The Ford AWD wagon gave Toyota a fright.

Toyota’s Kluger was launched in 2003 and the fly in the Kulger’s ointment jar was Ford’s Territory, which consistently outsold the Toyota machine.

However, if judged purely as a 4WD softroader the Kulger did better, because around half the Territorys sold were 2WD, not 4WD, models. Toyota’s 2008 counter was to offer the new Kluger with a choice of full-time 4WD or front wheel drive.

Another strategic move was to increase performance and equipment levels, while holding pricing within 10 percent of 2003 levels. However, there was no plan for a Kluger diesel to combat the Territory V6 diesel model that arrived later that year.

At the launch of the 2008 Kluger, Toyota said that the new model’s key appeals were space, power and safety.

The new Kluger specifications showed that Toyota was moving away from its traditional ‘bare bones’ model structure, that saw buyers needing to shell out more coin to get equipment that came standard on many other vehicle brands.

The entire six-model Kluger range – three 2WD and three 4WD versions – came with a new 201kW/337Nm V6 engine; five-speed, sequential-shift auto box; multi-adjustable driver’s seat; split-fold second-row seats with removable centre seat; seven airbags; active front-seat head restraints; reversing camera; air conditioning; aluminium wheels; electric power steering; steering wheel audio and information display controls; one-touch opening glass in the tailgate; Optitron backlit instruments; vehicle stability and traction control; ABS, electronic brake force distribution, including emergency brake assistance; and hill-start brake assistance. All 4WD models picked up hill descent control as standard equipment.

The base level was the KX-R, which was a cloth-upholstered, five-seat machine that had the option of third-row seating, with rear compartment air conditioning. RRP for the 4WD KX-R was $44,490 and the seven-seat/rear aircon option was $2500. The KX-R rolled on 17-inchers.The 2008 KX-R and KX-S models had a 3.5-inch reversing camera screen.

The mid-spec’ Kluger was the KX-S, which had seven leather seats; climate-control air conditioning front and rear, with dual-zone control up front; power-adjustable front seats, including driver’s seat cushion-length adjustment; front seat heaters; steering-wheel aircon controls; and a six-disc CD changer. Exterior embellishments for the KX-S included 19-inch wheels, a smoked-chrome grille, front fog lamps and roof rails. The KX-S had a RRP of $54,490.

Over the KX-S the $64,490 Grande scored a chromed grille; clear-treatment front and rear lamps; powered tailgate; auto head lights; Bluetooth and steering wheel phone controls; auto-dimming rear vision mirror; wood-pattern interior trim; tilt and slide sunroof; satellite navigation and reversing camera with eight-inch screen; and a DVD rear-seat entertainment system.

The Kluger was something of a Tardis, because from the outside it didn’t look like a seven-seat wagon, but an east-west engine orientation allowed more interior space than the outside dimensions would suggest.

The improved Kluger equipment levels sit inside a new monocoque body that had a longer wheelbase and wider track than before. The increased dimensions resulted in more interior space that was cleverly exploited, particularly in the case of the second-row seats.

The outboard second-row seats were individual chairs, separated by a removable centre console that stowed under the front-row centre console when the second row was set up to seat three. The storage area held a centre-seat module that could be clipped in place of the second-row console, converting the second row to three seats. The centre seat user had a lap/sash seat belt.

Clever seat and floor design meant that the third row seat folded flat, with its backrest forming part of the cargo floor. When the seat was pulled upright the floor recess became a foot well for the sub-teen occupants it was designed to accommodate.

A lifting flap in the rear floor exposed the hiding place for the cargo blind and another one covered the jack and tools. The cargo area had four restraint hooks and there was an additional 12-volt power outlet. The full-sized spare fitted under the cargo area and was protected from grime by a twist-off plastic cover.

The 2008 tailgate arrangement was a huge improvement, allowing one-handed operation of the glass hatch. The Grande went a step further, with a power-operated, Lexus-style tailgate.


