Escaping the city is always a treat. Breaking free of the hustle and bustle to enjoy the fresh air and picturesque farmland inspires a sense of freedom that puts a smile on my face.
We recently headed south-west of Sydney into the Southern Highlands for a CarAdvice video shoot, which gave me the opportunity to spend a couple of days getting to know the 2017 Toyota Kluger GXL outside of its usual urban surrounds.
I'd already spent a few days behind the wheel of the Kluger, driving it to and from work, running errands and the like. As expected, the Kluger is a breeze around town, it feels smaller than it is, effortlessly glides over Sydney's patchwork road surfaces, and it's quiet and comfortable.
But how would it handle dirt tracks, grass, loose surfaces and lots of dust?
Our two-day adventure began with an early start, winding our way out through the suburbs and onto the Hume Highway (M31) that connects Sydney to Canberra and continues down to Melbourne.
Exiting the motorway around Mittagong, we ditched the pitch at High Range in favour of a dusty track that made its way between lush, green farms complete with rolling hills and plenty of animals including cattle and sheep.
The Kluger line-up consists of both 2WD and AWD variants, each available in three trim levels, and all share the same 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine that produces 218kW and 350Nm teamed with an eight-speed automatic transmission. The range starts with the entry-level GX, followed by the mid-grade GXL and the range-topping Grande.
Our test vehicle was the mid-spec GXL AWD. There was no need to worry about taking it onto an unsealed road - the Kluger's Dynamic Torque Control AWD system can split drive between the front and rear axles, sending the power and torque where it's needed, when it's needed. This part-time four-wheel drive system works with stability control, traction control, hill-start assist control and downhill assist control to cope with challenging conditions.
However, with an approach and departure angle of 18 and 23.1-degrees respectively, galavanting deep into off-road territory isn't recommended - leave that to the Prado or Fortuner. The Kluger is far more suited to hauling a family around town during the week, then taking you on a bit of an adventure on the weekend.
An adventure just like this one.
The Kluger was confident over loose rocks and dirt, composed over cattle grids and just so comfortable. I was a little nervous when we ventured off the track and onto a grassy slope - it's always hard to tell how mushy the ground is under the lush greenery and luckily, though it was damp, the Kluger didn't spin up even a single blade of grass.
As the long day of driving continued, this large SUV proved just how comfortable it is. The leather appointed seats are soft and well shaped, the drivers side is electrically adjustable however the front passenger misses out on this little luxury.
The 8.0-inch touchscreen has satellite navigation with alerts for school zones, rail crossings and other potential hazards, which came in handy as we explored the regional area, remaining well clear of main thoroughfares. It also has a rear-view camera with rear parking sensors as standard - a godsend when attempting a three-point (or sometimes seven-point) turn on a narrow lane with deep ditches either side.
I'm not ashamed to admit, I'm a bit lame when it comes to in-car entertainment. I enjoy listening to commercial radio and rarely bother with audio streaming although the Kluger is equipped with bluetooth connectivity, MP3 and digital radio. I use Apple CarPlay when available, however the Kluger doesn't have it, or Android Auto, yet.
The giant centre-console bin is a highlight of the cabin. With a two-part sliding cover, it is large enough to fit a handbag as well as other paraphernalia that tends to slowly collect in the far corner of the front passenger footwell or second-row floor.
The number of cupholders warrants a mention. Not only because I'm pedantic about the inclusion and appropriate, convenient placement of cupholders - but because there are eight scattered about the cabin with two in the front, four in the middle and two in the rear, as well as four bottle holders.
I often have a coffee and a bottle of water on the go, and as soon as you find yourself carting around more people that do the same, the number of cupholders becomes infinitely more important.
During our couple of days driving around, we'd regularly stop to scout for shoot locations. I have to say the foot-operated park brake was a bit of a pain - it's not a deal-breaker, but it's not as simple as an electric or hand park brake, it requires a little more effort and, the later in the day it became, the more of an effort it seemed.
Gradually, the dust began to build up across the dash and centre console, with piles of it gathering in the doorsills. Though it wasn't bothersome or noticeable in the cabin air while driving, it was collecting and settling as we went along. Opening the rear-window part of the split tailgate was the most entertaining; dirt had managed to find its way into every nook and cranny possible around the opening.
But we'd done a lot of driving, including a good distance off the bitumen, putting 853 kilometres on the clock during our time with the car.
Claimed combined fuel consumption is 9.5-litres per 100-kilometres, and we recorded a figure of 12.8L/100km. That's not too bad, considering it spent a bit of time in an urban environment, followed by a good chunk of driving on highways as well as carefully navigating dirt roads and hills. I had expected it to be higher.
The AWD Kluger range starts at $46,190 before on-road costs for the GX and it's quite a jump to our GXL at $55,190. Toyota offers a three-year/100,000km warranty, with three years of fixed price servicing that will cost just $180, every six-months or 10,000km.
What surprised me the most was how comfortable the Kluger was in every environment we subjected it to. For an active family that lives in the city and enjoys getting out and about, the Kluger is a chameleon that feels every bit at home on the bitumen as it does on the dirt.