Car reviews - Toyota - Kluger - Grande AWD
Surprisingly manoeuvrable, much needed real-world efficiency gains, excellent new transmission, refined long-distance cruiser, super-spacious, hugely practical, surprisingly resolved high-speed dynamics
Room for improvement
Pricey, nautical low-speed ride, cabin shape gives rear passengers tunnel vision, driver’s seat not that comfy, glitchy and slow powered tailgate, not enough USB/12V sockets
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12 Jun 2017
Price and equipment
The entry-level Kluger GX 2WD opens proceedings at $43,550 plus on-road costs for the front-driver, with all-wheel drive a $4000 option. The mid-spec GXL is priced $10,000 higher than the GX in both front- and all-wheel-drive forms, while the Grande 4WD tested here tops the range at $69,906 and front-drive can be had for $3971 less.
So our test vehicle is almost $10,000 per seat, attracting the typical Toyota tax that pitches its offerings either slightly higher than rivals or offers less equipment for the same price as its equivalent from other brands.
For the facelift launched in Australia in February, drivetrain and equipment upgrades have been provided in return for price rises, including a not-insubstantial $2360 on the GXL, while our Grande is $1860 more expensive than previously.
GX buyers are slugged an extra $1360 and don’t get any more equipment, just the tweaked engine, new transmission and cosmetic changes inside and out.
The new look comprises a revised grille, LED tail-light clusters, redesigned alloy wheels and higher quality interior materials.
New in the GXL is an 8.0-inch touchscreen providing access to the satellite navigation and DAB+ digital radio, while the powered tailgate comes with a Ford Territory-style flip-up glass hatch.
The Grande we drove gains an all-round camera system providing top-down and three-dimensional views of the vehicle’s surroundings plus rear cross-traffic alert, front parking sensors, lane-keeping assistance and an anti-sway function that detects driver drowsiness or inattention.
Other Grande appointments include leather upholstery, heated and ventilated front seats with electric adjustment and position memory for the driver’s side, tri-zone climate control, a six-speaker audio system with CD plater, a Blu-Ray player and flip-down screen for rear passengers, ambient lighting, adaptive cruise control, keyless entry and start, rear window blinds and privacy glass, illuminated vanity mirrors, leather-look trim for the steering wheel and gear selector knob, wood-grain trim inserts, dusk-sensing headlights with automatic high beam, rain-sensing wipers, 19-inch alloy wheels with full-size alloy spare, blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning, and forward collision warning with auto-braking impact mitigation for high- and low-speed drivingInterior
The first thing we noticed about the Kluger interior was the pair of gargantuan chrome-rimmed cup-holders in the centre console. We could fit a 1.25-litre drinks bottle in one with room to spare, although the designers probably had jumbo slurpee vessels in mind for their largely North American audience.
Honestly, they’d probably each accommodate a bucket of popcorn from the movie theatre.
Luckily, Toyota has supplied a removable insert that reduces the internal diameter of one side and provides a spring support for the other to help prevent Australian-sized coffee cups from sloshing around. But even the largest option from our local caffeine dealer was too skinny for the spring solution.
Middle-row passengers get a pair of more conventionally sized cup-holders in the fold-down central armrest, while those at the very back get a total of four. Add this to the four door bins that can each hold a 600ml bottle and the Kluger owner requires some scuba equipment to ensure survival in the event of a roll-over.
The petrol-only Kluger has a reputation for thirst, but Toyota has clearly also catered to occupants with a similar condition.
What we noticed next was that the interior, despite looking nothing like that of the Lexus RX, shared some of its multi-tiered feel and even has a similar reddish-brown tinge to some surfaces. Our top-spec Grande variant was also replete with upholstered, contrast-stitched or soft-touch surfaces that combined to provide quite a luxurious feel that went some way toward justifying the $70K price tag. Our car was also solidly put together and rattle-free.
Family buyers will appreciate the amount of storage, with a big glove box beneath a shelf that runs all the way from above the driver’s left knee to above the front passenger’s left knee. It varies in depth but can be used to stash paperwork and phones. It also has a gap through which to pass a cable from the Kluger’s sole USB port.
That’s right, this car has one USB port between the seven potential occupants.
Overseas variants have up to five of these sockets but Aussies have to make do with a handful of old-school 12V cigarette lighter style power outlets.
Anyway, the storage story continues with another little compartment beside the driver’s right knee but the Kluger’s party trick is the expansive bin beneath a two-part sliding lid that forms the front central armrest.
Inside is an awkward shelf that attempts to provide an adjustable two-tier space but just falls down to the bottom all the time. Get rid of that – and the three pairs of cordless headphones for keeping rear passengers entertained via the ceiling-mounted Blu-Ray player screen – to reveal an area about the size of a twelve-stubby Esky. We appreciated the fact we could still use the upholstered edges of this case as an armrest while the lid was open.
Moving to the central row, full-size map pockets are provided along with a surprisingly useful tray-like area beneath the rear zone climate control panel.
Door bins are of similar size to those up front, in that they are of reasonable capacity provided their drinks carrying ability is not used.
At the very back are the four cup-holders moulded into the plastic wheel arch protrusions and the boot has a small false floor area containing the tyre-change toolkit and concealing the cleverly designed cargo blind when it is not in use, plus a fiddly and ill-fitting plastic lid on the left-hand side that covers a bin that can be used for storing muddy shoes.
The boot also features couple of handy hooks for shopping bags and the flip-up windscreen saves heaps of time for loading smaller objects – provided the person doing so is tall enough to reach through – compared with the glacial and beep-tastic electric tailgate that inexplicably refused to operate for us on a number of occasions.
SUV cargo blinds are often a bone of contention, particularly with the compromises required of seven-seaters with sliding and reclining seats. But at least the Toyota solution is easy to fit, with the usual fiddly securing mechanism replaced by telescopic ends that lock into place and can be released with the click of a button.
This reduces the amount of effort required and means they can be slotted home easily once lined up with the securing slots. It cannot be used with the third row in place and does not reach the back of the centre row even with it in the rearmost, most reclined position, but at least it is easy to install and remove.
Most of all, though, the Kluger majors on space. We could successfully sit three six-foot-plus males behind one another on the driver’s side and all be fine for legroom. To achieve this, the central row was slid to around mid-point in its travel, still leaving plenty of room. The person in the third row was a little cramped for headroom and the shallow footwell had them sitting with a bit of a knees-up position but the seat itself was comfortable.
Due to the tall ceiling and completely flat floor with no transmission tunnel intrusion, three adults can sit in comfort in the central row as well, with the ability to slide the two halves independently making it possible to liberate a little extra shoulder space. This independent sliding and reclining function helped make the Kluger incredibly versatile for transporting a full load of people in comfort.
It is conceivable for a basketball team, including two substitute players, to travel between games in a Kluger.
Their kit bags might struggle for space with just 195 litres of volume available behind the third row, but if the substitutes travelled separately with the team coach, there is an ample 529L with the back seats folded away.
With just the front two seats in use, the load area opens up to a pretty vast, flat-floored 1872L.
Both rear rows are easy to manipulate, with multiple large and clearly labelled pulls, catches and handles. Large, wide-opening doors make it easy for anyone to get in and out, the centre-row seats tumbling and sliding forward to create plenty of space for climbing through to the rear.
For passengers at the opposite end of the size spectrum, the Kluger caters well with Isofix points on outboard positions of the centre row and sensibly placed top tether points on the rear of the backrests that are not obscured by the folded third row as they are in some seven-seaters.
Those huge rear doors and the sliding central row make it is easy to position a rear-facing infant capsule for maximum ease of installing its precious cargo.
Sunblinds built into the back doors add an extra level of glare protection for tiny eyes over the limo-tint privacy glass.
Ceiling-mounted air-con vents can disturb tots in baby capsules but in the Kluger these are located at the outer edges, far enough forward and with broad range of adjustment to can direct the airflow away.
For almost everyone, seat comfort is of a high standard, although the flat cushions and slippery leather compounded the urban speed body-roll problem we will discuss later. We also found the driver’s seat to provide a lot of adjustment, none of which could overcome an inherently poor design that never got truly comfortable.
The 8.0-inch touchscreen is a step up over the pre-facelift effort but Toyota systems remain second-rate. Two good points are the ease of pairing a phone via Bluetooth and the system’s ability to pick up where you left off in terms of audio streaming via both Bluetooth and USB connections. Many in-car systems fail to do this, so the Kluger was a refreshing change.
Also unlike many competitors, the Kluger’s infotainment unit is pretty consistent in terms of access to content on a smartphone, whether it is connected to USB or Bluetooth. For example some systems can access playlists and podcasts using USB but not Bluetooth or vice-versa, and require these to be initiated using the phone before ‘tuning in’ using the touchscreen, which is far from ideal.
On the move the Kluger is quiet, smooth and refined. We only picked up on some motorway wind noise because everything else was so muted, including coarse-chip bitumen roads that can become deafening in some vehicles. The Kluger suppressed these surfaces well, although we felt as though what little sound did get through the insulation was amplified somewhat by the cavernous cabin’s acoustics – at least when driving solo and unladen.
Shame then, that the six-speaker audio system was disappointing in terms of sound quality and not very loud. We also get tired of the almost useless multi-function display between the instrument panel dials. Lacking a digital speedometer, the Kluger, like most other Toyotas, is unable to combine useful data into one screen, which forces the driver to flick through various modes.
Similarly, the adaptive cruise control system obscures the trip computer with a diagram showing the radar has picked up a vehicle in front. This is incredibly annoying. Lane-keeping assistance acts with a lurch after the car has gone a good couple of feet over a lane marking as well, another case of Toyota poorly implementing an otherwise useful technology.
Engine and transmission
In the name of fuel efficiency and lowering emissions the Kluger has borrowed from sister brand Lexus to create Australia’s first Toyota-badged car with the latest direct injection version of its well-regarded 3.5-litre petrol V6.
The more precise fuel delivery and increased compression ratio combine to boost peak power by 17kW, to 218kW at 6600rpm, with torque output rising 13Nm, to 350Nm at 4700rpm.
Also shared with Lexus is a new eight-speed automatic transmission, supporting the tweaked engine to cut fuel use by a claimed 10 per cent. All-wheel-drive variants such as our Grande test vehicle now chew 9.5 litres per 100km on the official combined cycle, compared with 10.6L/100km previously, while carbon dioxide emissions are a more planet-friendly 221 grams per kilometre (previously 246g/km).
On the motorway, at least, it appears to have worked. We achieved 7.9L/100km on one long-haul journey, but low-to-mid eights were seen more consistently. The official highway figure is 7.6L/100km, but we were pleasantly surprised to see single-digit consumption from such a big six-cylinder petrol SUV. But if you do a lot of long-distance trips, we see no need to worry about the Kluger being thirsty.
After 10 days with the Kluger, we averaged 10.4L/100km which is not far off the type of figures we have seen on diesel seven-seat SUVs, but our work schedule had us covering a lot of motorway and country kilometres in that time, which skewed the result slightly.
In urban and suburban driving it was a different story, with the 15.6L/100km we achieved indicative of what you can expect in this environment when dealing with traffic jams and the cut-and-thrust of commuting with people and luggage on-board – a fair bit higher than the 12.8L/100km official city cycle figure.
The star of the show for us was the new transmission, which for the most part was the definition of seamless. In many driving scenarios we could only detect its machinations by watching the rev-counter. Shifts are undetectable unless a squeeze of the accelerator pedal causes it to kick down a couple of the closely-stacked ratios.
It is a highly intelligent transmission, too, helping avoid the typical Toyota trait of accelerating down hills well beyond the setting of the cruise control by subtly but effectively delivering strong engine braking. During our dynamic test we appreciated the super-quick up-changes, accompanied by a fluttering sound from the exhaust as we wound the V6 up to its 6600rpm power peak.
We could also confidently leave the transmission to its own devices – in sport mode – during our blast along a twisty country lane, enabled by the combination of excellent calibration, well-chosen ratios and powerful engine that requires revs to give its best.
Manual mode was not as satisfying as it could have been, mostly due to the borderline undetectable shifts and tiny rev difference between ratios that could easily be mistaken for torque converter slip. As we said, this is no problem given how good it is in drive or sport. We can see why Toyota Australia omitted the paddle shifters available in other markets.
Back to the engine, which is as smooth, quiet and refined as could be expected from a unit shared with Lexus. When it is heard, it is because the Kluger is being driven hard, producing a characterful woofly note, satisfyingly brisk progress and an even more satisfying throttle response that can only be achieved by this dying breed of naturally aspirated big-bore powerplants.
The only oddity was its propensity to hang onto revs after a cold start, which must be related to achieving a quick warm-up time. It took some getting used to and had us looking down to make sure we had not selected sport or manual mode on the gear selector until it calmed down a kilometre or three down the road.
Lacking a diesel engine loses the Kluger a few sales in a segment dominated by oil-burners but for those not solely subjecting this car to suburban shuttle duties, it provides the smoothness and refinement of petrol propulsion without a huge compromise on running costs.
Ride and handling
In this department the Kluger has a really, really odd personality. We have no issues with its soft and comfortable ride, which glides over lumps, bumps and potholes like the very best. Only rippled surfaces cause it a problem, sending shudders through the cabin and its occupants. Those regularly travelling in the Hunter Valley might want to look elsewhere.
What we found disappointing was how lumbering the Kluger was at low speeds, rolling around on its soft springs and making passengers feel uncomfortable as we negotiated roundabouts or intersections. Adults and children we transported hated it for this and to keep them happy we were forced to frustrate following traffic by taking these obstacles very slowly.
So when the time came to put this car through its paces on our dynamic test route we could not understand how settled it was, with less initial roll than expected and impressive body control.
The steering, which is light and easy for urban manoeuvring – aided by a respectable 11.8 metre turning circle – but heavy enough on the motorway to make adverse cambers or truck-worn road grooves tiring, was ideally weighted on our 100km/h back-road blast and remarkably tight and accurate.
