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First drive: Toyota Kluger gains six appeal

Give us a Klu: Toyota’s updated Kluger will be coming Down Under with a facelift, spec update and a beefier engine.

Toyota’s workhorse crossover SUV scores updated V6 and more spec but at a price

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Toyota logo18 Jan 2017

By TIM ROBSON in LOS ANGELES

TOYOTA Australia has given its Kluger a shot in the arm as it faces down an increasing number of competitors in the large SUV segment – including from within its own ranks.

A new engine spec, an updated gearbox and revised styling headline the changes, which will be added to all variants in the range and are expected to show in Australia during the first half of this year.

Launched in 2013, the third-generation Kluger’s 2016 sales performance slipped some 15 per cent behind the mark it scored in 2015 with a total of 11,829 sales for 2016. Rivals like the Subaru Outback (12,207, up 10 per cent) and the Kluger’s sibling, the Prado (14,370, down 3.4 per cent), finished ahead of it in 2016.

“In the time that the Kluger has been on sale, we’ve certainly increased the offering within that segment,” said Toyota Australia product public relations manager Stephen Coughlan. “People are spoilt for choice, be it from our range or competitors – this segment has flourished.

“Looking at sales last year, Kluger was down a little bit because it was a few years post the initial launch and we had also introduced Fortuner. So perhaps there’s been a little substitution from people looking for a diesel drivetrain.

“But I think as anyone who’s driven this vehicle knows, it’s very, very quiet, its very passenger-car-like in its ambience and its well specified, especially in the upper grades.”

Mr Coughlan agreed that the Kluger – one of the first large SUVs into the Australian market built atop a conventional passenger car platform, as opposed to a ladder-frame chassis like its Prado stablemate – is still a relevant vehicle to a large number of potential buyers.

“We still find homes for a lot of Klugers, and I’d like to think it’s on the shopping list of most if not all people looking for a vehicle in this segment,” he said. “I think the brand cachet is still strong.”

He confirmed that prices would rise for the three-model range when it goes on sale in late February.

“You can certainly anticipate a modest increase in prices,” he said. “The new engine and transmission comes at a cost, as do the additional features.”

The update is headlined by the addition of the latest variant of Toyota’s 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine, the 2GR-FKS. It is the first time this engine has been used in a Toyota in Australia, although it is currently used by Lexus’ IS350 and RX350.

The 24-valve six-cylinder has direct fuel injection and a higher 11.8:1 compression ratio, giving the Kluger 218kW of power at 6600rpm (an increase of 17kW) and 350Nm of torque at 4400rpm (an improvement of 13Nm).

Australian-spec Klugers will not get the idle-stop system fitted to the Lexus cars and to overseas variants.

“It’s a balance of cost,” said Mr Coughlan. “We have 10 per cent fuel saving already, and start-stop would not have improved it much more.”

The new V6 is backed by an eight-speed automatic transmission that is also used in Lexus models, which combines with the engine updates to improve fuel economy figures by up to 10 per cent across the various grades, according to Toyota.

The all-wheel-drive variants, for example, are claimed to now use 9.5 litres per 100km, as opposed to 10.6L/100km, while CO2 emissions have fallen from 246 to 221 grams of CO2 per kilometre.

Front-wheel-drive GX and GXL models improve from 10.2L/100km to 9.1L/100km, while the heavier front-drive Grande drops to 9.3L/100km from 10.4L/100km.

All three grades – GX, GXL and Grande – will also feature a revised front bumper, grille and headlights, with LED daytime running lamps incorporated into the the headlight lens.

The Kluger’s tail-lights have also been swapped for LED items that incorporate emergency brake lighting, while a range of revised 18- and 19-inch alloys have also been added along with three new paint tone options.

At the entry level, the GX receives the new engine and transmission combination, as well as the alloys and body updates. The mid-grade GXL does add a few important updates to bring it in line with its competitors, including a powered tailgate and opening glass hatch, satellite navigation, DAB+ radio and a new 8.0-inch multimedia screen.

The range-topping Grande, meanwhile, scores further updates to its comprehensive safety suite, including panoramic camera view, rear cross traffic alert, front parking sensors and improved lane departure control with sway warning.

The Grande is the only Kluger to offer auto emergency braking as standard, with Mr Coughlan saying that Toyota Australia “will continue to push for it” for the rest of the range.

GoAuto tested the mechanical upgrades aboard a US version of the Kluger – known as the Highlander – in the canyons around the Los Angeles area, with the new drivetrain providing a pleasing improvement to the already competent performance of the SUV.

The more powerful and more refined V6 works well with the direct-shift eight-speed auto, giving the Kluger faster access to the correct ratio while climbing.

While there is a sport mode that holds gears for a longer period, a set of paddles behind the wheel would have allowed even more finetuning of the shifts – but for everyday driving, paddles would be overkill.

With 350Nm on hand from 4400rpm and a very linear power delivery, the Kluger responds nicely under foot when required, too.

The chassis tune remains untouched, and over the smooth, cambered roads of California, the Kluger is well behaved, calm and neutral, with good body control and a surprisingly quiet demeanour. Tyre roar is all but non-existent and the suspension controls sharper bumps well.

It’s also a faithful and neutral steerer, though the AWD version needs more lock earlier in the corner to counter understeer. The all-wheel-drive system behaves predominantly as a front-wheel-drive system, switching on its rear axle via an electromagnetically controlled coupling at the rear diff as required.

It’s no Prado when it comes to climbing mountains, but the AWD system and increased ride height over a sedan or wagon means the Kluger can tackle dirt roads with little drama.

While none of the vehicles tested in the US were an exact match for Australian-spec machines, the Kluger is a spacious, well-appointed wagon, with plenty of storage around the cabin including a huge centre console bin and plenty of small spots for mobile phones and other devices.

Australia will, unfortunately, miss out on an update for the US cars that sees a total of five USB ports added to the Highlander – the Kluger will need to make do with just one, along with a 12V charger.

The addition of AEB to all grades of the Kluger would be a welcome addition, especially in light of Toyota pushing the technology out to cars like the Corolla and Yaris as part of its Safety Sense package.

While final specs and pricing will be released in February, this mid-life update for the Kluger may help push it back into the limelight, as buyers who want a bit more urge and physical size will be well served, along with the spec additions to the mid- and top-grade model variants.

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