Car reviews - Toyota - Kluger
Vastly improved dynamic ability; surprisingly supple ride (even on 20s); hybrid availability; seat comfort and flexibility
Room for improvement
Awkward centre storage bin; inadequate door storage; useless door armrests; no third-row child-seat anchorage points; GXL’s vinyl seat trim
New-gen platform, hybrid option inject RAV4-style depth to seven-seat Toyota Kluger
10 Jun 2021
IN GLOBAL terms, Australia has a unique connection with the Toyota Kluger.
We’re the only country outside of the US and Japan to receive all four generations – though we didn’t get generation one until its mid-life facelift – and we’re also the only place outside of Japan to call it ‘Kluger’ courtesy of Hyundai trademarking ‘Highlander’ – the Kluger’s nameplate in all other markets.
So generation four is quite significant for Toyota in Australia – not only because it debuts an all-new GA-K platform, shared with the current Camry and RAV4, but also because it has the potential to challenge Toyota’s own Prado 4x4 as the reigning sales champ among large SUVs.
If the RAV4 is any guide, the ace up Kluger’s sleeve is the optional hybrid drivetrain available across all trim levels, exclusively with a sophisticated ‘eFour’ AWD system and a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT).
Until Hyundai’s Santa Fe Hybrid launches later in the year, the fourth-gen Kluger will be the only large SUV to offer a hybrid model in Australia, even though a Kluger Hybrid has been available globally since 2005!
Where this fourth-generation model really needs to lift Kluger’s game, however, is in terms of seating comfort and functionality, interior quality, and ride comfort.
Now that the new Kluger/Highlander is a true global model (heading to the UK and Europe for the first time, solely in Hybrid form), its ambitions need to extend far beyond simply pleasing Middle America.
GOAUTOcovered Toyota’s new-generation Kluger range in detail back in April but to recap, there are three model variants (GX, GXL, Grande) each available with three drivetrain choices – a 3.5-litre petrol V6 with front- or all-wheel drive, and a 2.5-litre ‘Atkinson cycle’ four-cylinder hybrid with its own all-wheel-drive system.
The V6 is the familiar 3456cc direct-injection 2GR-FKS unit introduced in 2017 in the outgoing Kluger and its outputs are unchanged (218kW at 6600rpm and 350Nm at 4700rpm). As before, it’s tied to an eight-speed Aisin automatic, though the transmission has been recalibrated for improved driveability and is now offered with switchable Drive Modes (Normal, Sport and Eco).
The 2.5-litre hybrid drivetrain is much the same as that offered in the MY21 Camry, though the US-built Kluger’s battery is a Nickel-Metal Hydride unit rather than the lithium-ion type fitted to the Japanese-made sedan.
A 142kW/242Nm Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder petrol with both direct and port fuel injection combines with three electric motor generators (two up front, one in the rear). The 40kW/121Nm rear motor generator drives the eFour AWD system’s rear axle and everything is tied together by an electronic CVT transmission. Toyota says total system output is 184kW.
The biggest difference between the Hybrid AWD and the V6 AWD is that the Hybrid can send up to 80 per cent of drive torque to the rear axle, whereas the V6 maxes out at 50 per cent. However, the Grande AWD V6 adds torque vectoring to its rear axle and Toyota Australia says it’s this model – irrespective of wearing 20-inch wheels – that is most capable off-road.
While the V6’s fuel efficiency has improved by up to seven per cent (economy winner being the front-drive GX at 8.7L/100km), the Hybrid’s combined-cycle rating is an outstanding 5.6L/100km. Across a day’s driving, including hilly urban roads, twisty country roads and a spirited thrash back down the freeway to Sydney, our test GX Hybrid AWD averaged an excellent 6.4L/100km (if you believe the trip computer).
So what’s the new Kluger like to drive? If you expected a variation of the sweet steering, poised handling and supple ride quality delivered by the Camry and RAV4, then you’re on the money. The new Kluger feels crisp, surprisingly lithe and unexpectedly comfortable.
There’s a light accuracy to its steering, which feels better connected with the Drive Mode in ‘Sport’ and a feeling of the Kluger shrinking around you, transcending its modest expansion in size. The 60mm wheelbase stretch and broader tracks (25mm front, 30mm rear) no doubt play a part in the new-gen Kluger’s dynamic about-face but it goes far beyond that.
Our first stint is in a front-drive Grande featuring very American-looking ‘Chromtec’ 20-inch alloys with 235/55R20 Toyo A44 Open Country tyres (Euro models wear much prettier black 20s with machined faces and Dunlop SP Sport Maxx tyres).
Immediately, it’s the Kluger Grande’s ride quality that stands out. You wouldn’t call it plush, but for a big-wheeled SUV on fixed-rate dampers it’s bloody good.
Then there’s its handling. Precise, reasonably well-balanced and seemingly devoid of the front-wheel traction issues of the past – certainly in the dry – the Kluger 2WD demonstrates a newfound level of composure and refinement.
