Toyota Kluger

Improved, but the surprises don’t delight

BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

FIRST OVERSEAS DRIVE

WELCOME to the end of the beginning of New Toyota.

Back in late 2011, after a series of damaging recall setbacks and criticism over his vehicles being too dull, his vehicles being too dull, the company’s newly crowned president, Akio Toyoda, promised a “fun to drive again” rebirth.

With the bold C-HR hitting the streets and re-engineered Camry, Yaris, Corolla, and RAV4 successors coming, the revolution has started.

Which leaves the MY17 Kluger as the last of the old-school brigade. Defiantly middle of the road, and all the way from middle America to boot, the full-sized seven-seat SUV is all about delivering exactly what consumers want, and with little surprise and/or delight.

Except… we’ve grown increasingly fond of this thirdgeneration iteration since its early 2014 launch. In our recent people-mover/SUV Megatest (October 2016 issue), we praised the GX 4WD’s creamy V6 grunt, comparative handling agility, and relative fuel efficiency.

None of the above reset benchmarks, while a fidgety ride, road-noise intrusion, a lack of wet-weather tyre grip, and unsupportive front seats raised our ire, yet the chunky Toyota managed third among its direct crossover rivals (behind Mazda CX-9 and Kia Sorento), and fifth overall. Not bad for a high-riding SUV prioritising family-friendly packaging… which also includes vast cabin space, logical dash and switchgear, seemingly endless storage, easy access to reclinable second- and third-row seats, and roof-mounted HVAC vents ensuring sufficient air supply to all passengers.

Does the facelift move the Kluger closer to the pointy end of its class?

An overhauled 3.5-litre V6 (now with direct injection and a higher compression ratio) is big news, linked to a new eight-speed auto (replacing a six-speed). An additional 17kW and 13Nm meant the US-spec Highlanders we drove around LA didn’t hang about. Eager off the mark, quick through the ratios (sometimes dropping three gears instantly for maximum response), and pleasingly punchy in the mid-to-higher rev ranges, the improvements are subtle yet welcome and useful.

Fuel savings of 10 percent (running on 95 RON premium unleaded – though regular is doable too) further boosts the MY17 Kluger’s appeal (especially as no diesel is offered.) There have been no changes to the Australian-specific steering or strut-front/double-wishbone rear suspension tune, so we’re expecting the newcomer to uphold its muted yet confident handling and occasionally unsettled ride characteristics.

Our time in the light-helmed, understeer-prone US-market Highlander through some of Southern California’s more curvaceous corners at least showed how much better our locally tuned chassis is.

Finally, the mid-range GXL gains an electric tailgate with separate flip-up glass, sat nav, and digital radio, while the Grande scores a bird’s-eye view mode on top of the range-wide standard rear camera, reverse cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning with steering assist, and sway warning.

That sums up the changes to our best-selling monocoquebodied seven-seat SUV – yet the powertrain improvements are overshadowed by the lamentable non-availability of stop/start and range-wide AEB to Aussie buyers (see sidebars). We’re hoping New Toyota tries harder with the nextgen Kluger Mk5 in 2020.

PLUS & MINUS

No stop/start; AEB not standard; firm ride; foot-operated park brake Spacious cabin; practical dash; refined powertrain; improved V6 response Model Engine Max Power Max Torque Transmission Weight 0-100km/h Economy Price On sale Toyota Kluger GX 2WD 3456cc V6 (60º), dohc, 24v 218kW @ 6600rpm 350Nm @ 4700rpm 8-speed automatic 1980kg 8.1sec (claimed) 9.1L/100km (estimated) $43,550 Now

‘New’ New York

Unveiled at the 2016 New York Auto Show, the MY17 Kluger’s blunt nose brings a wider and deeper grille treatment with more brightwork than before, necessitating a new bumper, reshaped foglight housings and different headlights, while out back the sleeker tail-lights gain LEDs. More chrome garnishes, restyled alloys, minor trim alterations inside and a few new colours round out the visual changes.

OR TRY THESE...

Mazda CX-9 Sport $42,490

Second-generation, ground-up redesigned CX-9 pushes class boundaries with nimble handling, great ride, a torquey turbo-petrol four, thoughtful cabin packaging, and new-to-Mazda refinement.

A deserving WCOTY winner.

Kia Sorento Si V6 $40,990

A spacious, comfortable, enjoyable, and well-equipped seven-seat family wagon. Sorento is a Wheels comparo winner (Platinum AWD in 2015), offering more than just price and warranty on its side, though front-drive Si V6 is a little grip-shy.