It'll keep Mum watching the road instead of the kids
- 2009 Toyota Kluger KX-S; 3.5 litre, six-cylinder, petrol; five-speed automatic; SUV - $49,990*
- Metallic Paint $400
Here's an interesting fact for you: From the start of 2009 to the end of November, Australians had bought a whopping 168,537 SUVs. Yes, our appetite for anything that looks remotely like a four-wheel-drive is truly staggering. Most of it was in the Compact SUV category, but not far behind was Medium SUVs. Toyota Kluger sits snugly in the Medium category, where (acording to VFACTS) it battles it out with Hyundai Santa Fe R, Kia Sorento, Holden Captiva, Ford Territory and Mitsubishi's new Challenger.
In the same time period (Jan-Nov 2009) Toyota had sold 11,449 Klugers; over a thousand per month. On average that's over 30 per day, which shows that people are still buying petrol powered SUVs in their droves. But surely we can't afford to be filling up at the bowser every two minutes, if the pro-diesel crowd is to be believed.
That's why manufacturers are beginning to bring out their SUVs with two-wheel-drive instead of all-wheel-drive. There are fewer moving parts, less strain on the driveline, and the result is lower fuel consumption. During ADR compliant fuel consumption testing, Toyota achieved a 0.6-litre/100km reduction by switching to front-wheel-drive only. The 2WD Kluger is also 0.2 seconds quicker from 0-100km/h, meaning there's definite benefits to losing two extra driving wheels.
The problem comes, of course, when all that power and torque gets channeled through the front wheels only. With 201kW and a useful 337Nm, if you've got some lock on when at a T-junction, the steering wheel kicks and scrabbles around in your hands. This wouldn't normally be a problem, except the Kluger has a very touchy throttle. The problem is exacerbated in the wet, when you have to rely on traction control and ESC to stop you sliding all over the place. Mum had better pay attention while driving.
Once you learn to ease the throttle on, it gets a lot better, and the steering feel is such that you know when you've given it more than is prudent. But once it's hooked up cleanly, the power is very impressive. Overtaking is a breeze, and with a 0-100km/h time of only eight seconds, you can see why Toyota is using its 3.5-litre V6 in several platforms. It sounds fantastic as it builds up, if a little thrashy, and revs cleanly to its limiter.
But the big problem is the fuel consumption. The 2WD Kluger is listed at 11.0L/100km, but despite our best efforts we couldn't get it below 12.8L/100km, bearing in mind several people climbing aboard at stages of the test. Compare this with another seven seat SUV, the Kia Sorento on our long term test fleet (around 8.3L/100km on test and 7.4L/100km ADR) and you have to wonder why Toyota hasn't made a diesel engine for the Kluger. We could live with a second or two slower to 100km/h if the fuel wasn't being used up as quickly, as in a diesel car. The automatic is pretty good, though, with decent shift quality and no indecisiveness.
Where the Kluger redeems itself is inside. For this price range, it's a beautifully built cabin, and in KX-S spec, there's plenty of gadgets to keep Dad occupied, like touchscreen SatNav, dual-zone climate with controls on the steering wheel, leather trim, front seat heaters, rear climate control and driver's seat squab length adjustment. Importantly, there's a reversing camera screen built into the centre console, which doubles as your air-con display when not in use.
As far as space goes, you can't get much better than the Kluger. There is absolutely miles of room for front and rear passenger's legs and heads, and with its sliding centre row, you can be very flexible with seating positions and arrangments. The centre seat in the second row could be a lot bigger, as the two outboard seats are almost buckets in their own right with Statesman-like lounging room. The centre passenger, though, will be either cramped, or get cramps from sitting on the bolstered edges of the adjacent seats.
The third row is quite small, although it's reasonably easy to get to, so should kids want to sit it the back, they'll fit with no hassles. With the third row down, the boot has excellent depth, and with hinged rear glass, whacking the shopping in is a breeze.
Where the Kluger also excels is in its ride and handling. There's an excellent balance between bump absorption and stiffness, given its 19-inch hoops. It's no Ford Territory in the bends, but for a front-wheel-drive it can hold its head high with reasonable turn in and nice balance. It would be worth the extra dosh ($4500) to opt the all-wheel-drive version if you're not up for dealing with steering kickback fairly often, but bear in mind you'll be using extra fuel, too.
On the whole, the Kluger is a decently quick car and a safe proposition, with seven airbags and an ever active stability control system. Being a Toyota, it's built to perfection, and solidly put together, feeling more expensive inside than it really is. A creamy smooth driveline and excellent space, ride and handling means it ticks all the boxes of most soft-roader buyers. Whether they could put up with the fuel bill is a different story.
The pro-diesel crowd may be on to something.
CarAdvice Overall Rating: How does it Drive: How does it Look: How does it Go: