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First drive: Kluger fires up in cross-over wars

Get up and go: Kluger does a good job of hauling its large body with reasonable verve.

The versatile Kluger completes Toyota's formidable off-road arsenal

13 Oct 2003

TOYOTA has pitched its entry into the burgeoning mid-size cross-over wars, launching the oddly-named but otherwise very sensible Kluger range of five and seven-seat wagons.

Stretching in price between $43,990 and $58,990, the three models in the all-wheel drive range share the same fundamental mechanical lay-out and sheetmetal.

Those mechanicals include an all-alloy 3.3-litre VVTi V6 engine producing 172kW at 5600rpm and 328NM of torque at 3600rpm, a five-speed automatic transmission and MacPherson strut suspension all-round.

Toyota claims Kluger is one of the quickest six-cylinder all-wheel drive wagons in Australia, with zero to 100km/h acceleration in 8.1 seconds and a 16.3 seconds quarter mile. Claimed combined average fuel consumption is 12.3 litres/100km on the ADR 81/01 Combined cycle.

The biggest variance technically is in the AWD system. The entry level CV and the mid-spec CVX employ a viscous-coupled centre limited slip differential and limited slip rear differential.

Top-of-the range Grande has electronic control of torque split, using the car’s standard stability and traction control systems to negotiate the going off-road But low range is not part of the package. In that, the Kluger complies with standard cross-over practice, most notably the recently launched Holden Adventra and the forthcoming Ford Territory that goes on sale in June 2004.

Unlike those two, the Kluger is not locally manufactured and is unlikely to be for some years, although it is on Toyota Australia’s wishlist. Built on the same TMP monocoque platform as the local Camry and Avalon, it is an obvious target for local production.

The Kluger also shares its platform and drivetrain with the recently launched Lexus RX330 and is able to do that because the Toyota luxury brand isn’t sold in Japan – that happens in 2005.

So all that Lexus quality for a discount is good news for buyers, and Toyota even claims the name has clinicked well with locals.

Nevertheless, Toyota wanted to change to Highlander in Australia – this car’s North American name – but Hyundai already had rights to that for its Terracan luxury model and was not about to hand it over.

The conservative exterior design as well as the name come to us from Japan, the boxy shape managing only an average 0.35 Cd figure. Other key figures are an 11.4 metre turning circle and 4690mm overall length.

In the tradition of recent Toyota models, there’s no shortage of equipment, with the safety baseline including dual airbags, ABS disc brakes with EBD and Brake Assist, three-point seatbelts and head restraints all round.

Importantly for a vehicle with off-road pretensions, Kluger includes a full-sized spare wheel.

Interior design is quite versatile, including a 60/40 split second row seat with 120mm of sliding fore/aft slide adjustment

Comfort features include cruise control, six-speaker audio, luggage area tonneau cover, climate control air-conditioning and a trip computer.

The CVX adds front foglights, roof rails, 16-inch alloy wheels, power front seats, six-CD in-dash player, rear-seat heater controls and a standard third row boosting seat capacity from five to seven.

Top-spec Grande boasts 17-inch alloy wheels, moonroof, sat-nav, rear spoiler, stability and traction control and side and curtain airbags.

Interior design is quite versatile, including a 60/40 split second row seat with 120mm of sliding fore/aft slide adjustment. Access to the third row seat is by a one-touch tilt and slide walk-in function for the 40 per cent portion of the second-row seat.

The second and third row seats fold almost flat when not required.

Kluger has 580 litres of luggage volume (VDA method) when the third row seats are in their folded position.

Toyota is confident that Kluger will generate 7000 largely incremental sales despite lining up price-wise in the heart of its already strong off-roader range, which includes the iconic Land Cruiser, the rejuvenated Prado and the compact-market leading RAV4.

But it also sees the Kluger making an impact on the medium and large six family car market. Toyota’s research shows a swing toward the more versatile cross-overs from the traditional three-box sedans, and it expects Kluger to capitalise on that, as well as taking the place of the traditional wagon – a hole in the line-up since the launch of the current 380N Camry.

It’s a trend that Holden and Ford obviously see as well, the proof being Adventra and Territory.

Such is Toyota’s belief in this shift that it actually managed to convince Toyota Japan to supply the Kluger mid-cycle, rather than at the beginning of an all-new model generation. What we are getting in Australia is the mid-life update of a model that has been around since 2001 in the US and Japan.

Kluger CV $43,990
Kluger CVX $48,990
Kluger Grande $58,990


ON the surface of it, Toyota appears to have released exactly the right vehicle at exactly the right time.

Aimed directly and unashamedly at homegrown soft-roaders to come from Holden and Ford in the exploding Australian cross-over market, Kluger completes Toyota's formidable off-roader arsenal by filling a small but hotly contested price gap between RAV4 and Prado.

While Kluger is typically Toyota-like in execution and will have broad appeal, it has been on sale in Japan since 2001 and will also compete for customers of its own popular Prado and the Mitsubishi Pajero in the medium SUV segment.

Described as an all-wheel drive wagon with reasonable off-road ability, Kluger will not only rival Territory and the V6 Adventra - both due on sale next year. The flagship Grande model will also be a logical alternative to luxury off-roaders priced more than $10,000 higher, such as Toyota's own Lexus RX330 - the car upon which Kluger is based.

Look beyond the overgrown Forester styling and Kluger (which means clever in German) oozes the type of refinement and build quality we have come to expect from Toyota, or perhaps even Lexus. The interior is highly ergonomic, nicely finished and well appointed, with even the base CV variant wanting for little in terms of standard equipment.

