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by Daniel DeGasperi

The third-generation Toyota Kluger will be the first US-built model the brand has offered locally, but that petrol-loving market has ruled diesel power out, while the alternative petrol hybrid has been deemed too expensive for our country.

“The main market for this vehicle globally is North America,” explained Toyota Australia product public relations manager Stephen Coughlan at the international launch of the new model.

“They don’t have an interest in diesel and don’t currently offer it in this segment.”

Asked whether the consumption-reducing hybrid version would be of interest to Australians, Coughlan conceded, “I would say yes”.

“I think there would be interest in a vehicle that offers the same packaging flexibility with increased torque and benefits in fuel efficiency.”

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The caveat is, he argues, that “the premium attached to the hybrid variant is probably a little too high at the moment, and you’ve only got to look at the price point in the US to see that the premiums are a little too much to make it stack up for a business case and achieve reasonable volume”.

In the US the Kluger hybrid sells for around $6000 more than the regular petrol version.

He cites buyers paying a $3000-$3500 premium for a diesel SUV over a petrol one as roughly the hybrid surcharge required, “but anything beyond that it becomes out of their consideration set and the car won’t sell in the volumes it deserves”.

Coughlan adds, however, that, “I’m confident they [Toyota Australia] would reconsider it if prices dropped”.

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The Toyota Kluger was previously built both in Japan and the US, but for the first time it will be built only in the latter country, such is its popularity there. Indeed, the business case for producing right-hand drive Klugers at the Indiana factory, which would only be destined for Australia and New Zealand, was tight, tells the executive.

“We had to put together a robust and logical argument, as obviously our annual volume is only a fraction of what North America is on a monthly basis, because as with New Zealand we are the only two RHD markets.

“We had to show TMC how important this model was to our customers in our market, and we had to look at historic results and realistically achievable future targets.”

The outgoing Kluger, which turned six last year, the final year of its lifecycle, fell hard in the sales race, particularly against a repriced and resurgent Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Of whether Toyota predicts an upswing in popularity for the new model, Coughlan says, “we always do, especially at launch, but it depends on supply. We can only ever sell as much as we can get, and we expect this car to be well received and in strong demand.”

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He concedes, however, that fresh contenders in the large SUV segment such as the Grand Cherokee and Nissan Pathfinder have forced Toyota to reassess its pricing and equipment policies.

“There’s definitely a lot of competitive pressure in the segment.

“It pushes us to review the specs that we offer, in line with competitor offerings and at the prices that they’re charging.”

Along with the 201kW/337Nm 3.5-litre V6 petrol continuing to be the only Kluger engine choice, a three-tier range with front- and all-wheel drive will also be maintained. The current KX-R and KX-S grades are, however, tipped to be replaced by GXR and GXR-S in line with the RAV4 below it and Prado above it, with the flagship Kluger Grande unchanged.

Coughlan says equipment will “cascade” down from previously high-grade models to the lower- and middle-tier model, with rear parking sensors and reversing camera confirmed for the entry car, and lane keep assistance and radar cruise control to debut on the top model.

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Seven seats will now be standard where formerly they were optional, though Australia misses the eight-seat option available in the US because the local arm believes the Kluger works better without squeezing an extra passenger into the third row.

“We wanted to maximise third-row comfort and not reduce it by introducing an extra seat to the car,” tells Coughlan, citing a more compact double wishbone suspension design as helping to increase luggage capacity and legroom, and 83mm of extra width between the back axles aiding shoulder room.

“It makes for a reasonably comfortable two-seat third row rather than a cramped three-seat third row.”

Toyota confidently claims big improvements to handling, in addition to steering, with the new Kluger. A more sophisticated double wishbone rear suspension set-up features on all models. All-wheel-drive models also score a new ‘on demand’ system that typically sends 100 per cent of drive to the front wheels, but can either be split 50:50 automatically or locked, and torque vectoring control to enhance cornering ability.

The third-generation Toyota Kluger goes on-sale in mid-March with prices expected to remain steady, at between $40K-$65K.




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