Heart of the matter
Toyota’s updated seven-seater has more grunt but uses less fuel
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 across the board. The frontdrive 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 $4000 to the price tag, which is on par with Mazda but 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.
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.