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Car reviews - Toyota - Kluger - 5-dr wagon range

Our Opinion

We like
Feeling of solidity, cabin quietness, interior space and seating flexibility, improved interior and exterior styling, standard safety features, standard equipment, value for money, outstanding peak performance and economy, improved ride/handling
Room for improvement
Fiddly stop/start button, Grande's steering wheel climate-control buttons, out-dated foot-operated parking brake, lacks Territory's engine flexibility, lack of driver involvement

7 Aug 2007

THINK of it as the Camry of SUVs or an Aurion wagon by another name, as Toyota itself does, and you understand both metaphorically and genetically where the Japanese giant's second-generation Kluger is coming from.

In lieu of either a mass-market Camry or Aurion wagon, and based on the same fundamental chassis architecture (albeit with a longer wheelbase and wider wheel tracks) as both locally-built models, Kluger is to Toyota what Territory is to Ford.

Give or take a few hundred sales per month, that is. Since its launch just eight months after Toyota released its original Kluger, Territory has gone on to snare about a third of all medium SUV sales, and still attracts more than a quarter of all buyers in the segment.

Despite the arrival of cut-price but convincing Koreans like Holden's Captiva and Hyundai's Santa Fe, renewed hard-core off-roaders like the more expensive Mitsubishi Pajero and Nissan Pathfinder (all four of which can be had as diesels) and all-new "premium" entrants like the Subaru Tribeca and (five-seat only) Nissan Murano, it seems that of the soft-road crossovers, the Territory has carved itself the biggest following.

Just like Territory, Kluger is based on the company's homegrown model, comes with up to seven seats, and is now available in both two-wheel drive and all-wheel drive guises.

There are fundamental differences, however: Territory is built in Australia and starts out with rear-drive underpinnings, while our Kluger is built in Japan and is based on a front-drive chassis.

That will mean little to most buyers indeed, Toyota forecasts that about half of all Klugers sold will be 2WD (as is the case with Territory), potentially doubling sales and putting Kluger on the shopping list of more user-choosers and novated lease buyers than ever before.

And make no mistake: variant for variant, Kluger is Toyota's direct response to Territory, the model it aims to out-sell.

As such, despite attracting a higher import tarriff than the AWD version, the KX-R 2WD opens the Kluger range at $40,000 - $2000 less than the entry-level CV AWD it supersedes but $2000 more than the base Territory TX RWD - and is expected to replace the mid-range CVX as the top-selling Kluger.

Territory's price advantage is magnified throughout the range, because while Kluger variants are separated by $10,000 across the range, the mid-grade Territory TS is just $6000 more than the base TX and the top-shelf Ghia is just $8000 more again.

However, a $2500 premium for seven seats doesn't apply to the mid-spec KX-S or flagship Grande (they offer three rows as standard) and Kluger buyers pay just $4500 extra for AWD, compared with $5000 for the Territory AWD.

So Territory's $2000 base price break grows to $8500 at Ghia/Grande AWD level ($56,990/$64,490), which is significant even if it doesn't include the Ford's optional third-row seat.

From the mid-range variant upwards, all Kluger has to brag about (more power and lower consumption aside) are bigger (19-inch!) alloy wheels and a driver's knee airbag.

At base level Kluger more than compensates for its higher price by offering the undoubtedly superior passive safety of five more airbags, the extra style of alloy wheels, and the convenience of a reversing camera, cruise control, a cargo cover and five automatic transmission ratios instead of four.

It's probably academic, because Kluger's toothed-gate five-speed Aisin auto, which correctly changes down by itself in manual mode but won't upchange at redline, probably does the job as well Toyota's own six-speed auto that's mated to the same engine in the Aurion and Tarago. However, all Territory AWDs offer an even smarter German six-speed.

Of course, Kluger II fulfills class expectations by offering traction and stability control across the range (it can be diabled this time too, via a well-hidden under-dash button that switches off traction then stability control systems, BMW-style), plus the convenience of a rear window that opens separately from the top-hinged tailgate (both of which are lighter and easier to open and close than Territory's) and an array of interior storage compartments, including a cup-holder for each occupant.

Indeed, the convenience of Kluger's big wing mirrors, huge door pockets, absolutely massive lockable glovebox, brilliantly clever pop-down convex ceiling mirror (which provides a rear-view of all passengers), four overhead grabrails, remote audio controls on all variants, easy-to-read instruments and huge rotary audio controls is let down only by the chore of a foot-operated parking brake and a stop/start button that makes starting off a two-handed affair unless you have a Grande.

