The new-generation Toyota Kluger adds a hybrid powertrain for the first time, as part of a suite of meaningful upgrades.
In 2017, a thirsty RAV4 lineup sold around 21,000 units and accounted for 13% of the medium SUV class. By 2020, the much-improved new RAV4 dominated its segment with 25% market share and nearly 39,000 sales off the back of a punchy, popular hybrid engine.
For the Kluger, Toyota’s largest car-based SUV, it may be the same story on a three-year time delay. The outgoing Kluger has been surprisingly popular despite its boaty driving manners, but it owns less than a tenth of the bustling large SUV market in Australia.
That’s because the new Kluger is perhaps the most-improved car of 2021. There has been a quantum leap in road manners, with a far more sophisticated ride and handling balance than the huge, soft, American-attuned third-gen car.
In fourth-gen form the Kluger is an even bigger car but it truly shrinks around you on a country road, with a revelation in steering improvement, far less body roll, and an even, compliant ride quality that has you audibly wondering if this really is a Toyota Kluger. The well-sorted CX-9 was clearly benchmarked.
Those improvements nearly render the addition of a 184kW 2.5-litre hybrid four-cylinder engine with standard AWD a footnote.
But it shouldn’t. While the thirsty (but silky) 218kW petrol V6 carries on, the ultraefficient hybrid is an impressive addition to the Kluger lineup – but at a price. The Kluger hybrid costs $6,500 more than a 2WD V6, or $2,500 more than a V6 with optional AWD.
Asking a Kluger buyer to spend up to the hybrid will be a tougher sell than on the RAV4, where the 160kW hybrid eclipses the 120kW two-litre base engine on every metric.
The good news for buyers is that there is plenty of choice in the 2021 Kluger lineup. Any of the three powertrains – V6 2WD, V6 AWD and hybrid AWD – can be paired to any of the three grades. The base GX is better equipped than before, while the GXL is family-friendly and the Grande on test here ($75,400) is downright plush.
It is rare to drive an all-new model that such a radical an improvement over the outgoing car.
The previous-generation car wasn’t entirely horrible but its very softly-sprung suspension, poor body control, low-grip tyres and faintly cheap-feeling interior conspired to make it a far less desirable choice than refined rivals like the Mazda CX-9.
Well, Toyota evidently listened to that feedback, and if there’s one car the engineers obviously targeted in development, it’s the big Mazda.
Whereas the CX-9 would leave the old Kluger for dead on any kind of technical, winding road, the new Toyota is right there with the Mazda, demonstrating a superb fluency to each of the control surfaces. Steering, suspension, throttle and brake now work cohesively.
Much like Mazda, Toyota have achieved this impressive driving character without the need for adaptive dampers or adjustable steering. Instead, there is one ‘correct’ setting for these attributes, with the selectable drive modes altering only the throttle, gearing and AWD system response.
Compared to the base Kluger GX, which has a marvellously insulated ride thanks to its chubby 18-inch wheel and tyre package, the flagship Grande rides on 20s that bring welcome communication to the ride while still preventing sharp edges from crashing into the cabin.
And like the latest RAV4, there is an intuitive one-setting ratio in the electric power steering that, while not communicating true road feel, makes it enjoyable to smoothly angle the prow of the Kluger into bend after bend.
We’d go as far as to say that the Kluger makes you want to seek out a B-road on the way to the family holiday. And now that Toyota have eliminated the old car’s over-soft suspension, the kids won’t get car sick if you do.
The Kluger is an accomplished highway cruiser as well, particularly in Grande form, where the high-mounted electrically-adjustable heated and cooled seats let you settle in for the long haul. It’s pretty quiet, too.
For RAV4 buyers, the choice to spend a little more on that car’s hybrid drivetrain is an easy one, because the base engine in that midsize SUV is sourced from the Corolla and feels a little stretched in a bigger vehicle.
It’s not nearly as simple in the Kluger, where the less expensive engine option is a smooth, silky, torquey direct-injected petrol V6 that does duty in a variety of Lexus products as well.
The V6 offers keen drivers a tantalising engine note and an eight-speed true torque converter automatic for more engagement – but the penalty comes at the bowser. The best we could manage was around 9.5L/100km in the six-pot, blowing out to nearly 15L/100km driven hard.
On the other hand, the hybrid is something of a revelation. Most of the time it’s quiet and out of the way, only becoming a tad raucous when wound right out to the limit. And with 184kW of power, the system – which blends a 2.5-litre petrol four-cylinder with three electric motors – it nips at the heels of the V6 in the real world.
The hybrid has rapid electric torque off the line in town, and the petrol engine blends in seamlessly. Toyota have worked hard on the refinement of the switch from electrons to gasoline and this process has been almost perfected. There’s enough combined torque that the hybrid never feels left behind. It can tow the same 2,000kg braked as the V6, too.
$6,500 is a big leap over the front-wheel-drive V6 grades which continue to want for AWD to make the most of this chassis. So the question really becomes whether you should spend $2,500 more than a corresponding V6 with AWD.
