Heart of the mat­ter

Toy­ota’s up­dated seven-seater has more grunt but uses less fuel

Mercury (Hobart) - Motoring - - FIRST DRIVE - RICHARD BLACK­BURN CARS­GUIDE EDI­TOR richard.black­burn@news.com.au

MOST peo­ple credit Ford’s Ter­ri­tory with mak­ing the seven-seater SUV fash­ion­able but it was Toy­ota’s Kluger that kicked off the craze in late 2003.

At the time, more than one in four SUVs sold were Toy­otas. But with the ex­plo­sion in soft­roader sales came a rush of new com­peti­tors and as a re­sult the Ja­panese brand’s dom­i­nance has been eroded.

De­spite a new model in 2014, Kluger sales fell last year and the com­pany has re­acted with a midlife facelift that fo­cuses on a re­vised petrol en­gine and new eight-speed trans­mis­sion — there’s still no sign of a more eco­nom­i­cal diesel ver­sion.

There are sub­tle ex­te­rior and in­te­rior styling changes but dis­ap­point­ingly the facelift doesn’t in­clude a safety up­grade, de­spite the ar­rival of Mazda’s CX-9 which comes loaded with the lat­est col­li­sion avoid­ance tech­nol­ogy.

The 3.5-litre V6, which was never short of grunt, gains di­rect-in­jec­tion tech­nol­ogy that pushes the power and torque out­puts up 17kW and 13Nm to a healthy 218kW and 350Nm.

De­spite the ex­tra power, the Kluger is more fuel-ef­fi­cient than be­fore — con­sump­tion is down in some mod­els by more than 10 per cent. The en­try level 2WD model uses 9.1L/100km.

The mid­dle of the range GXL gains sat­nav, a big­ger cen­tre screen, dig­i­tal ra­dio and a power tail­gate, while the top-spec Grande is now fit­ted with a bird­s­eye view park­ing cam­era, rear cross traf­fic alert for re­vers­ing out of park­ing spots and lane departure warn­ing that steers the car back into its lane.

The changes are ac­com­pa­nied by price rises that are across the board.

The front-drive GX is up $1360 to $43,550, the GXL rises $2360 to $53,550 and the Grande tops out at $65,935, an $1860 rise.

All-wheel drive adds an­other $4000 to the price tag, which puts it on par with Mazda but is ex­pen­sive com­pared to the Kia Sorento and Hyundai Santa Fe which cost an ex­tra $3500 and $3000 re­spec­tively and come with a more ex­pen­sive diesel en­gine.

ON THE ROAD

You could ar­gue Toy­ota has fo­cused on the two things that didn’t re­ally need im­prov­ing, the en­gine and trans­mis­sion.

The 3.5-litre V6 has al­ways been a smooth, pow­er­ful per­former while the pre­vi­ous six-speed trans­mis­sion shifted swiftly and smoothly.

There’s no doubt the new com­bi­na­tion is an im­prove­ment, though. The en­gine feels a lit­tle stronger and the eight-speed helps it make light work of up­hill free­way stretches — you barely no­tice it kick­ing down a gear.

It does ap­pear to be eas­ier on the fuel on high­way runs as well. On a short free­way run in­clud­ing hills we man­aged 8.6L/100km. In the city the ex­tra cogs have less ef­fect and we were look­ing at 14-15L/100km.

While the en­gine is still on the pace, the Kluger has fallen be­hind ri­vals in other ar­eas. The GX has no push-but­ton start, no dig­i­tal speedo, a clunky foot­op­er­ated park­ing brake and no front park­ing sen­sors. The cen­tre screen is smaller than ri­vals and doesn’t sup­port Ap­ple CarPlay or An­droid Auto, while the in­te­rior door han­dles are plas­tic and the air­con is the old style hot or cold dial rather than a dig­i­tal tem­per­a­ture dis­play. A Toy­ota Link app lets you ac­cess nav­i­ga­tion and other ser­vices.

It’s a big com­fort­able beast though and the tra­di­tional Toy­ota strengths of space and com­fort are there in spades. The cen­tre stor­age bin is huge, ac­cess to the third row is sim­ple and the seats are com­fort­able and sup­port­ive on longer hauls.

The driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence isn’t as sharp as its ri­vals, though. It leans no­tice­ably in cor­ners and the steer­ing is a bit vague. On the front-drive model, the tyres strug­gle to get all that power to the ground and the steer­ing wheel tugs at your hands un­der hard ac­cel­er­a­tion. It’s not a huge is­sue — and is bet­ter con­trolled on the AWD ver­sion — but it can be un­nerv­ing, par­tic­u­larly in the wet.

VER­DICT

The Kluger is a com­fort­able and ca­pa­ble long-dis­tance cruiser that will swal­low five peo­ple and their lug­gage without blink­ing. The third row of seats is also more ac­com­mo­dat­ing than some ri­vals.

The en­gine and trans­mis­sion changes are no­tice­able and worth­while, but you can’t help feel­ing Toy­ota could have spent its money more wisely on tech­nol­ogy and safety up­grades.

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