Skid Marks

The great outdoors in the FJ Cruiser


The columnist’s modified FJ Cruiser climbs an off-road trail on Mt. Balagbag.

I’ve always liked going to new places, new destinations, and have equally enjoyed the journey getting to these new places.

In the past, these driving adventures always consisted of long-winding roads framed with beautiful scenery. But due to increasing responsibilities as well as changing priorities, I’ve had less and less time to go on long scenic drives to places unknown. That, plus the huge demand for SUVs in the market has also shifted my four-wheeled preferences and activities of late.

Ever since I acquired my Toyota FJ Cruiser two years ago, I’ve embarked on a long-winded tuning project to slowly modify, tune and evolve my rig into a capable, all-weather and all-terrain vehicle that my friends kid me about as a perfect zombie apocalypse mobile.

I’ve installed a Dobinsons MRR external remote reservoir suspension (to raise the FJ Cruiser by 60 mm), Hard Race’s front upper control arms (to improve the ball joint angle on lifted vehicles), chunky hybrid mud terrain tires from Dick Cepek’s Extreme Country line-up mounted on KMC XD Series wheels, an ARB under-vehicle protection/light-armor, a plethora of PIAA LED lights, a gnarly Opposite Lock front steel bumper and matching Opposite Lock rock-sliders, and basic engine mods (an exhaust system from Profab and air intake kit from AFE Power).

Of course, the engine’s ECU has been reflashed by DTM Motorsports to extract an additional 40 horsepower (with the additional bolt-ons, and switching to Petron’s Blaze 100 Euro V fuel) as tested on DTM Motorsports’ Dyna Pack dyno.

This FJ Cruiser in its “proper element”—Photo by Wesley Tsai

All these mods should make my Toyota FJ Cruiser much more capable especially off-road, but I’ve never actually tried it on difficult terrain. I’ve had a few short stints off-road, plus I had a chance to play with it on dry river beds around Mt. Pinatubo.

But an honest to goodness trail, even a light one? Nada. Hence, I’ve had fellow FJ Cruiser-owning friends poke fun at me, all in good nature.

But curiosity eventually got the better of me, and finally, I was able to pin down Beeboy Bargas, my fellow motoring scribe and a real off-road driving instructor and enthusiast to take me to a relatively easy trail on Mt. Balagbag, which borders Rodriguez (formerly known as Montalban), Rizal and the towns of Norzagaray and San Jose Del Monte, Bulacan.

We planned to meet up with some friends at the summit, have a picnic, admire the scenery, explore the various trails, as well as have Beeboy do some basic demonstrations of what my FJ Cruiser can do when driven by a capable, experienced veteran off-road driver.

We started out early enough, leaving Mandaluyong at 9 a.m., and proceeded to Quezon City via Payatas Road, and eventually to Rizal. The climb has become easier in recent years as the local government unit slowly started cementing the roads going up.

Beeboy told us to pack some food and lots of drinks as the weather could get very hot, being closer to the sun and its heat, which was quite a paradox since you don’t feel the heat due to the cool breeze and clean air up top.

We were also advised to pack dri-fit clothing, sunglasses, an extra change of clothes and towels in case it rained hard.

Halfway stop to the top of Mt. Balagbag—Photo by Wesley Tsai

The climb up Mt. Balagbag is roughly 700 meters or more, depending on which peak you actually settle on. There were a variety of popular spots most people go to, but we were headed toward a privately owned piece of land that had a nice clear view of the entire Sierra Madre Mountain Range.

From paved roads, the trail slowly turned into broken tarmac, then dirt, and eventually, very rocky narrow paths.

A variety of dangers exist, as the trail had been experiencing a lot of rainfall in the past few months. Some parts were very loose and dusty, while some had large, sharp stones exposed, which could cut up the tires of a regular vehicle. On some of the steep sections, a roll over was a possible consequence if you didn’t know how to balance and modulate momentum, as well as use the throttle and apply traction.

Of course, it was dry and sunny heading up, but the closer we got to the top, the darker the clouds got. If the weather suddenly turned nasty, our relatively easy walk-in-the-park trail could have turned into a nightmare especially for an amateur trail virgin like me.

Surprisingly, my FJ Cruiser felt far more capable than I thought. My only concern was its weight as the FJ, like me, is a certified heavyweight. I had to keep it in low-range 4WD and the transmission in L to be able to keep up with the lighter, swifter Land River Defender 110 Diesel that Beeboy brought along. Thankfully, we made it to the top without any problems.

A successful climb 700 meters above sea level, overlooking the metro—Photo by Wesley Tsai

We set up camp, unrolled my Rhino Rack awning and lounge chairs, and proceeded to have lunch, take photos and try out the more difficult terrain and trails. Afterwards, Beeboy took my FJ Cruiser to do some demo runs on the medium level trails, which were just a little too much for me.

It’s great to see the full extent of your car’s capabilities. For sports cars, this would mean going to the race track. For 4X4s and SUVs, going off-road is the way to go.

Also, with sports cars, you’re always trying to beat everyone by going faster, with quicker lap times and higher speeds. In off-roading, the camaraderie is greater as nobody is ever left behind, no matter how difficult the trail is.

I’m also glad that all my modifications really did work to make things far easier for someone like me with novice off-road skills.

Overall, it was a great experience to try my FJ Cruiser in its proper element, to be greeted by challenging, yet ultimately traffic-free roads (if you can call these trails roads) as well as breathe clean fresh air matched with breathtaking scenery.

We unfortunately had to cut our trip short due to commitments at home. Otherwise, we would have stayed well into evening to try out the other trails in the area. We’re already planning another off-road adventure soon, this time up north. Stay tuned.

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