It's third time lucky for a once-average SUV, as the new Toyota Kluger really steps up...
It is difficult to find a term of measurement big enough to describe how improved the 2014 Toyota Kluger is compared with the outgoing model. It is, quite accurately, a shedload better.
On paper, things don’t look to have changed much with this third-generation Toyota Kluger. The new model gets the same 3.5-litre petrol V6, and 201kW power and 337Nm of torque as the old one. It remains the single engine choice in our market – there’s no hybrid or diesel – although the new family-focused SUV adds a six-speed automatic transmission, up from five speeds, allowing a marginal improvement in fuel consumption.
It is a little bit longer – by 69mm – and a tiny bit wider – up 15mm – but its height and wheelbase are unchanged. According to US-spec figures, weight falls on the base front-wheel drive from 1940kg to 1925kg, while the flagship all-wheel drive drops from 2055kg to 2045kg.
The past two Toyota Kluger generations were imported from Japan, but the car is now built only in the States, where it is badged Highlander. Over there, it even comes as an eight-seater, but ours won’t change from being seven-seat-only.
Where the new Kluger really steps up, though, and arguably past its older Ford Territory, Hyundai Santa Fe and Jeep Grand Cherokee rivals, is in the places that can’t be listed in a brochure.
Some can, of course, like the addition of third-row seats standard on all models where formerly they were optional. Reversing sensors and a rear camera are confirmed as standard across the circa-$40-60K range, while the flagship model will score radar cruise control, auto-braking technology and blind-spot monitor as standard – all unique features in the class.
Step inside the cabin and there’s a big lift in quality, storage space and packaging efficiency.
Soft-touch dash plastics complement impeccable fit and finish. The seats are broad and supportive, with quality leather trim on the higher grade models tested. There’s an unbelievable amount of storage options – including a centre console big enough to fit a handbag, a tray that runs beneath the climate controls across to the passenger side with indents for mobile phones, and cupholders clearly designed for American-sized cawfee.
The 6.1-inch colour touchscreen is both high in resolution and ergonomically excellent. In addition to the digital radio, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity and satellite navigation housed within easy-to-use ‘apps’ on the touchscreen is another function called ‘Driver Easy Speak’ – press it and it uses the car’s speakers to amplify the driver’s voice to the second- and third-row seats.
Back there, and it’s clear no rival in the large SUV class can currently match the new Kluger’s level of space and practicality. The centre middle bench is broad and plush, and it tilts and slides forward to allow fine third-row access. The twin back seats are not just a token affair, either, being properly comfortable for adults for both head- and legroom.
My 178cm frame could fit comfortably in each of the three rows with a bit of adjustment to each of them. Moving the front passenger seat as far forward as possible to still be comfortable left me heaps of space in the second row. Sliding the middle row forward to still be comfortable permitted just enough room in the third row. Roof air vents will ensure climate comfort, too.
As a five-seater, the Kluger has a massive amount of boot space. As a seven-seater, it’s still possible to stand medium-sized suitcases upright. It’s a lot roomier than other comparably priced SUVs.
Although imported Toyota Kluger models will score an Australian suspension and steering tune, the US-spec versions driven from LA to San Francisco (via the backroads) were surprisingly excellent.
On lumpy roadworks and concrete freeways the suspension delivered the nice ride that should be demanded of a family SUV, with an underlay of firmness but a fine ability to round off large bumps and skim over small ones. Yet a detour via a bitumen backroad with possibly the largest causeways ever seen showed that when even taking them at speed the Kluger retained excellent body control.
Twisty bends also reveal a newfound dynamism with this Kluger. Memories of the old car lurching and howling in tight corners have been replaced with decent balance, predictability and composure with this new car.
The steering is at its worst around town, where the on-centre vacant patch is most noticeable. When winding on lock in corners, however, the system offers a level of consistency and directness that is unmatched in any Toyota except the 86.
It’s the stability control system that remains a Kluger flaw of old. It permits reasonably hard cornering on bitumen up to a point, but then abruptly interferes. On dirt roads, where the Kluger is otherwise accomplished – with a new on-demand all-wheel-drive system that can either automatically move to 50:50 distribution or be locked at that – the safety net completely shuts down any throttle for several seconds. It can also take several sudden bites of braking meaning that on low-grip surfaces it can actually create problems for itself and make the driver feel unnerved.
While the Kluger still can’t match the steering and handling of a Territory, it is now quite close, and comfortably ahead of other rivals such as the Santa Fe and Grand Cherokee. Let’s hope the Australian tuners don’t mess with the standard suspension and steering set-up too much.
Although some buyers may want a diesel, or at least a more fuel efficient option such as a hybrid, the Toyota 3.5-litre petrol V6 is a smooth-spinning delight. Aurally cultured, with plenty of power for straight-line acceleration, it is always enjoyable.
Torque of 337Nm is about 50-100Nm short of ideal for a heavy SUV application (a Territory has 391Nm) so it’s curious that Toyota didn’t pinch the 378Nm version of this V6 available in the Lexus IS350. Lucky, then, the automatic is super quick to grab a lower gear, even if it needs to do so very often, even travelling two-up on slight inclines.
Unfortunately, this means the engine needs to work hard, and therfore chew fuel. On a gentle freeway run the trip computer read 9.9L/100km; during harder driving it climbed to 15.2L/100km.
From being one of the least finessed models from the brand, the third-generation Toyota Kluger has leveraged itself to become one of the most convincing.
It may not be as economical or torquey as it could be, nor as cossetting and pleasureable to drive as a Territory. It does, however, otherwise nail its family car brief by offering a brilliant cabin, excellent suspension tune, and sweet engine and transmission. When it arrives locally in March, it will be very tough to beat.