A first sample of the 2014 Toyota Kluger came on a winding Pacific Coast Highway driving between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Fast forward two months and our first local drive is conducted on a very different Pacific Highway between Byron Bay and the Gold Coast, on the other side of the ocean on which both roads are named.
That initial journey across the ocean is significant for reasons other than neat coastal parallels, because this is the first Toyota imported to Australia from the US; the third-generation Kluger is produced only in Indiana.
All Toyota Kluger grades get a 3.5-litre petrol V6 engine and six-speed automatic – one extra gear than before. That's the only option - no manual; no diesel; no hybrid.
A redesigned multi-link rear suspension and quicker steering rack are designed to improve on the lazy dynamics of the outgoing model, while the new Kluger is larger in every dimension than the model it replaces – it is 80mm longer, at 4825mm, and 15mm wider than before, at 1925mm.
Moving through $40,990 GX, $49,990 GXL and $63,990 Grande, the three-tier Toyota Kluger lineup costs a little more than before, but now gets seven seats as standard. On each grade, all-wheel-drive can replace the standard front-wheel-drive for a further $4000.
Although better equipped than before, there are key shortfalls. The entry-level GX misses an electrically adjustable driver’s seat, for example, while the GXL lacks satellite navigation (astonishing for a $50-54K grade) and even the pricey Grande misses front parking sensors.
Basics are covered such as 18-inch alloys on the GX and leather trim on the GXL, in addition to an impressive suite of technology on the Grande (read full price and specifications here).
In the US we tested only higher Toyota Kluger (Highlander) grades, and a local stint in the entry-level GX quickly highlighted how basic the interior is. For $40-45K it should offer more than bland cloth trim, a thin-rimmed plastic steering wheel, basic air conditioning controls and non-chromed highlights.
Even the ageing Ford Territory TX includes beefy velour seats and climate controls, though it lacks the Toyota’s 6.0-inch touch screen. The Kluger GX does, however, provide a rear manual air conditioning zone (automatic on GXL and Grande) for air vents in the roof above the middle and rear rows.
Step up from GX to the GXL and the cabin ambience improves, with a neat leather-wrapped wheel and cow-hide on the seats, but it takes until the Grande for the larger centre screen and colour centre screen to really lift the otherwise impressive interior.
No matter the model, space is what the new Toyota Kluger does better than most large SUVs in the class. The second row is very roomy, and the 60:40 split backrest and bench tilt and slide forward to allow handy access to the two seats in the third row.
The second row can slide forward to permit more or less legroom for the third row, and this 178cm-tall tester can sit comfortably in each of the three rows with only a little adjustment compromise in each of them – something not often said in this segment, and certainly not for the Territory. Third-row shoulder room is claimed to be up 110mm, with entry space to the rear seats increasing by 70mm.
The boot area is 155mm longer, 20mm wider and 85mm higher than before. Luggage space with all three rows in use totals a meagre 195 litres, rising to 529L in five-seater form, or 1171L in two-seat configuration. A split tailgate - where the glass section opens independently to the rest of the door - has been standard since 2004 on all Territorys, but Toyota stingily offers that handy feature only on the most expensive grade, which also gains an auto tailgate.
As with space for occupants and luggage, cabin storage is the most voluminous in this class. The centre console storage bin will fit a handbag or small backpack, such is its enormous 14L cavity, and the tray that runs across the entire dash on the underside of the main slab is handy with a separate indent to hold phones in place. For those who like to take larger items with them (caravans, boats and the like), the Kluger offers a 2000kg braked towing capacity in 2WD and AWD specifications.
The new Toyota Kluger is also commendably quiet, even on coarse-chip surfaces common to Australian roads and the concrete slabs common to our Pacific Highway. Its supression of wind and road noise is Lexus-like, complementing the ultra-smooth and refined engine.
That 3.5-litre petrol V6 produces 201kW of power at 6200rpm and 337Nm of torque at 4700rpm. While the former figure is strong, the latter number is a bit Lite ‘N’ Easy for a 1935-2065kg large SUV. To put it into perspective, a Territory 4.0-litre petrol produces 58Nm more torque, and the Territory diesel an extra 103Nm.
Toyota has no such diesel option available in Kluger, as the US market for which the SUV was designed doesn’t have an affliction for that type of fuel. Although the Kluger feels like it will accelerate from standstill to 100km/h in about 9.0 seconds, or about a second slower than the Ford, it is a much sweeter engine.
Claimed consumption falls by as much as eight per cent compared with the last Kluger depending on the model, which means 10.2L/100km for front-wheel-drive versions and 10.6L/100km for all-wheel-drivers. We saw consistent 13L/100km over around 200km of country road, urban and freeway driving.
The six-speed automatic is brilliantly intuitive, but the driver too easily detects it quickly slipping back one or two gears on even the slightest of hills to maintain speed. A manual facility rev matches on downshifts, and because this is no sporty gearbox, it is required during sporty driving.
Perhaps the biggest surprise on that US Pacific Coast Highway was that the new Kluger is dynamically adept. But that was the US-spec steering and suspension, and Australian engineers have revised the tested set-up for our conditions with the aim being to improve steering feel and body control. The results are a mixed bag.
The steering remains one of the best Toyota set-ups in the current lineup (86 excepted). It is a bit snoozey on-centre, and although the rack has been quickened to lessen the need for arm-twirling in shopping centre carparks, it still isn’t fast. But there’s terrific accuracy when pinning a line through a corner. The weighting has been beefed-up by Australian engineers with the aim to improve feel when the steering is loaded up, though the heavier weighting isn’t really necessary and there is some rack rattle over bumps.
Enjoyable is the word to use for the Kluger’s handling. Around the NSW north coast hinterland, the GX and Grande all-wheel-drive grades tested both felt planted, grippy and decently balanced, let down only by a traditional Toyota flaw – poor stability control calibration. Sometimes, during sweeping higher-speed cornering, the system will stay silent and allow the rear-end to slightly move, which is nice and never dangerous. But other times, mostly on patchy surfaces or off-camber bends, the stability control takes massive chunks out of a front brake and kills the throttle for seconds, or what feels like an eternity.
The US-spec suspension’s balance between ride comfort and control was just about spot on, but the Aussie suspension takes a little bit of the former and increases the latter. As with the steering, it isn’t really necessary, transmitting slightly more imperfections at lower speeds. The ride remains impressive overall, however, particularly the way it isolates big potholes and successive road imperfections from the cabin – it even subdues the impact noise.
Other than some missing equipment and a downmarket entry-level interior, the 2014 Toyota Kluger fulfils its full-size family-hauler brief extremely well. With plenty of space, smart storage solutions, a smooth and flexible engine, superb refinement and competent dynamics, it may have a real shot at class leadership – stay tuned.