The long list includes climate control air-conditioning, twin front airbags, ABS, EBD, Brake Assist, power windows and mirrors, cruise control, trip computer, vanity mirrors, sun visor extensions, door lighting and a six-speaker sound system with CD player and, refreshingly, a cassette deck.

But the aerial is a non-flexible, retractable item which is good for the bush but attractive to thieves elsewhere, and while the Grande gets standard front side and side curtain airbags (with stability and traction control), these safety items cannot be optioned on the base CV. Together, they cost around $2200 on CVX.

Large, clear instruments reside in a deep-set binnacle, to the left of which is a centre console angled toward the driver and close enough for convenient operation of simple and well laid-out climate, audio and trip computer controls. The dashboard features classy silver highlights in base models, while the console is finished in woodgrain trim on Grande.

Out back, the second row of seats conveniently splits in a 60/40 arrangement, with each section offering a handy tilt/slide function for easy access to the two-up third row seat (optional on CV at around $1000, standard in CVX and Grande), which folds completely flat into the floor like Honda MDX and Holden Zafira - despite a full-size spare wheel residing underneath.

The front seats feel flat and firm initially, but provide reasonably good long-stint support

The second row slides over a reasonable range, either as a unit or independently, and in the middle of its travel delivers generous legroom for both second and third row passengers.

Similarly, there's plenty of stretching room in all directions and each seating position comes with at least one cupholder, with the folding central armrest revealing a pair of them in a lidded compartment.

There is also a large, lockable glovebox, map pockets, sizeable door compartments and enough room for overnight bags behind the third row seats.

The front seats feel flat and firm initially, but provide reasonably good long-stint support and a wide range of manual adjustment in base form.

A lack of lateral support is somewhat compensated for by folding inboard armrests on both front seats, but some drivers may lament the lack of telescopic steering wheel adjustment.

All seating positions get a three-point seatbelt and adjustable head restraints, and the front belts are height adjustable.

On the road, although wind, engine and road noise are all slightly up on the RX330, Kluger's quiet interior remains one of its strong points, with suspension and under-body noise suppression also kept well in check. Second biggest impression is the light steering, which is perhaps slightly meatier than the RX's overly light tiller.

As such, it will appeal to female drivers and is a boon in parking and heavy traffic situations, as is the reasonably tall seating position, which takes little effort to access but provides real benefits in terms of vision and anticipation. The only blight here, as with most seven-seaters, is slightly restricted rear-view vision thanks to the long cabin and multiple head restraints.

Kluger's steering remains relatively light even as speeds rise and, combined with a degree of bodyroll that's similar to, say, Subaru's Forester, can upset the wagon's balance during unplanned changes of direction.

Like most SUVs, the tall seating position accentuates the feeling of excessive bodyroll, but in fact Kluger displays a high level of body control on all types of surfaces and its compliant suspension delivers an impressive level of ride comfort.

Developed for the RX330 and shared with Kluger, the all-independent suspension is quiet and absorbs even the biggest road holes and lumps without protest, causing very little of the head shake that afflicts many large off-roaders.

An ambitious off-road course in the foothills of Victoria's Mount Buller ski field offered the chance to extend Kluger's off-road ability to its limits – and the Toyota cross-over impressed with its all-terrain ability.

Despite average ground clearance of 187mm, short overhangs and a relatively tight 2715mm wheelbase give Kluger respectable approach (29 degrees), departure (23.9mm) and ramp-over (19.3mm) angles.

As such, Kluger was able to clear fairly rocky inclines with ease, cross foot-deep creek crossings without problem and traverse deeply rutted trails without excessive slipping or sliding. Only a muddy, heavily cambered hairpin hampered Kluger's progress, with its AWD system forced to work overtime to free itself using the usefully short low gear.

While the base CV and mid-range CVX Kluger employ a centre viscous coupling that incorporates a limited-slip function like the rear differential, the top-spec Grande improves on this configuration by offering traction control-based distribution of torque when tyre slippage occurs.

There's little difference between the two systems in practice, with enough traction in most circumstances to render the Grande's more sophisticated stability control system superfluous, except on the likes of icy surfaces.

Overall, handling is safe, secure and biased towards user-friendly understeer at the limit of adhesion, but brief power oversteer is available on loose surfaces for spirited drivers.

Kluger does not come anywhere near the benchmark BMW X5 in terms of tarmac dynamics, but offers a good compromise between off-road compliance and on-road handling response to suit the wide spread of customers it is expected to attract.

That said, Toyota claims the 3.3-litre DOHC VVTi-equipped V6 makes Kluger one of the quickest six-cylinder crossovers available, and features the highest specific power in the medium SUV segment.

Indeed, with 172kW available at 5600rpm and a respectable 328Nm of torque on tap at 3600rpm, Kluger does a good job of hauling its large body (with a kerb weight ranging between 1740kg and 1875kg) with reasonable verve - and there's no arguing with its claimed 0-100km/h acceleration of 8.1 seconds.

Employing the same engine as the RX330, Kluger is well aided by a slick-shifting five-speed automatic transmission, which lacks a sequential manual shift function but extracts the most out of the somewhat rev-happy V6. Like Kluger's handling, real-world performance is sufficient rather than outstanding.

Well priced, well executed and eminently practical, Kluger makes a solid argument against the horde of soft-roaders available right now.

Toyota says it won't steal sales from the Japanese giant's super-popular LandCruiser range, but we think Kluger's car-like monocoque chassis construction, tall seating position, tight turning circle, reasonable towing capability, high level of safety features, greater efficiency and less compromised on-road manner might make it the vehicle that many families now driving Prados have been looking for.

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