It says much for the power of the Toyota brand that the Kluger has become one of Australia’s biggest selling family SUVs without a frugal fuel consumption offering such as a turbo-diesel engine.
And with the arrival of the third generation in March, Toyota obviously sees no reason to switch tack, as it will rely on the same powerful and thirsty 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine to sell every example of the Kluger it rolls out of its showrooms each month.
All 1000 or more of them... no other brand could hope to achieve that. The Ford Territory, Holden Captiva and (to a lesser extent) the Hyundai Santa Fe are its soft-roader sales rivals and all of them have diesel and petrol engines.
It’s frightening for them to think just how many Klugers Toyota would sell per month if it did have a diesel engine option, or even the expensive petrol-electric hybrid that is about to go on-sale in the USA.
But no, Toyota has worked away in other directions for this overhaul, much of which we have detailed here
What becomes obvious when you see the new Kluger in the metal for the first time is how much better looking it is. Yes, the trapezoidal snout is overly-wide and aggressive, but this joint effort between Toyota’s California and Japanese studios is otherwise a distinguished step forward from its predecessor.
The slabbiness is gone thanks to more character in the body sides. And some clever profiling front and rear, and a lower roofline actually make the new Kluger look smaller than its predecessor even though it is 80mm longer.
Inside the step-up in quality is significant. The high grade Kluger we sampled covered its sweeping dash in soft-touch material, incorporated the instrument panel with its rotary dial faces for the speedo and tacho, a substantial media screen and an underslung storage shelf.
Storage is one thing the Kluger does exceptionally well. There is no shortage of cup and bottle holders, door bins and a huge centre lidded bin big enough to swallow a handbag – and much more – beneath dual sliding doors.
The front and middle row seats are big and comfortable and the amount of space to sprawl outstanding. The second row bench slides fore and aft and can split-fold. Two additional chairs are also available aft, turning the Kluger into a six seater. Row three is really for kids or short trips and pretty much cruels luggage space.
When the kids are back there, fighting, clawing and generally being nuisances you won’t have to turn around to scold them now. No, ejector seats are not fitted!
Thanks to ‘Driver Easy Speak’ you can give them a good dressing down via the Bluetooth microphone, which projects your voice into the rear of the cabin. It’s a neat idea and seems to work well.
Underway it’s apparent Toyota has successfully worked to improve cabin quietness. This is where Lexus was at not that long ago. Carry-over hydraulic engine mounts are aided by an increased use of high strength steels, an acoustic windshield, a redesigned exhaust and added under-floor insulating materials.
At high freeway speeds the most obvious disturbance is wind rustling against the wing mirrors. Tyre noise rarely intrudes and even under hard acceleration the engine always keeps its distance.
Because the Kluger is a hefty vehicle you do have to use the engine hard at times for prompt acceleration. It’s up to the challenge, usually coming on strong and never feeling overwhelmed. On a tough and varied course the trip computer claimed an overall fuel consumption average of around 13.0L1/00km. Quite good for this type of engine, but still expensive these days. Stop-start would definitely be a good addition.
The new six-speed auto (replacing a five-speed) meshes well with the engine, changes only becoming obvious up steep hills as it has to cut back through the gears to maintain momentum.
You can change manually via the shifter but we would prefer paddles so both hands can be kept on the steering wheel.
The feedback that wheel delivers to the driver has definitely improved from the old Kluger – as Toyota has claimed it has. Look, clearing that bar wasn’t the toughest challenge to be honest, but it is a task accomplished by some considerable margin.
The electric-assist rack and pinion power steering has more weight and deliberation to it and in the all-wheel drive Kluger on 19-inch rubber sampled by motoring.com.au felt just about right, be it negotiating LA gridlock, the 101 North, a country highway or a rocky track up and over the Santa Ynez Mountains. 18-inch wheels will be fitted to the cheaper models in the range, including a front-wheel drive version.
Toyota has also made progress on handling and ride. OK, this is a big and top-heavy vehicle, but over some pretty lumpy roads the suspension resisted turning the body into a pogo, while the stability control – when activated – imposed itself with a subtlety a driver of its blunt-axe predecessor wouldn’t recognise.
While the combination of more rigidly mounted MacPherson struts up-front and double wishbones (replacing trailing arms) at the rear was managing to keep control, it was also providing a high comfort level on the track’s washaways or the freeways' sharp-edged gaps at slow, medium and high speeds.
Day two driving on faster, looser, gravel roads – like the ones so common in Australia – showed that Toyota has still not got the stability control tune right. Any hint of grip loss in a corner and the Kluger would virtually come to a stop as the electronic stability control system (ESC) killed drive. Only when the steering wheel lock was unwound did any real power return to the wheels.
While in so many other ways the Kluger is a significantly better drive, the nanny state ESC was disappointingly and frustratingly familiar from the old car and other Toyotas too. All the company’s techs from the USA and Japan need do is drive a Territory to find out how unobtrusively supportive ESC can be.
The good news is the experts at Toyota’s Melbourne-based technical centre have been working hard to hone the ESC and the other more promising aspects of this dynamic combination for Australian conditions. If they get it right it should be very good indeed.
Going off the beaten track gave us the chance to sample the Kluger’s new on-demand all-wheel drive system, which replaces permanent drive to all wheels. It gripped up confidently on formed roads and then with the centre diff locked could tackle some moderately tough climbs and descents. But this is no Prado, so don’t get over-ambitious.
Where the Kluger does feel Prado-like is in the solidity and security it delivers to its occupants. Riding up high, visibility excellent, this is a vehicle that makes you feel safe and secure.
The previous Kluger imparted a similar sensation. But only up to the point it started rolling. Then things started falling apart. This time round it feels like Toyota has got a lot more right.
No doubt plenty more Klugers will be rolling out of Toyota showrooms once this new model arrives. It would seem only a surge in fuel prices is going to challenge its popularity.