Toyota Highlander grabs high ground over Kluger in names

The Toyota Highlander Limited - one smooth operator.
Rob Maetzig/Stuff

The Toyota Highlander Limited - one smooth operator.

Thank heavens we live in New Zealand and not Australia.

Otherwise we'd have to call that capable Toyota large SUV that we know as Highlander, by another name: Kluger.

Personally we chuckle over that name. We know it's German for "Clever" or "Smarter", but it in the motoring sense it has a certain unfortunate ring to it that sounds like "Clunker" or "Clanger". Not good for any vehicle.

At the Limited level the Highlander's interior is highly specified.
Rob Maetzig/Stuff

At the Limited level the Highlander's interior is highly specified.

We bet if Toyota Australia had had the choice, they would have preferred to call the Kluger by its international name of Highlander. But they couldn't - Hyundai already had dibs in Aussie on that name with a vehicle called Terracan, which originally had been developed off a concept called Highland and also had a Highlander trim. So the company chose to call it Kluger instead.

READ MORE: Revised Highlander gets a little taste of Lexus

 
Highlander has been recently face-lifted, and has a new nose.
Rob Maetzig/Stuff

Highlander has been recently face-lifted, and has a new nose.

Mind you, Toyota can't complain. It's currently preventing Ford from introducing a new SUV with its international name of Edge, because it already owns the rights to Edge and currently uses it on special-edition Hilux utes. So Ford has to call it something else when it launches the model in Australia and New Zealand early next year.

This sort of thing seems to happen quite a bit in Australia. Another example is the Subaru we Kiwis know as the Legacy but which across the ditch is called Liberty - that's out of deference to an organisation called Legacy Australia which is dedicated to caring for the families of military service veterans. Go figure.

Anyway, in New Zealand the Toyota the subject of this review is called Highlander. It always has been, ever since it was first launched here in the early 2000s. It quickly established itself as a favourite, and it has been a strong part of the spectacular growth in the popularity of SUVs here.

This view illustrates Highlander Limited's silver woodgrain-style interior finish.
Rob Maetzig/Stuff

This view illustrates Highlander Limited's silver woodgrain-style interior finish.

Last year SUV sales accounted for about 36 per cent of all new vehicles sales in New Zealand. This year so far has seen that rise to 39 per cent - and in July the percentage increase even further, to 40 per cent.

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While medium-sized models are the biggest-selling SUVs, large SUVs are also playing a major role in the continuing surge in sales of these types of vehicles - and easily the most popular model in the large SUV segment is the Highlander.

So far this year it is New Zealand's 8th most popular passenger vehicle, with 1363 sales to the end of July - pretty darned good for a model that doesn't carry an RRP of less than $53,000. A major reason for this success is because a third of these sales are to rental car companies. It's the third most popular rental vehicle so far this year, behind fellow Toyotas, the RAV4 and the Corolla.

When the third row of seats is down, there's plenty of rear load space.
Rob Maetzig/Stuff

When the third row of seats is down, there's plenty of rear load space.

Now we don't know which of the available Highlander models are going to the rental companies - and it's not our business what they pay for them, and how - but we're picking they are probably a mixture of the entry all-wheel drive version, the $53,490 GX, and maybe the 2WD model, the $66,490 GXL. We're also picking that few if any of them will be the top version that we've just been driving, the $81,490 AWD Limited.

This most luxurious Highlander will be the darling of the corporate set, particularly the chief executives and the general managers, with quite a few private buyers thrown in. And why not? The sizeable US-sourced seven-seater is a beautifully built SUV, comfortable, and powered by what has to rate as one of the smoothest V6 petrol engines on the market.

Highlander was facelifted earlier this year, and the big change was installation of the same 3.5-litre V6 that powers the likes of Lexus RX SUV and GS sedan. Compared to the V6 it replaces, the engine offers 17 kilowatts more power and 13 Newton metres more torque, to 218kW and 350Nm. The engine is also now paired with a direct-shift eight-speed automatic, which replaces a former six-speeder.

It's an excellent engine-transmission combination. The 2GR-FKS engine is the first Toyota engine to feature both intelligent variable valve timing and direct injection, and this allows it to enter what is known as the Atkinson Cycle under light throttle loads, which in very simple terms minimises the use of fuel by delaying the closing of a piston's intake valve during the compression stroke.

Add to that the fact that two extra transmission ratios help give the vehicle "long" legs, and it is obvious that this latest Highlander has much-improved fuel economy  and reduced exhaust emissions. Toyota claims the economy has been improved by more than 10 per cent, and for this AWD model it quotes 9.5L/100km. Pretty good for a vehicle with a kerb weight of 2.1 tonnes.

Visual changes to the facelifted Highlander include a new-style grille with chrome accents, new lights, and 19-inch alloys wheels for the Limited model. The rear has new LED tail-lights.

On the inside, the Limited now has a panoramic view monitor which provides the driver with a live 360-degree bird's-eye view around the vehicle which allows the driver to see potential obstacles from all angles, rain-sensing wipers, and a silver woodgrain-style finish. 

The Limited is also the safest Highlander, featuring a Toyota Safety Sense package that consists of a pre-crash system with automatic braking, high-speed dynamic radar cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assistance, and automatic high beam.

Toyota New Zealand says it is working to get the Safety Sense package installed in all Highlanders, but they are not yet in production at the assembly plant in Indiana, USA.

It'll be good when that does happen, because not only will it add to the security of the many motorists who hire this vehicle as a rental vehicle, but it will allow it to maintain the high ground as one of the best large SUVs on the market. Try claiming that with the name Kluger instead of Highlander!

 - Stuff

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