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First drive: Toyota’s new Kluger steps up

Re-design: The new Toyota Kluger is a sharper looker, and ticks a lot of family car boxes - if only there was a diesel.

Still no diesel or hybrid, but Toyota’s new Kluger is a sharper tool all-round

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Toyota logo21 Jan 2014

By MIKE COSTELLO

TOYOTA Australia launches its third-generation Kluger seven-seat family SUV in the second week of March, the first it will source from a revamped plant in the US state of Indiana.

Chief among the changes for the new-look model are a new six-speed transmission (replacing the outgoing five-speed), a more compact double wishbone rear suspension setup, electric power steering redesigns and a more upmarket and spacious cabin.

Toyota says the new Kluger offers a sharper driving experience than its practical, though stodgy, predecessor. We travelled to California with the company to check the veracity of the claim.

The new iteration can’t come soon enough for Australia’s market leader, with the outgoing generation eclipsed in the 2013 sales race not just by the Australian-made Ford Territory, but also the budget Holden Captiva 7 and the booming (five-seat) Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Beyond the aforementioned changes, some key items stay the same. A carryover 201kW/336Nm 3.5-litre V6 engine remains the sole powertrain option, with the US market’s smaller 138kW/250Nm 2.7-litre four off the radar and the US-market petrol-electric hybrid version deemed too expensive for Australia.

Likewise, a more frugal diesel option remains off the menu, a fact that no doubt hurts sales. The absence can be attributed to the general apathy to the fuel in a dominant US market that buys more Klugers (or Highlanders as they are called there) than anywhere else.

Still, it’s worth pointing out that despite the lack of an oil-burner in a segment dominated by diesels, the petrol-only Kluger has managed to sell remarkably well. Toyota Australia is erring on the side of caution with its public sales targets, with about 1000 units a month earmarked for us – about the same volume as the outgoing model.

However, we understand the Princeton, Indiana plant that manufactures the new Kluger/Highlander can ramp right-hand-drive production to 1500 a month or more. Australia and New Zealand are the sole RHD markets for Kluger, and the overwhelming majority are sold here.

Toyota will again sell front- and all-wheel-drive versions – the latter of which gets a new torque vectoring system that controls torque transfer between each axle. The old five-seater has been axed, while the US-market eight-seat option was deemed surplus to requirements.

Pricing will be withheld until the March launch, but expect the sums to remain broadly similar to before, in the range of $40k to $65k. Expect also the variants to be re-named GX, GXL and Grande, instead of KX-R, KX-S and Grande. This better mimics the rest of Toyota’s SUV range.

The new version is 65mm longer than the old one (4865mm), but is the same height and sits on the same size wheelbase and platform. All the growth is at the overhangs, and Toyota claims an increase in cargo space behind the third-row seats, and easier access thanks to a greater range of sliding movement on second-row seats.

Approaching the new Kluger (or Highlander, as our LHD cars were badged on the first drive), you’re confronted with a much more appealing and – almost – aggressive design. The more pinched-in nose, raked windowline, and body contours and creases gives the illusion of a lower, sportier car.

The large chrome grille has a line that flows through to the LED or halogen headlights (depending on spec). Meantime, the A-pillars are slimmer to improve outward visibility by reducing blind spots – this came in handy on some of the slippery tracks we tackled on the road to San Francisco.

Inside, Toyota claims to have given the cabin a more premium feel, while a plethora of hidey-holes including a 25-litre centre console (I sat my MacBook in there) and a clever partitioned space (with cool blue mood lighting) running the width of the car beneath the instrument fascia have been added.

There are more soft-touch surfaces on the dash and doors, while the layout as a whole is clear and logical. The upper-spec variants we drove had a high-resolution eight-inch central screen with a phone-like scrolling function (save it was a little more clunky) and US-market niceties such as satellite radio.

Features such as heated/cooled seats, navigation with voice recognition and live traffic updates, LED cabin lights, perforated leather seat trim, a reversing camera, a blind-spot monitor, radar adaptive cruise and a lane-change monitor will be available, dependending on the variant chosen.

Full local specifications of each variant will be revealed at launch time.

What impressed us was the spaciousness of the cabin, evidenced somewhat by the additional 83mm of shoulder room for third-row occupants. Your almost two-metre-tall correspondent had acres of room in the first and second rows, while more diminutive people (or children) have decent space in the third, plus larger windows to stare out of at the countryside.

The middle row splits 60:40, and the rear folds flat. For this reason, Toyota has axed the slow-selling five-seat option. Why bother with it? The cargo space is accessed on upper grades by a painfully slow electric tailgate, but a full-size spare is (laudably) standard fit.

Toyota, in a fit of ambition, says it has made the new Kluger a more dynamic prospect. But can it climb from the cellar to match the nimble Territory? Not quite, but it’s much closer than you might think.

The front MacPherson struts are mounted more rigidly, the electric steering has more weight and speed dialled in, and the torque vectoring system sends power to the rear exactly when it is needed (when traction fails).

In reality, the revised steering has notably more ‘meat’ than a Grand Cherokee or Hyundai Santa Fe, with a small dead spot on centre the only issue. The system otherwise provides an ideal mix of linearity and weight. Now that’s a surprise.

As with its larger Prado sibling, the ride remains generally pliant and supple, with the trade-off being a modicum of bodyroll and a propensity to run a little wide under throttle – albeit, better again than some key rivals. In general, NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) levels are top-notch, even on 19-inch rims.

Toyota’s local engineers may tie this ride down a little for Australia, but we hope not too much. It’s already a touch fussy (remember, we said ‘generally’ pliant just now) over heavier ruts, and we don’t want that being amplified.

Suffice to say, we had a fun time blasting the Kluger along some narrow roads with serious drop-offs. In the outgoing Kluger, we’d be perspiring and clenching out teeth.

Of course, it’s not perfect. For starters, the 3.5-litre V6 engine lacks a little torque at the top end. This is where the lack of a diesel is most evident. An oil-burning Territory, Santa Fe, Sorento or Grand Cherokee trounces the Toyota for torque across the rev band.

We averaged decent fuel use of 9.8 litres per 100km on a long highway cruise, though a poke of the right foot can push this out towards 15L/100km.

The six-speed transmission is acceptable its propensity to kick down and a refusal to hold sixth is a product of the engine. It’s butter in most situations, most notably on a simulated school-run.

We’re not fans of the foot-operated park brake, which feels cheap. Nor do we like the stability control tune. On some gravel sections, the ESC kicked in at a moment’s notice, and rather than taking a softly-softly approach and ‘nibbling’ the car into line, it takes a massive bite and nigh-on kills engine power.

This method of countering a loss of traction is a bit like taking a bazooka to a knife fight.

Still, as a fit-for-purpose family hauler, the Kluger is a very strong proposition. Its cabin is possibly class-leading in terms of space and practicality, it’s a sharper tool dynamically, its interior screams ‘quality’ (no issues with the US plant, then), and its NVH levels are subdued.

We wish there was a diesel, or even a more frugal hybrid, though. Then again, history suggests it will hardly stop Toyota from selling Klugers by the truckload.

While the new model lacks the Territory’s dynamic edge or the Grand Cherokee’s effortless cool, as family transport we reckon it’s a good thing.

But we’ll await our first Australian drive in March for the final call.

Likes:
Cabin space and quality, improved dynamics, refinement, sleeker looks

Dislikes:
No diesel or hybrid option for economy-minded buyers, stability control tune on gravel

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