What we liked
>> Strong 3.3-litre V6 engine
>> Smooth on-road ride
>> Very capable off-road
Not so much
>> The name, conservative styling
>> Excessive body lean in corners
>> Steering response too slow
The Toyota Kluger mid-sized four-wheel drive hit the market in October 2003, around three years after it first appeared in North America, and two years after the right hand drive version -- called Highlander -- went on sale in Japan.
Toyota Australia wanted the Highlander name, but Hyundai -- which uses it as a grade name on the Terracan four-wheel drive -- would not relinquish the moniker. Hence Kluger, which is said to mean 'clever' or 'very clever' in German.
The Kluger is a deceptively large vehicle, appearing in pictures to be no bigger than a Subaru Forester. In fact, the Kluger is 4.7m long, 1.83m wide and around 1.7m tall, making it between 10-25cm bigger than Forester in all dimensions. A Commodore sedan, by comparison, is another 10cm longer than Kluger.
Kluger's basic wagon package surrounds a powerful 3.3-litre V6 engine mated to all wheel drive and high ground clearance. Toyota believes the Kluger, and vehicles like it, will be the next big thing in Australia. So much so that Toyota hopes to build a solid enough business case to stop importing and start producing the vehicle at its Altona plant by 2007.
For that to happen Australians must show an annual appetite for 30,000 Klugers, or around 2500 per month. Initially Toyota believes it can sell around 500 a month, but expects sharp rises in sales and popularity when Holden's six cylinder Adventra and Ford's Territory join the fray -- and increase market exposure of crossover vehicles -- late in 2004.
Kluger's most attractive features are undoubtedly its people-carrying capacity and on-road performance, coupled in a four-wheel drive body. The popularity of traditional four-wheel drives has grown phenomenally since 1990, due as much to their high driving position and carrying capacity as to their off-road ability.
Toyota calls Kluger a car-based SUV, which "offers passenger car-like comfort and performance." We'll take a closer look at that statement in the "On The Road" section, but for now let's check out the range.
Three models comprise the Kluger range in Australia -- CV, CVX and Grande -- with pricing starting at $43,990 and topping out at $58,990. All three models share the same engine and transmission package, namely a 3.3-litre V6 mated to a five speed automatic transmission. All three models have all-wheel drive, mechanical on the CV and CVX and electronic on the Grande.
All Klugers include power steering, cruise control, climate control air-conditioning, tinted rear-side windows, trip computer, CD player and full-size spare wheel. Features and safety equipment increase from model to model in tune with the price; the CVX and CVX are the best value for money, and are expected to appeal to more than 90 percent of all customers.
The higher grade CVX adds alloy wheels, roof rails and fog lights on the outside. Power front seats, a six-stack CD player and rear-seat heater controls compliment the interior.
Top of the line Grande adds bigger 17-inch wheels, sunroof and a rear spoiler outside, touch-screen satellite navigation inside. In addition, front side airbags and curtain airbags, electronic four-wheel drive, traction control and vehicle stability control make the Grande the safest of all Klugers.
Toyota vehicles are nothing if not efficient and practical, sometimes to the detriment of emotional attraction. No matter, because they're also supremely capable and keenly priced, and Kluger's no different.
Interior space and features are unremarkable in their efficiency. Both the front and second row of seats are comfortable and roomy enough for an average sized adult. The front seats are slightly moulded to reduce body sliding, particularly the backrest, though not enough for our liking. Headroom is good in both rows, and access to each is made easy by wide opening doors and car's high stance.
The third row of seats -- fitted standard to CVX and Grande models, optional on CV -- is a kids-only domains. Adults will have difficulty getting their bigger feet into the footwell, the depth of which leaves knees awkwardly high. The third row does fold perfectly flat when not in use, freeing up plenty of luggage space in the boot area.
We had some difficulty finding a comfortable driving position, despite the fact the driver's seat slides, tilts and raises. The steering wheel only tilts, meaning the pedal to wheel ratio is always a compromise. That said, driving the car is no problem, visibility is very good in all four directions, and large wing mirrors are easy to use.