Given the Kluger hybrid was able to achieve just 5.6L/100km in our hands in mixed driving, we think you’ll make your money back. It halves your fuel use in reality, meaning that if you drive the Australian average of 14,000km annually, you’ll save about $1,000 a year – while reducing your personal carbon footprint, of course.
Keep the Kluger for at least three years as most families will and you’ll be saving money compared to the all-paw V6.
Safety-wise, the Kluger standardises most semi-autonomous technologies across the range. Forwards, junction and reversing AEB are standard, as are lane keeping assist with lane tracing, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, and a reversing camera. Go for a Grande and you’ll get a 360-degree parking camera.
In many ways, the Kluger presents as an enlarged RAV4 inside, though a number of secondary cabin materials are more plush and comfortable in this larger SUV.
That’s true across the range, with the base GX finally benefitting from a standard-fit leather steering wheel. Plus, unlike the RAV4, all Kluger variants enjoy premium items like soft-touch plastics on all four doors.
The Grande goes further with soft leather upholstery on the seats, and forgiving pads where your knees naturally come to rest against the centre console. Small details like this combine with a supportive driving position to make the Kluger Grande genuinely easy to live with every day.
It’s not all good, though. Toyota Australia were not able to convince the factory to fit the 12.3-inch super-wide touchscreen from the American-market top-shelf version, called the Highlander Platinum. Instead, all Kluger grades in Australia get an eight-inch unit that, while easy to use, looks far too small for the space that it is supposed to fill.
The fact the screen is low-resolution and does not include wireless Apple CarPlay or Android Auto means it feels at least a generation behind that in some rivals – though it must be said that none of the set of Mazda, Hyundai or Kia offer wireless smartphone tech at this level. However, that trio do provide bigger, crisper, brighter screens.
Toyota does win points for providing big, clear instruments that sensibly mix analogue units for the speedo and tacho with a sizable digital panel for a digital speedo, trip computer, media and navigation information. This works well, though it’s not as slick as the size-smaller Skoda Kodiaq, which has a true ‘virtual cockpit’.
GX and GXL grades are fitted with grey or black upholstery but opting for the Grande opens up the possibility of beige leather, which truly lifts the appeal of the cabin while giving the Kluger serious kerb appeal when paired to a dark exterior colour. Our test car’s navy blue paint coupled to sandy leather looked suitably expensive.
And it is expensive, really – at $75,400 before on-road costs, the Kluger needs to be a big, plush family bus. Thankfully, it feels the part. Heated and cooled seats up front are well-suited to Australian conditions.
Space in the back is noticeably more flexible than the old car, with additional adjustment in the sliding second-row seat now making the third row a usable proposition for adults or tall teenagers.
Air vents – and airbags, unlike some rivals – extend to the third row to keep all comfortable under the Australian sun and the rear bench is pretty comfortable, too.
Stretching the Kluger an additional 76mm in fourth-generation form has also created more boot space. With all three rows deployed there’s now 241L, up from 195L. In five seat mode, you get 552 litres of space, which is middling for the class. Drop both back rows and you’ll score 1,150 litres.
In hybrid form, the new Toyota Kluger is very inexpensive to run for this class.
Toyota is a hybrid specialist and these powertrains usually impress when it comes to real-world fuel economy, and the Kluger is no different. Equipped with the triple-motor AWD hybrid system, the Kluger was even more efficient in our testing than diesel SUVs like the Kia Sorento or Hyundai Palisade.
Unlike the RAV4, the Kluger Hybrid does require 95-octane premium fuel at a minimum, but it doesn’t drink much of it. 7-8L/100km is a reasonable expectation day to day, though we managed 5.6L/100km on a mixed highway and town run.
That’s about half the juice you’ll need to keep the V6 motivated in ordinary driving, though the atmo six-cylinder petrol is cheaper to buy.
Like most rivals, Toyota’s warranty in Australia runs for five years with unlimited kilometres. This does trail Kia’s seven-year warranty – and Toyota tell us they aren’t yet interested in the extendable ten-year warranty that this brand offers in the United Kingdom.
Servicing the Kluger is dramatically cheaper than most of its rivals. For both engines, the service interval is 12 months or 15,000km, whichever comes first. The first five years of scheduled servicing will set you back $1,250, or $250 per visit.
The new Toyota Kluger moves up on our list from ‘reliable’ at best to a genuine contender for the best vehicle in the segment.
It’ll take a comparison with the Kia Sorento and Mazda CX-9 to validate that statement in the company of high-quality rivals, but time spent in earnest with the new Kluger shows it to be a particularly well thought-out family vehicle.
The GX and GXL offer good value but in many ways, it’s actually the loaded Grande Hybrid AWD that makes the most sense.
That’s easy for us to write, committing your $75k plus on-roads that easily – but small touchscreen aside, this car lacks for very little.
It’s big, it’s comfy, and it’s finally composed. Plus, it’s incredibly efficient in the real world.
What’s more to like in a family SUV?
The biggest SUV ever to wear a Hyundai badge is here, and the new Palisade makes for very competent family transport – especially in lush, refined Highlander diesel trim.
Key specs (as tested)
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