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Car reviews - Toyota - Kluger - KX-S 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Silky and punchy V6, nice gearbox, pleasant styling, spacious and refined interior, Lexus-style fit and finish, plenty of practicality, flip-up rear window, easy third-row access, reverse camera, Toyota resale, obvious value for money
Room for improvement
Lack of steering feel, big-wheel ride quality, FWD torque-steer, foot-operated park brake

11 Jan 2008

PROGRESS is like the weather – it suits some people some of the time, but not everybody all of the time.

And so it is with both delight and disappointment that we sum up Toyota’s latest Kluger in “sporty” FWD front-wheel drive KX-S guise.

Boasting seven seats, this SUV sits higher up the Kluger (nee Highlander abroad) hierarchy, evenly just splitting the AWD all-wheel drive TS and RWD rear-wheel drive Ghia models in Ford’s still extremely impressive Territory range. The KX-S also serves as the replacement for the volume-selling CV AWD in the previous version.

Tough competition for the Kluger, you may think? Well, actually it is not a tough call overall: Ford is the going thing in this segment, or else save your dough and buy the cheaper Kluger KX-R AWD.

The KX-S is the model Toyota is hoping to lure BMW X5 wannabes with, since the large alloys and sportier suspension set-up promise to add some spice to the Kluger’s hitherto rather dull image.

The biggest problem with the FWD KX-S is its busy ride – a direct result of the sexy 19-inch wheels that the Toyota SUV wears.

It ends up feeling fidgety on anything other than the smoothest road surfaces. What should feel nicely supple and cushioned is actually bouncy and jiggly. All occupants noticed. The regular 17-inch Kluger II’s ride is far more compliant.

Another issue is the dead-weight power steering – which must rate after the current Hyundai Elantra sedan before its much-needed October 2006 fix as the unsportiest set-up on the market.

Compared to the surprisingly dynamic previous Kluger, this one’s steering has no substance. And since it also commits the sin of feeling nervous at the straight-ahead (particularly on loose surfaces), the driver is left correcting the wheel constantly but without the communication or feel of a well-connected tiller as guidance.

The upshot of all this left us feeling unrelaxed after a relatively short journey, while a long country drive had us wishing we were piloting a Territory.

It completely overrides what we know is an otherwise a dynamically well-sorted SUV, for the Kluger corners flatly and safely, never feels like it is going to run out of grip, changes direction eagerly, and has the safety net of stability and traction control to keep it out of trouble. Indeed, memories of the current Camry/Aurion come flying through. Which is about right, since this car’s chief designer did call this “the Camry of SUVs.”

So what is going on with the Kluger’s steering, Toyota? Adding fuel to this fire is torque steer, which ironically is one of the few signs of life from the steering wheel. This alone is enough for us to choose any of the AWD versions.

If you don’t care one jot about steering feel or finesse, then everything else besides the rather heavy fuel consumption figure of 14.9L/100km average (that’s Ford Territory) should have you lining up a test-drive.

In fact, if you work your way back from the 2GR-FE 3.5-litre 24-valve DOHC all-alloy 60-degree V6 with dual variable valve timing snared from and shared with the current Lexus RX350 luxury SUV, then you are in for a number of delightful surprises. Take the engine. It’s a 201kW/337Nm muscle of a motor that propels the Kluger quickly from take-off, drawing from a vast and lush reserve of torque to catapult you forward with fierce finesse. This is an almost ridiculously refined powerplant. It sounds good too.

We are unsure of Toyota’s obviously mean-spirited decision to deny FWD Kluger owners of the Aurion’s Aisin six-speed automatic gearbox. Toyota’s excuse is that only the five-speed auto works with the AWD gubbins. OK, but this is FWD. And this is clearly a no-brainer, since the Territory RWD only has four speeds while the AWD versions have the untouchable ZF six-speed gearbox.

Anyway it doesn’t really matter because the five-speed gearbox works fine, and mates well with the V6. We can’t help but think that the high fuel consumption figure might fall a little with an extra gear ratio though.

The gear lever itself falls easily to hand, as does the steering wheel, and all the controls, in typical Toyota fashion.

After a period of acclimatisation, the climate control system with its separate display window high up on the dash (that also contains a nifty little reversing camera, clock, temperature and trip computer functions) works well enough. There are even remote switches on the steering wheel.

There’s more than a dash of Lexus flair in the Kluger’s instrumentation, trim look and quality and craftsmanship – especially in the leather-clad KX-S. Indeed, even the equipment levels reflect this. Our car featured heated and electrically powered seats, a six-stacker CD/MP3 audio, a leather-trimmed steering wheel, rear climate-control and a sunglasses holder with a built-in ‘parent’ interior mirror to keep an eye on the kids.

All four front-most outboard chairs conform to regular comfort and support parameters, with ample adjustment thrown in.

The middle-rear place is only good for kids, but is tolerable anyway, and can be easily removed and stored in the high front-centre console that otherwise houses a bin and cupholder drawer if the centre row occupants only want to travel two-up in style.

Further back, and the third-row bench is probably better than most SUV efforts, containing enough legroom and headroom for your 178cm tester to find some comfort, helped out by face-level roof-mounted ventilation ducts, a cupholder, headrests and provisions for seatbelts to be stored safely from snagging entering/egressing legs and feet.

Top marks go to the rearmost bench and centre row seats and how easily they slide down flat into the floor, leaving plenty of cargo area.

Those fat A and D pillars do their best to hinder vision despite the inclusion of large, Mickey Mouse ears-style outside mirrors and the aforementioned reversing camera. We loathe the foot-operated park brake too. Overall, however, Toyota’s effort in creating a vast, accommodating, refined, quiet and appealing family-orientated cabin should be commended.

In fact, as a lifestyle family wagon, the Kluger II comes perilously close to being quite the perfect solution for most people.

It feels premium, looks great, is incredibly practical, and goes like a rocket if you want it to (although, you’ll pay at the petrol bowser).

But the dead steering and busy ride also speak volumes of the contempt that Toyota – purveyors of no particular sports cars anymore may we hasten to add – has for people who love to drive.

For this alone look elsewhere. Compared to its predecessor, the “sporty” Kluger KX-S displays the sort of progress we – as car lovers – just do not want to weather.

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