Swing-type arm rests on the two front seats come in handy on longer trips.
Kluger's safety story begins with its vehicle dynamics, which are far more impressive and responsive than a traditional four-wheel drive's. Though not quite at the level of a passenger car, Kluger's relative sure-footedness will improve your chances of avoiding a crash.
All Klugers get all-wheel drive, as well as anti-lock disc brakes with EBD and BA (Electronic Brakeforce Distribution - sends braking force to the tyres with the most grip; Brake Assist - detects a driver-initiated panic stop and applies maximum braking).
Vehicle stability control (VSC) and traction control (TRC) are standard on the Grande, an optional extra on the CVX and not available on CV.
Passive safety includes front airbags for driver and passenger and pretensioning seatbelts with force limiters. Kluger's bodyshell is said to be "highly rigid" by Toyota, which provides both a strong protective shell and the basis for a nimble and responsive chassis.
Toyota says the Kluger is based on the Lexus RX330 four-wheel drive, which makes this vehicle something of a cut-priced luxury bargain. Basic mechanicals such as 3.3-litre V6 engine, five-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel drive system and suspension are shared with the upmarket Lexus.
Variable valve timing on the inlet valves is said to reduce fuel consumption and boost torque in low revs and free up more power in higher revs. Kluger's peak power of 172kW and torque of 328Nm makes it one of the most powerful six-cylinder crossover vehicles currently on the market.
Both the CV and CVX share the same all wheel drive system which operates through a viscous coupling centre differential and rear limited slip diff. Torque is apportioned 50:50 front to rear. The Grande eschews the viscous LSD in the centre for an electronically controlled traction control system (TRC) which Toyota says "provides more precise and smoother traction".
Four-wheel independent suspension has been tuned mainly for on-road use, but Kluger's 184mm ground clearance means it'll happily tackle easy to medium four-wheel drive trails.
Kluger tips the scales at 1740-1875kg depending on the model. It'll accelerate from rest to 100km/h in a claimed 8.1 seconds, and cover the first 400m in 16.3 seconds. Fuel consumption, measured according to Australian Design Rule standards, is 12.3 litres/100km on a combined city/hwy cycle.
Kluger's most obvious competitors are not on sale at the time of writing -- Holden Adventra V6 and Ford Territory -- so it's unclear how it'll go against these two locally produced vehicles.
Of the current crop of vehicles, Subaru Outback comes close with all-wheel drive and a six-cylinder drivetrain but does not offer seven seats. Subaru Forester is another five-seat consideration, but only the turbocharged XT will match the performance. Mitsubishi's Outlander is sadly outgunned in this company.
Toyota believes people will also move to Kluger from the traditional Aussie family car. In fact Toyota hopes that Kluger and its ilk will one day replace Falcon and Commodore as the typical Aussie family car. High hopes, but not without reason.
Commodore and Falcon owners looking towards large four wheel drives should consider the Kluger a good compromise, which means Camry, Avalon and Magna will also lose customers. So too will large four wheel drives like Toyota's own Prado, Mitsubishi Pajero, Nissan Pathfinder and others lose customers to Kluger's better on-road manners and more compact body.
ON THE ROAD
Kluger fulfils Toyota's claim of having more passenger car-like on-road manners than a four-wheel drive, but it's still a little way off handling like a true passenger car. Excessive bodyroll in corners is Kluger's main problem in an otherwise faultless repertoire.
Kluger handles bumps and ripples in the tarmac with sure-footed efficiency, never losing a step or troubling the steering wheel. Taken to the edge of tyre grip the Kluger pushes gently wide as the tyres squeal their displeasure. At cruising speeds the Kluger's independent suspension delivers a smooth unruffled ride to occupants enjoying the well-insulated cabin.