Oh, and the Grande's stering wheel climate-control buttons are too easy to operate inadvertently.

But there's no question the new Kluger leapfrogs the flexible Ford in terms of interior leg and elbow room - especially in the second and third rows, where there's more foot and knee room - as well as amenity, via one-handed third-row seat operation and a stowable (but not very comfortable) middle centre seat.

There's also a classy, higher-quality interior, which features a fancy multi-function colour 3.5-inch screen across the range (and a bigger one again in the Grande), and a textured animal-skin-look dash and door trim material that looks softer than it feels but doesn't prevent even the base model from being inviting.

But the icing on the Kluger cake for many buyers will be Toyota's reputation for reliability, the higher resale values generally expected of a newer model and Toyota's $150 service guarantee (for six visits).

Others will also be sold by the new-found feeling of overall solidity Kluger now offers, as well as the impressivly quiet cabin, lack of vibration and harshness, lightness of controls, general ease of use, superb fit and finish and interior design that makes the Territory's look old-hat.

After the blandness of its forebear, it's good to see chunky wheelarch flares, a wedge-shaped profile and a higher-riding stance combine to provide Kluger II with a far more memorable styling statement, even if it does resemble an overgrown RAV4. Whether it matches the Territory's still-fresh exterior is open to debate.

And if all that's not enough, Kluger II provides the added bonus of substantially better fuel consumption than both its predecessor and Territory.

We saw a cruising consumption of just under 10L/100km so there's no reason to doubt Toyota's combined average claim of 11L/100km, but most trip computers we saw on the briskly-driven launch drive displayed in excess of 15L/100km.

Of course the price for Kluger's superior efficiency is a higher-revving engine than the Territory, which produces its more muscular torque peak at just 2500rpm - compared to 4700rpm in the Kluger.

On the road, that makes the Toyota engine more frenetic, more reliant on gearchanges to deliver similar acceleration and generally less willing to produce the sort of effortless low-rpm response Territory drivers know so well.

With 200kW on tap if you're prepared to rev things up, there's no shortage of outright performance, and Kluger offers enough off-idle and midrange punch for most SUV drivers (Captiva owners would be especially impressed). It's just that Kluger's high-tech 3.5-litre V6 doesn't match the Territory's beefy 4.0-litre straight six.

A surprisingly testing and slippery off-road course revealed just how far an improved 206mm of ground clearance allows the Kluger AWD to go on road tyres. Although a loose, steep incline saw it unsuccessfully scramble for traction mainly up front, we doubt the lower-riding Territory would have fared any better. Like its nemesis, it offers a full-size spare wheel as standard.

But for all the advances in chassis rigidity, interior space, seating flexibility, cabin amenity, fuel economy, safety features, interior/style, and (500kg-heavier) towing capacity, the one thing Kluger II lacks is driver involvement.

Yes, Kluger's new electric steering system, tuned specifically for Australia, is surprisingly meaty, progressively weighted and responsive.

And yes, the revised four-wheel MacPherson suspension (also tuned specifically for Australia) is noisy on the rebound but delivers impressive levels of body control for a vehicle that weighs more than two tonnes in Grande guise, yet returns commendably compliant ride quality.

But give even the AWD Kluger a bootful on a loose, corrugated surface and, even with the stability control switched on, the previously well-isolated steering wheel begins to rattle and tug in the direction of travel.

In short, although brief moments of power oversteer are possible given enough anticipation on unsealed surfaces, Kluger feels overwhelmingly front-drivey anywhere away from sealed roads - and lacks the Territory's steering intimacy and feedback, and its more fluid, rear-drive-biassed dynamics.

There's no doubt Kluger represents the most serious threat Territory has yet faced and will make many families happy for many years.

And as a value-packed SUV that's chocked full of standard equipment and safety gear, that is highly refined, classy, comfortable and flexible inside and far from embarrassing to be seen in, and that's likely to offer cheaper whole-of-life running costs than Territory, Kluger II is a hard act to beat.

And as mere transport for the extended family, Kluger's light-duty off-road capability certainly makes people-movers like Toyota's own equivalent Tarago V6 seem expensive and one-dimensional in comparison.

But, if the the sports utility vehicle really does exist, then as far as mid-sizers go the Territory still comes closest.

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