The new Kluger used the same basic layout as its predecessor - east-west V6 engine, five-speed auto, bevel-drive transfer with full-time 4WD operation and coil-sprung McPherson struts front and rear – but the body structure was much stronger, thanks in part to the use of high-strength steels in the pillars and rocker panels. There was no sign of the previous model’s stiffening bar, linking the two front suspension strut towers.

Also missing was a viscous coupling between front and rear differentials, because the 2008 traction control system could manage front-rear incipient spin-out without the need for a coupling.

The 2GR-FE 3.5-litre, aluminium, four-cam, VVT-I engine was shared with Lexus RX350, Tarago and Aurion. It belted out 201kW at 6200rpm, with peak torque of 337Nm at a heady 4700rpm, on 91RON standard petrol.
Maintenance-reducing features of this engine included auto valve clearance adjusters, chain camshaft drive and direct ignition.

The five-speed auto had intelligent control that varied shift points to match driving style, load and terrain. It was stirred manually by a lever that worked in a conventional ‘tiptronic-style’ up-down gate, not a ‘dogleg’ gated action.

On and off road

Our introductory drive in several of the new Klugers was held on freeways, secondary bitumen and dirt roads to the west of Melbourne, culminating in ‘playtime’ at the Melbourne 4x4 Training and Proving Ground, in Werribee. Recent downpours ensured we had plenty of mud to slide around in.

We drove and passengered in different spec’ level machines, with particular passenger focus on the new second-row seat arrangement.

The on-paper engine specs suggested that the new V6 needed to rev fairly high to achieve anything sensational, but it turned out to be more flexible than we expected. Cruising at 2000rpm at legal highway speeds promised good economy – Toyota claimed an improvement over the previous Kluger and the current Territory – and there was good engine response to acceleration demands from that rev point.

The press-on crew appreciated the new lever action more than the outgoing lever’s pattern, when it came to manually selecting ratios. On-road performance wasn’t an issue for Kluger buyers and the towing rating of two tonnes seemed realistic.

The electric power steering worked very well on our test, giving good road feel without kick-back and having an inbuilt ‘loaded’ feel when cornering.

We were critical of the previous Kluger front seats and the driving position, but both factors were addressed: even the KX-R seats were comfortable and the KX-S and Grande chairs, with their extendable-length driver’s cushions, were very good indeed.

The 2008 second-row seating arrangement was excellent. As a two-seat arrangement the second-row seats were comfortable, with the luxury of a large centre console. There was obviously less lounging room when the third seat was clipped in place, but the outer seats were still quite pleasant. The centre seat was somewhat elevated and much firmer than the outer seats, but it was fine for an adult for an hour or so and would suit a child for long journeys.

Ride quality and handling met most buyers’ expectations, but there was still a lack of progression in the rear suspension action and it thumped over sharp bumps.

Bigger brakes with twin-piston front callipers were sensational and the ABS programming coped with dirt and slippery surfaces without that ‘we’re never going to stop’ feeling.

Off road the Kluger was limited by its lack of low-range gearing, ground clearance and underbody protection, but the test vehicles handled the Proving Ground test course’s milder sections easily – even with the added attraction of mud holes everywhere.

The Werribee river-silt mud is particularly greasy when wet, but the Klugers could be kept ‘on the island’ without radical steering inputs or gear-swapping. Excellent low-speed engine response allowed us to maintain momentum without the risk of sudden traction loss and when the tyres did let go the traction control kept spin under control.

We provoked the driveline by accelerating hard up steep, slippery slopes, but the traction control prevented front-end spin-out, just as Toyota said it would. Very impressive.

Toyota didn’t want most Kluger buyers to fiddle around with the vehicle stability control, so the on/off switch was deliberately concealed, under the dashboard, where most owners would never find it. We’d probably cancel the VSC function in soft sand.

Without low-range gearing, an effective hill descent control is vital for safe descents in slippery conditions and we found the Kluger’s DAC very reassuring on steep, muddy river banks.

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