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Blessed with its first proper drought-busting rainfall in years, California is so wet right now that roads are flooding, coastal highways and canyon passes are smattered with fallen rocks, and drivers unaccustomed to such conditions are struggling to stay on course.
The perfect time and place, then, for a first drive of the updated 2017 Toyota Kluger, already well known in its 2014-2016 form as a comfortable and impressively composed seven-seat family hauler.
Due for Australia in late February, the refreshed 2017 Kluger made its first appearance in March last year as the US-market Highlander, revealing a lightly restyled front end and an even subtler tweak to the rear.
Up front, there's new headlights with newly integrated LED daytime lights for all, along with a bold new dual-grille design. The rear lights are now a dark red, again with new LED signature lighting standard across the range.
The GX and GXL get a silver finish to their new grille, while the Grande goes shiny with a painted chrome grille and a chrome garnish at the rear. A blacked-out grille is available with the US-market Highlander, but ours will skip that stealthy option.
Exterior styling changes are rounded out by new wheel designs, including an 18-inch five-double-spoke look for the entry-level GX, 18-inch multi-spoke 'turbine-style' design for the mid-range GXL, and a 19-inch multi-spoke look for the top-shelf Grande.
In the cabin, there's new silver metallic highlights for the GX and GXL models, while the Grande gets silver "woodgrain-look" garnishes and ambient blue LED lighting to the dash and doors.
As before, the Kluger is again a seven-seater, with the third row offering air vents and bottle holders to ensure the space back there – although not especially commodious – feels like more than just an afterthought.
Standard-fit equipment updates bypass the entry-level GX model, but the GXL scores an 8.0-inch display, satellite navigation, DAB+ digital radio and a powered tailgate with an independently opening glass hatch.
Stepping up to the Grande adds front parking sensors and rear cross-traffic alert, along with a new "panoramic view" monitor that uses front, rear and side mirror-mounted cameras (making four in total) to create a top-down bird's-eye view.
The Grande's lane departure alert is now also joined by steering assistance and sway warning, the latter coming into play if the system – using the external cameras and data from steering inputs or a lack thereof – detects potential driver drowsiness or inattention.
As before, the full Kluger range's standard features list already includes air conditioning (three-zone climate control in GXL and Grande), cruise control, electric power steering, six-speaker display audio with Toyota Link connected mobility, front foglamps, privacy glass, and power-adjustable exterior mirrors.
The GXL's carry-over features include keyless entry and ignition, roof rails, "premium" steering wheel and gear knob, leather-accented seats (heated up front) and a 12-way power adjustable driver's seat.
The Grande builds on that list with an opening sunroof, ventilated front seats with two-position memory for the driver’s seat, nine-inch rear entertainment display with a Bluray player, heated exterior mirrors with memory function and puddle lamps, electrochromatic interior mirror, second-row retractable sunshades and a reversing guide monitor for the rear-view camera.
Safety kit across the ANCAP-approved five-star range includes seven airbags, rear-view camera, reverse-parking sensors, anti-skid brakes with brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution, stability and traction control, and hill-start assist control.
The Grande again gets the special goodies, adding autonomous emergency braking (AEB), active cruise control, lane departure alert, blind-spot monitor and automatic high-beam lights.
It's disappointing that the top model, as with others in the Toyota family, is the only one to score AEB as standard – particularly when one of the Kluger's key rivals, the CX-9, offers it as standard. On the plus side, the new Camry will offer AEB to all-comers, so that's likely a sign of what's to come for the wider Toyota range.
And, yes, there's still a foot-operated park brake.
Getting away from equipment and its big-boy Americano looks, the major change for the Kluger in this new model year is under the skin. The current 2GR 3.5-litre petrol V6, already an improved unit over the course of its long service, now gets direct injection (and the 'FKS' suffix) for more power and improved fuel efficiency.
The 2GR's direct-injection upgrade has already made its way into other models within the Toyota family locally, such as the Lexus GS, but its appearance in the updated Kluger marks a first for the Toyota brand in Australia. And, while the company is yet to say, its next home will likely be in the newly announced Camry V6.
Also new to the Kluger, and to the Toyota family in all, is an eight-speed torque converter automatic transmission that replaces the six-speed unit previously featured.
Power is up 8.5 per cent to 218kW at 6600rpm, while torque climbs 3.9 per cent to 350Nm, up from 201kW and 337Nm respectively.
The familiar mill's compression ratio has increased from 10.8:1 to 11.8:1, and Toyota Australia says it will continue to run on 91RON petrol.