Grip levels from the 19-inch Toyo Open Country tyres were more than up to the job in the dry conditions of our test, with a progressive breakaway and understeer only really an issue on tighter corners. Our all-wheel-drive Grande would just heave itself through corners under power and felt much more settled on fast bends when fully committed than if we tackled them on a trailing throttle.
Despite the level of comfort-related isolation the Kluger provides, it was communicative enough for us to judge and predict its behaviour when pushed hard, even more so on gravel tracks where we had a true sense of what each wheel was doing and the car felt extremely confident and stable. The compliant ride helped it keep the wheels down, finding all the available grip and traction.
Only tighter gravel bends posed a problem, causing the front wheels to wash out at surprisingly low speeds but we only had to experience this once to know how to keep the Kluger tracking true on subsequent occasions.
Back on bitumen, the Kluger dealt admirably with poor corner surfaces and again only came unstuck with high-frequency bumps and ripples. Encountered mid-corner, worn and patchwork surfaces did not throw the car off-line but certainly upset the stability and traction control systems that had otherwise proved unobtrusive and subtle in their interventions.
At higher speeds the Kluger provides the safe, predictable nature its target market desires but delivers a pleasant surprise for the keener driver, too. Its brakes also deserve a mention for their impressive and confidence-inspiring performance, with a positive pedal feel that is easy to modulate for smooth stopping when not slamming on the anchors.
Of course, for long road-trips it is a relaxing way to travel as well.
So it is all the more disappointing that in its urban and suburban habitat there is a tendency for this super-sized SUV to drive like a supertanker.
Safety and servicing
ANCAP testing of the Kluger in 2014 resulted in a maximum five-star rating, which carries over to the facelifted model we drove.
In the fontal offset test the Kluger scored 14.97 out of 16, with a full 16 points gained in the side impact test and two out of two in the pole test.
Whiplash protection was deemed ‘good’ but pedestrian protection ‘marginal’.
Overall it got 35.57 out of 37.
Standard safety equipment includes seven airbags – dual front, side, curtains covering all three rows and a driver's knee bag – plus anti-lock brakes with brake assist and electronic brake force distribution, stability and traction control, hill holder and hill descent control. All seven seats have three-point lap-sash seatbelts, with height adjustment, pre-tensioners and load limiters for the front two. The first and second seating rows have advanced seatbelt reminders.
Service intervals are every six months or 10,000km and under Toyota’s capped price servicing scheme, the first six scheduled services cost $180 each when carried out within the first 3 years or 60,000km (correct at time of writing).
Government, rental, fleet and not-for-profit customers are not eligible for capped-price servicing and are instead offered the maximum logbook service price of $219.63 for the first visit, $289.40 for the second, $302.52 for the third, $504.45 for the fourth, $219.63 for the fifth and $372.30 for the sixth.
The Kluger is covered by a three-year, 100,000km warranty.
With the Kluger, Toyota has come up with a well-thought out and spacious hauler that only really suffers from the same annoyances that apply to any other vehicle in its range. And its annoyingly wallow-y round-town ride.
This update brings meaningful progress, not least the fantastic eight-speed transmission that adds an extra layer of premium burnish to an already polished package.
As good as it is, we are not sure the Kluger can objectively compete with the less expensive Mazda CX-9 and Kia Sorento, both of which have similar modern conveniences to the Toyota, just executed better. And they are both more pleasant to drive in the suburbs.
Mazda CX-9 Azami AWD ($63,390 plus on-road costs)
We weren’t so bowled over by this multiple award-winning Mazda as some media outlets obviously were. Like the Kluger it is made in America, for Americans and this shines through. But it is a thoroughly modern and genuinely upmarket machine that also happens to offer plenty of practicality while avoiding depressing its driver with dreary dynamics.
Kia Sorento GT-Line ($58,490 plus on-road costs)
Despite the critical acclaim lavished on the Mazda, we reckon the Sorento is Australia’s best road-oriented seven-seat SUV, without taking into account its market-leading seven-year warranty. What’s more, this classy Korean feels distinctly Euro inside and out.
Hyundai Santa Fe SR ($64,250 plus on-road costs)
The Kluger Grande really competes against the $57,090 Santa Fe Highlander but we put the sporty SR in here just to get the price a bit closer to Toyota’s.
Hyundai can’t compete with the Kluger on space and practicality, but it remains leagues ahead on ride, handling and overall ease-of-use.
Nissan Pathfinder TI AWD ($66,190 plus on-road costs)
Quite a lot in common with the Kluger in that it is a petrol-only affair (although a hybrid is available) and big on size and cup-holder count but a recent facelift has slightly raised its dynamic bar, even if the interior presentation and quality still disappoints.
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