The 2016 Toyota Kluger still leads the seven-seat urban SUV sales charts, but with the arrival of the new Mazda CX-9, does Toyota need to lift its game to stay on top?
Since its arrival in 2014, the third-generation Toyota Kluger has won over plenty of Australian buyers (14,000 last year and over 6000 year-to-date) with its practical space and somewhat laid-back approach to life.
We previously called it ‘Americool’ – a four-wheeled polo and chinos from GAP, not Ralph Lauren. Easy to drive, easy to live with and so square-jawed handsome it is gosh-darn easy to like.
There’s a choice of nine colours (ours is a lovely Dynamic Blue) and all suit the muscular, modern design of this family soft-roader.
Interestingly, Australia is now the only country where a Kluger is a Kluger and not a Highlander. The SUV was not sold beyond its first-generation in Japan, where its kanji character name translated as ‘Kuruga’ – LOL – and since Hyundai own the ‘Highlander’ trademark name here, there can be only one.
I know that is a rehash of a gag I’ve used before, which in itself a little like the central plot of the five Highlander movies (yeah, they made five of them), but you get my point.
Fun fact while we’re here though, Clancy Brown’s villainous Kurgan in the first (and only legit) Highlander film went by the alias of Victor Kruger – which rhymes nicely with Kluger. To complete the loop, Toyota created a Spongebob Squarepants liveried Kluger to promote the car at launch, and Brown plays the voice of Mr Krabs in the show. Boom – mic dropped.
Priced from $55,190 (all prices noted are before options and on-road costs), the Kluger GXL is the mid-level trim grade in the line-up. It’s $9000 up on the entry GX AWD and a solid $12,856 more affordable than the top-spec Grande.
Given all cars share the same 201kW/337Nm 3.5-litre V6 and six-speed automatic transmission with selectable front-bias all-wheel drive, those price differences are predominantly found on the inside.
You score tri-zone climate control, a leather accented interior with an electric driver’s seat and front row heating in the GXL… but that’s about it.
No sunroof, no power tailgate, no memory seats, no driver assistance systems and no satellite navigation.
There’s a 6.1-inch display with Bluetooth phone and audio, integrated rear-view camera and support for the ToyotaLink mobile app suite, but on a 2016-model, $60k family car there is, ridiculously, no navigation function.
Even mentioning the ToyotaLink function feels a bit pointless, as most of the features that are useful only work on navigation-equipped vehicles. There’s not even an option to add nav – you need to spend an extra $13,000 for factory integrated navigation on the Grande. Toyota has no CarPlay or Android Auto integration on the horizon either.
Plus, in a world where everyone in the family has their own mobile device, you can’t expect the kids to call the rally notes when there’s only one USB charge point right up in front of the transmission lever.
It may seem like a fixation on a small issue, but the Kluger is a family car every day of the week and we are getting to the point where some modern technology should simply be a must-have in this segment.
If Holden can include Apple CarPlay in a $14,000 Spark, surely a $60k SUV should include some form of navigation. You’d want to hope dealers throw in a JB HiFi voucher so you can pick up a TomTom on the way home…
But being an SUV, technology isn’t the only consideration. Family hauling is what the Kluger does best.
And make no bones about it, there is plenty of space in the front and middle row. The 60:40 split second row is on sliding rails to add (or remove) leg room for those in the third tier. Plus there’s a 195-litre boot with all seats up (expands to 529-litres in five-seat configuration).
The cabin feels airy and voluminous throughout, giving a real sense of comfort and security to driving the big Toyota.
Outward vision is good and the giant dashboard with its clever ‘shelf’ makes the width of the Kluger even more apparent.
While we’ve said almost enough about the touch screen, it’s fair to note that the buttons for each menu function aren’t expertly responsive which can be frustrating on the move. Audio from the six standard speakers is pretty good for a family bus though.
The climate control is easy and clear to use, and the ability to control rear temperature is a welcome addition.
Something that we’ve always liked about the Kluger is the cavernous centre cubby. The integrated shelf is handy, but the size of storage in there is terrific. I’ve seen it swallow a whole handbag without a moment’s hesitation.
On the road, that big V6 feels punchy and smooth off the line. Running one- or two-up, the Kluger pulls well when accelerating and actually feels quite sprightly.
Peak torque and power both arrive late in the rev range (6200rpm and 4700 rpm respectively) so the delivery of power is very progressive, resulting in a smooth driving experience.
The ride too is very compliant and comfortable, the Kluger dispatching speed humps and poor-quality roads with ease.
It’s a great tourer like this as well, quiet for lack of screaming children, and relatively economical as we managed 8.8L/100km on a highway cycle (against the claim of 8.4L/100km).
But having all this space for just one or two people doesn’t seem right, so we took the CarAdvice family to our equivalent of Disneyland – Phillip Island Grand Prix circuit.
And it was here, that the Kluger showed its strengths and weaknesses in equal number.
First up, loading five media professionals and, put simply, a shit-load of gear into the big Toyota was not that hard a task. We experimented with seating layout and ended up opting for a five-seat configuration to access the whole boot.
Three adults-across is pushing the limits of the Kluger but everyone had enough leg room and there were no threats of turning around and going home from the ‘parents’ up front.
Poor Tom (who comes in at six-foot-four) had the middle seat, and found that it was getting a tad uncomfortable toward the end of the journey, but that is the worst of it.
While the boot managed to swallow all the heavy camera gear (including the drone), the weight was more than what you’d expect from some third row passengers and would have pushed the Kluger close to its 675kg payload limit.
The change in dynamics from a near-empty Kluger was instantly noticeable. The car sat low on the soft rear suspension and the front felt light and disconnected from the driving experience. It seemed to struggle under acceleration and was nowhere near as enjoyable to run on the highway cruise.
That said, once back safely to town, our combined fuel consumption for the week was 11.6L/100km, again close to the claim of 10.6L/100km from Toyota.
The run to Philip Island was perhaps at the extreme end of the Kluger’s everyday usage, but driving around solo is very much at the other. Keep things in between and you should enjoy plenty of happy trails.
What is more important for the Kluger to address though, is value.
The new Mazda CX-9 can be had in a mid-level AWD specification for $46,490 – close to $10k less than the Kluger. And it comes with navigation.
Classic rival, the Nissan Pathfinder, lists in ST-L AWD guise for $57,690 although, Nissan are offering the slightly lower-spec ST for $43,990 drive-away at the moment. While it is also feeling a bit dated in terms of technology, that is again a solid ten gorillas under the Toyota.
The updated Kluger that was shown at the 2016 New York auto show promises some revisions to the level of on-board technology (including some extra USB points) but it really feels like Toyota needs to define a specification between GXL and Grande to roll-in some of these basic, and honestly expected, functions.
Perhaps for 2017 we’ll see a GXL i-Tech that saves the LED lights, chrome wheels and ventilated seats for the Grande, but throws in the navigation and driver aids to help satisfy a tech-centric audience?
Until then, the 2016 Toyota Kluger GXL is still a great family car.
The size, power and everyday packaging still impress, just campaign hard for a drive-away deal, don't fill it up with too much stuff and get them to throw in that TomTom.
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