The naturally aspirated V6 isn’t bad either. It’s smooth, quite punchy (Toyota claims 0-100km/h in 7.5 seconds, or 7.8 seconds with AWD) and seems better at picking the right gear than before, though Sport mode is a furphy on curvy roads. As soon as you back off it upshifts, realises its mistake exiting the corner, then downshifts again. And keeps repeating that pattern, corner after corner. At least the Kluger’s tip-shift gate falls easily to hand and works well.
Adding torque vectoring to the Grande AWD version’s rear axle definitely helps this 2045kg keg-on-wheels remain poised in corners, though its overall effect is fairly muted. About the best thing you could say is that torque vectoring keeps this tall, heavy SUV in check during spirted driving and bodes well for the inevitable Kluger GR Sport version, providing it’s an AWD V6….
The Hybrid AWD is a very different experience. Our test GX on higher profile (but same brand) 235/65R18 tyres seemed to ride slightly better, without detracting too much from its cornering grip. But it’s the drivetrain that makes all the difference.
The 2.5-litre (A25A-FXS) petrol four is much more strident when giving its all, which is often at freeway speeds, yet it’s not unpleasant to listen to. In general urban driving, however, that silken battery torque mixed with the smoothness of the CVT transmission makes the Kluger Hybrid feel effortlessly modern and capable. It even matches the V6’s 2000kg braked towing capacity.
Everyone will have their own opinion about the Kluger’s exterior styling, though one thing’s for sure – the description of Kluger’s styling as “a dramatic new direction … inspired by James Bond – powerful and suave” rates fairly high on the hyperbole scale.
It’s reasonably well-resolved and more subtle than its predecessor, though it looks flabbier than a RAV4. Inside, however, Toyota’s aim of “strong, elegant, premium” only applies to some areas.
On the surface it’s pretty much there. The new dashboard carries over elements of Klugers past (like the storage shelf ahead of the front passenger and the thread-through slot for USB cords when phone-charging in the centre-dash tray) but it’s more svelte and much more high-end in its design and overall look.
Soft-touch dash plastics, a really classy steering wheel, beautifully clear analogue dials and comfortable seating make the front cabin feel classy. But the less fancy information screens and the rather fussy touchscreen layout detract from interior slickness, even though Toyota is moving forward in these departments.
You also should be aware that optioning the beige interior on a Kluger Grande pairs beige leather seat and door trims with brightly coloured (and polarising) chocolate brown everywhere else.
On that note, the GXL’s ‘synthetic leather’ upholstery is awful. It looks cheap and feels clammy – in complete contrast to the plush cloth seating in the GX and the snazzy perforated, cross-patterned leather in the Grande. A leather/cloth combination for GXL should’ve been a no brainer.
Speaking of which, there’s the Kluger’s storage. The huge centre-front bin swallows 15 litres but you’ll struggle to squeeze any kind of bag in there because there’s no lid – merely a sliding panel that leaves intrusive ridges on either side, blocking access. And the moveable tray inside is so frustrating to move around that it’s only a matter of time before it gets turfed out of a window.
The door panels are also below par. The armrests so far away from regular-sized passengers that it’s almost impossible to rest your elbow on them without leaning sideways and the door bins will only take 700ml bottles, even though Kluger hails from the land of the 44-ounce Big Gulp!
This design fail is repeated in the rear doors, though Toyota says they’ll take two 700ml bottles each. And admittedly you do get eight cupholders, though four of those are in the third row – betraying its potential three-seat capacity (as offered in the US), rather than the two-seat arrangement for Australia, without top-tether child-seat anchorages at the very back.
We also don’t get the option of second-row captain’s chairs (as per the US model, and several competitors like CX-8, CX-9 and Palisade) though the Kluger’s middle row offers excellent comfort and 30mm more sliding range than before.
It’s also now easier to flip-and-slide the kerbside middle seat forward (set up correctly for right-hand-drive) and placing another release on the top of the backrest means third-row passengers can perform the same manoeuvre comfortably. The middle row will also return to its previous position when slid back.
If you option the rear entertainment package, however, a circa-2007 Blu-Ray player gets mounted in the roof centre, which impacts on forward vision from the third row and requires different plumbing for the roof-mounted air vents (and a much smaller sunroof for the panoramic-equipped Grande). In an era defined by iPads and smartphones for everyone, it’s a weird anachronism.
Finally, luggage space. With the third row erect, there’s 50mm more length and 13mm more width for a 46-litre increase in cargo volume (to 241 litres). Dump the third row into the floor and there’s 552 litres beneath the standard luggage cover (which can be removed and stored under the boot floor), or you can drop both rows for an almost completely flat, van-like space.
On reflection, most of those interior attributes bode well for the Kluger, seeing it’ll be its passenger space and interior versatility that are most valued by growing families. Its substantial step-up in refinement, ride and seating comfort, dynamic ability and drivetrain availability won’t go unnoticed either.
Yet there are more than a few question marks concerning the Kluger’s overall interior package that jar with its newfound slickness in so many other areas. If Skoda’s tagline is ‘Simply Clever’, based around the surprise-and-delight proliferation of storage ideas, then the Kluger, unfortunately, needs a complete rethink.
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