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Car reviews - Toyota - Kluger - 5dr wagon range

Our Opinion

We like
Improved steering, handling and ride, roomier body, bigger cargo area, appealing dashboard functionality, better value
Room for improvement
No diesel or hybrid option, V6 thirst, some cheap lower-dash plastics, foot-operated park brake

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Toyota logo17 Nov 2014

By DANIEL GARDNER

looks back at this era of SUVs, the outgoing second-generation Toyota Kluger from 2007 ought to go down as one of motoring’s retrograde moments.

Even the people involved in its inception privately admitted their brief was simply to ‘Camry-fy’ the crossover. Translated? Make it dull but dependable.

What it also offered was torque steer, ponderous handling, a punishing ride and a big thirst. It still sold well in Australia, but Toyota’s principal aim was Middle America.

Now the only place Toyota makes the Kluger is the US, in Indiana, with the old Japanese factory now tasked with other projects. And the good news is, Toyota appears back on track.

Here’s what the engineers both at the CALTY design studios in California and back in Japan have done.

Basically they stretched the overhangs at both ends, widened the body and tracks, pushed the A-pillars forward at the base, added more creases and corners to the boxier shape, turfed out the old rear coil suspension for a space-saving double wishbone set-up, beefed everything up, stuffed it all with more sound deadening and put an angry new face on it all.

So yes, not exactly a complete re-do. But still more than a simple re-skin.

And as a seven-seater crossover, the Kluger will take some beating.

Getting into and out of every seat has been made easier by large doors with sliding middle seats employing a one-tug mechanism.

The driving environment is enhanced by slimmer forward pillars, an excellent relationship with all of the logically arranged controls and there a couple of smart details such as a handy vertical storage area for phones and stuff, a ‘conversation’ mirror and a central console bin the size of an esky.

Only some cheapo lower plastic trim detracts from the contemporary high-quality look and feel of this easy and intuitive dashboard area.

Oh, and for the love of Freddie Kruger why won’t Toyota consign the cruddy old foot-operated park brake to history?The second row is fine for three adults at a pinch, with ample ventilation and all the prerequisite cup-holders and cubby holes present, though the low and slim cushion may bring on numb bum for some after a while.

A pair of averaged-sized males demonstrated the now reclinable and roomier third-row bench, with all of the practical amenities to help make it a tolerable place for shorter trips. But – really – seats number six and seven best correspond with the age of the kids that Toyota has in mind to travel back there.

Still, a 40mm overhang increase and less-intrusive rear suspension means there’s now a less laughably meagre amount of cargo space with all bods on board, while folding each successive backrest reveals an increasingly vast luggage area, to the point where – as a two-seater panel van – the Kluger can double as a mobile motel where the cycle of life can begin all over again.

However it is on the move that the Toyota really rises above the lowest-common denominator engineering of the preceding snooze-mobile.

Although the necessary diesel option won’t happen, and while the anticipated petrol-electric hybrid might still be a couple of Iron Man film sequels away, the carryover drivetrain has been massaged enough for the 201kW/337Nm 3.5-litre V6 powertrain to at least remain in the race.

At last six ousts five speeds for the slick-shifting torque-converter auto transmission, helping the hefty two-tonne crossover cross the 0-100km/h line a little quicker and quieter than the old model (at 8.3s in the lightest FWD version), while still managing a circa-eight per cent consumption drop.

Like most Toyota V6s this one needs a good rev but is pleasantly vocal and sufficiently vigorous doing so, providing the necessary oomph for quick overtaking. All that noise-quelling gear might add mass but it has made for a more hushed environment.

Yet it is the first turn of the recalibrated electric steering that gladdens our hearts most, since the overly light vagueness has vanished for a steadily progressive and appreciably weightier system that feels far more natural than we had hoped it would be.

Toyota says Kluger III prototypes spent two years in Melbourne being fine-tuned with firmer springs, revised dampers and a modified steering system so that its SUV would feel far more dynamic, stable and secure (especially on gravel roads).

No, you won’t believe you’ve accidentally burned off in a BMW X5, and Ford’s Territory is still the class high watermark a decade on, but this is one worthy localisation program. Crook steering feel and ponderous understeer are no longer the Kluger’s calling cards.

Toyota knows this, for it gave the Aussie media hours of mountain passes to play on, with gravel stretches and some quite ragged roads, and the newcomer didn’t break a sweat.

The ride felt firm yet controlled and quite absorbent – even on the 19-inch wheels fitted to a Grande AWD we sampled – while the sense of confidence and control made us grateful for the efforts the engineers have expended.

Very encouraging strides made by all, for the benefit of all those families requiring a smooth, safe, spacious and quiet seven-seater wagon of decent dynamic aptitude.

With the Territory now turning 10, the Holden Captiva feeling downright old, cheap and tired, Hyundai’s Santa Fe still patchy in terms of accommodation and driveability, the Kia Sorento honest but also feeling a tad dog-eared and the Mazda CX-9 thirsty, the Kluger has zoomed into view as a leading petrol-powered large SUV contender.

It is a shame Toyota won’t bother about a diesel, and more frugal petrol powerplants ought to be a pipeline priority, but even then, on the strength of our first Australian road drive, the new 50-series stands as the most improved SUV of our time.

History now ought to look upon this Kluger far more kindly than the last one deserves.

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