The 172kW V6 engine is more than adequately suited to this application, providing strong acceleration off the mark, and never short of herbs on steeper climbs. It settles comfortably into a 100km/h cross-country jaunt, the engine noise barely registering in the cabin. Kluger, like some other Toyota products, is limited to 180km/h -- which is unlikely to be a problem on Australia's heavily policed roads.
The five-speed automatic gearbox is inconspicuous in its operation, smoothly transiting between the gears. It's reluctant to change down, requiring an exaggerated push on the throttle to encourage a cog-swap. For those, like us, who prefer a little more control, Toyota offers manual selection on all five gears via the overdrive button (4) and 3-2-1.
Kluger's power assisted steering is slow to wind on, requiring too much input for the desired result. Weighting is on the too-light side of perfect, with little weight build up under stress. It is accurate, and cushions the driver well from road bumps, but lacks feel. Kluger's turning circle is slightly larger than the average family sedan, but certainly smaller than most big four wheel drives.
Which is really what the Kluger is all about: A very good attempt to build a true crossover vehicle that successfully combines passenger car dynamics and performance in a four-wheel drive. Is it worth buying? Yes, if you're after a psuedo-four wheel drive for mostly urban use.
7 DAY TEST
Model tested: Toyota Kluger Grande
Price as tested: $58,990
Distance covered: 3036km
Road tester: Chris Fincham
Date tested: December 12, 2003 –- January 12, 2004
Not an eye catcher; in practical terms the perfect Aussie family transport.
Toyota's latest entry into the cross-over vehicle segment left us a bit cold at first. Resplendent in 'Kelvinator' white and with uninspiring boxy styling, our test Kluger Grande blended in with all the other four-wheel-drive wagons in the carpark. Never mind, as four weeks of holiday duties and 3000 fuss-free kilometres later we found little else to criticise about this competent, mid-sized all-rounder.
We drove the range-topping Grande model which, at $58,990, adds leather seats, sat-nav, touchscreen display, six-stack CD player, sunroof, and rear spoiler to an already long list of standard features. The extra goodies were well-received during the mind-numbing Melbourne-Sydney family trip, as much for alleviating boredom as adding to the luxury feel.
Build quality is typically Toyota -- top-notch - with no annoying rattles or other noises to report during our time together. Even soaring summer heat couldn't fluster the Kluger, thanks to tinted rear windows, powerful air-con, cool beige interior and all that reflective white paint.
The comfortable cabin also impressed with many useful touches. We liked the front seat armrests that fold back for climb-through access to the rear seats. The second row of seats slide forward to provide much needed legroom for taller third-row passengers. Countless compartments throughout the cabin mean you're never short of storage space.
With the third-row seats folded flat, the rear load area swallows enough bulky items for any decent family expedition. Fitting a cargo barrier would up capacity even further. Like a good people mover, the Kluger shifts easily from people carrying to load lugging duties and gets top marks for user-friendliness.
It also shines over more conventional four-wheel-drives with its impressive on-road performance. The refined V6/five-speed auto combination gives it silky-smooth acceleration from the lights and rapid progress through traffic in a manner that belies its 1875kg bulk.
The extra grip from all-wheel-drive, solid brakes and various electronic aids add to the on-road poise. The only let-down is over-light steering and some body-roll in corners, which slows progress in the twisty bits.
On the freeway the 3.3-litre V6 barely ticks over, with just a hint of tyre and wind hum above 100km/h. Coarse and rippled surfaces are dealt with smoothly, although larger potholes deliver a disconcerting thump into the cabin.
Fuel economy was another pleasant surprise. We recorded an average of just over 10litres/100km, no doubt helped by our time on the Hume Highway. Expect closer to 14litres/100km if you do most of your driving around town.
Smooth road tyres, limited road clearance and lack of low-range gearing restrict the Kluger to light off-road duties but it coped with every other task we threw at it, from carting the weekly shopping to changing nappies in the back seat! And unlike more traditional wagons, it's a breeze to drive around town and shouldn't cost a fortune to run.