The updates bring a marked improvement in fuel consumption figures, with front-wheel-drive models now listing fuel use at 9.1L/100km on the combined cycle, and all-wheel-drive variants list 9.5L/100km. In practice, those numbers will likely reach beyond 11L/100km or so, but this is a commendable improvement.
And, considering Toyota Australia simply has no other option – a diesel, a small turbo four, or even the hybrid offered in the US – any improvement to the otherwise delectable big six is welcome.
In its current form, the Kluger lists fuel use at 10.2L/100km for front-wheel-drive models, and 10.6L/100km in all-wheel-drive form. That marks a better than 10 per cent improvement.
Emissions are likewise reduced, with CO2 grams/km falling from 237 and 246g/km (FWD/AWD) with the 2016 model, to 212 and 221g/km for the new model year.
Idle stop-start has also been added to this overseas Highlander, but our local Kluger will go without. Stephen Coughlan, Toyota Australia communication manager, says that in the case of the Kluger, the gains to be found with the technology don't yet justify the cost.
Australia's 2017 Kluger will see no changes to its already locally-tuned suspension and steering setups, and the models driven in California this week are, of course, set up for the American market.
As before, the American suspension tune again looks for an even balance between comfort and control, but with no changes planned for our local version, we can expect a tune that focuses a little more on the latter.
Our California-cruising Highlander, directed through a combination of sealed but poorly maintained coastal roads and winding canyon passes dotted with the remains of washed-down rock slides, affirmed the big Toyota's all-rounder touring competence. There is little in the way of listing or body roll in regular driving.
Really, the only way you'll fluster the Kluger is to drive it in a fashion never intended for this big wagon – and even then, hauling at speed through Los Padres national park, our front- and all-wheel-drive examples remained surprisingly composed.
Steering remains balanced, accurate and among the best on offer in the Toyota range – and the Aussie tune adds a nice weight to it. That dozey, light feel on-centre remains, though, and most noticeably around town.
The real focus here, of course, is the upgraded engine and new eight-speed auto.
Without doubt, the addition of direct injection has blessed the Kluger, now noticeably quieter than its already hushed incarnation in the outgoing range – although that drops away, if a little instinctively pleasurable at a gut level – under full acceleration.
The eight-speed automatic, up from six ratios in the current model, is quick to grab a lower gear when needed, while holding gears more confidently than its predecessor. Take-off from standstill can still be a little sluggish, but response on the move is surely sharper – if not quite the "as desired, direct driving feel" that Toyota describes in its supporting material.
No surprise, gear changes with this brand-spanking-new auto are smoother, and more than anywhere, it's in town – heading out of Santa Monica on the way to the nearby Topatopa Mountains, and later crawling and hauling through LA traffic to the airport – where the gains are most obvious.
Do the additional power and torque make for an obvious leap? Certainly the 337Nm of torque on offer before was on the light side for an SUV in the neighbourhood of 2000kg. Increasing twist to 350Nm is a welcome move, if still not a match for the circa-380Nm the 2GR offers in Lexus models.
It will take a proper week-long local test to say for sure how significant the increases are in daily driving, but suffice it to say that while the port- and direct-injected 3.5 V6 has decent straight-line mojo, getting away from the lights or overtaking a slow mover is unlikely to be any more thrilling an occasion than it was before.
The updated Kluger makes its Australian debut in late February, so we'll put the upgraded engine and new auto through their paces over a week of daily commuting and team hauling.
And, while we had a Kluger in our long-termer garage not long ago, this upgrade could be cause for another swing.
Pricing won't be confirmed until closer to the updated Kluger's arrival, but we're told we can expect a "modest" increase.
The current Kluger range kicks off from $42,190 for the entry 2WD GX, topping out $68,046 for the AWD Grande, all before on-road costs. With this update, we could see the Grande list price go beyond $70,000.
Without knowing for sure just what the update will cost, it's tough to say just how solid the value equation will be – particularly with the all-new CX-9 proving so popular, and so worthy.
To the Kluger's credit, the current model comported itself well in our comparison against the CX-9, despite being the older of the two.
Could the updated Kluger take the CX-9 in a rematch? Pricing was one of its drawbacks, but so was equipment – and this 2017 model brings a solid improvement to its features list (for GXL and Grande, at least). The Kluger's performance and economy is likewise improved, which could again help it dance with the CX-9.
Yes, round two could be a very close call indeed.
As before, the Kluger is offered with a three-year/100,000km warranty and three years of fixed servicing, at six-month/10,000km intervals, priced at $180.
Watch for our local 2017 Kluger review to come in late February or early March.