never really cared about what you got. It just always came across as a bit insecure... until I drove it.
Yes, I am not a big fan of the interior. I didn't like the extensive use of plastic, the lack of a USB port, the dull Toyota head unit of old, and the lack of steering wheel controls. Also, because the interiors of the newer Toyotas have made a leap to a different planet, it felt like the FJ Cruiser was produced when PANGEA was still intact. However, I do like the immense headroom and the width of the car. By Manila standards, the FJ is a bit wide when you're inside, but I like it that way. I don't feel ordinary, and there's a good sense of occasion when you're cruising around the Metro. It's even better on the highway. The 4-liter V6 engine is mighty and silky smooth. It almost never wants to cruise below 120 km/h, and really, that's fine by me. Just be ready to whip out your credit cards in the petrol stations, because it's a bit thirsty.
I averaged at about 6.2 kilometers per litre, but I can't really blame it in this heat. The ride quality is shocking in the best possible way - it completely caught me off-guard. I can forgive the dead steering feel just because it rides as smooth as butter regardless of the road surface. It almost feels like piloting a boat, and who wouldn't want to drive a boat through our crowded streets? Don't let the smooth ride fool you into thinking that the FJ is a fad, because it is based on the Toyota's 'baby' Land Cruiser, the Prado - and that alone is all the off-road credentials you'll ever need. It is equipped with a 4x4 system with rear locking differentials. It has left me utterly surprised at how charming the FJ Cruiser is and I am in awe at its well-rounded capabilities. It's not perfect, but everything that I don't like are changeable or customizable.
"The engine is mighty and silky smooth."
Now, if you like boats, the FJ Cruiser is definitely for you, but if you like tanks, then look no further than the Jeep Wrangler. The Wrangler couldn't be any more different in approaching off-road trails in comparison to the FJ Cruiser. It looks like it just came straight out of Jurassic Park after an epic getaway from a Tyrannosaurus Rex. It's just one of those vehicles on the road that look better with streaks of mud and stale water. I have never really been one for off-road vehicles, but I really do have a deep admiration for automobiles that have a great sense of purpose, and in this case, the Wrangler just does the trick.
"It's just one of those vehicles on the road that look better with streaks of mud and stale water."
For starters, the Wrangler is a box, which means that it is as aerodynamic as Malacañang Palace. The windshield is flat, the panel gaps are huge, and it is powered by a 2.8-liter diesel that pumps out 200 horsepower and 460Nm of torque - most of which I couldn't seem to find. Don't get me wrong, the Wrangler has some punch, but you need to push deep into the accelerator to get it out, which is quite uncharacteristic for a diesel engine that says it gives you all the torque at 1,600rpm-2,600rpm. When you're driving at highway speeds, there is no escaping the excessive wind noise that comes in at about 90 km/h. It's a good thing then that it comes equipped with a bombastic Alpine stereo system to drown out all the noise. The subwoofer is so powerful that I had the bass setting dialled down to -6, lest I planned to make my organs implode. The interior is a perfect blend of rugged and luxurious. It has all the creature comforts that you expect from the Jeep brand including a touch screen infotainment system, steering wheel controls, adjustable headlamps, and the ability to remove the roof and the doors to go completely naked and ready for battle.
The live axle suspension of the Wrangler is a bit stiff, but gas-charged shocks and the comfortable seats mean that you don't get a tooth filling removal when you step out of the vehicle. To complain about ride refinement with the Wrangler is to complain to your supermodel girlfriend why she's no fun to eat with at a buffet. It is so purposefully built that while driving down SLEX, you sense that it wants to veer right and plow through the fields and climb on the boulders on the side. However, in this particular Sahara trim, we had the absence of locking differentials, so maybe climbing on rocks and deep mud wouldn't have been the best idea.
"To complain about ride refinement with the Wrangler is to complain to your supermodel girlfriend why she's no fun to eat with at a buffet."
Now in conclusion, this is hardly a round two of Thrilla in Manila, as their price points have a difference of more than a million pesos between them. There is a Wrangler Sport with a petrol engine that competes directly with the FJ Cruiser. This then is a celebration of two heavyweight off-road legends with polar opposite characters - both champions in their field. If you are looking for a smooth riding urban cruiser that's light on its feet and can go on virtually any terrain, get the FJ Cruiser. You really will not regret it. However, if you hate the asphalt and you are looking for a no-nonsense, heavy-hitting, off-road weapon and you are aiming to turn your war hero dreams into reality - the Wrangler is for you. It just has an x-factor that cannot be explained until you get behind the wheel. Ultimately, the appeal of both vehicles to me is this: There isn't a more liberating feeling than when the weather or driving conditions suddenly turn for the worst, and you are in a vehicle that will allow you to continue driving in absolute confidence when others would have to stop and turn back.