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Toyota and Ford now in family-car war

Ford Territory Titanium.

The battle between Australia’s ailing car manufacturers has spilled onto the showroom floor, with car giant Toyota literally circling its imported wagons to fill the void left by Ford’s factory closure. Toyota has begun importing the Kluger SUV from North America, taking advantage of a Free Trade Agreement that eliminates a 5 per cent tariff, in an attempt to take sales away from the Australian-made class-leader, the Ford Territory.

The Ford Territory, which will cease production when Australia’s oldest car factory closes by the end of 2016, has led the family-sized SUV market for all but three of the past 10 years. The only vehicle that has ever managed to topple the Ford Territory is the Toyota Kluger.

An imported Ford Territory replacement is still three years away, which is why Toyota is trying to claim the early ground in the lucrative seven-seater family wagon market. The new Kluger that arrives in local showrooms this week is the first Toyota sold in Australia to come from North America.

But Toyota’s shift to sourcing the Kluger from a factory in Indiana to take advantage of the Free Trade Agreement may initially backfire, as the plant cannot ship enough cars because domestic demand is so strong. “We clearly see the Territory as a competitor,” said the executive director of Toyota Australia sales and marketing, Tony Cramb.

However, Mr Cramb said the company would be “supply constrained” in the coming months as the factory ramps up right-hand-drive production. Toyota says the Kluger is important “because of the type of buyers it brings into its showrooms”.

“One in five buyers is in their 30s, more than half are under the age of 45," said Mr Cramb. "We see a lot of families and a significant proportion of these couples have children in primary and secondary schools. It’s important because these buyers are younger than our average (buyer) age, and it’s important to make sure we have something for everyone.” Car companies target younger buyers because it means they can sell them more new vehicles as they age.

The new Kluger range starts at $40,990 and all models come with seven seats, seven airbags, a rear camera and rear parking sensors. The middle of the range GXL is $49,990 and the top-of the range model costs $63,990 (an increase of $2500). All-wheel-drive adds $4000 to each model. A hybrid or a diesel version is not available and the company says there are no current plans to introduce them.

A clever feature that was unveiled on the US version of the new Toyota Kluger -- which projects the driver’s voice to the audio speakers at the back -- is not available on Australian models. Toyota Australia product planning executive Mark Dobson said the US version of the Kluger came with a different radio that embedded the “My Voice” function. “If it proves to be a popular feature (on overseas models) we can adopt it later,” said Mr Dobson.

This reporter is on Twitter: @JoshuaDowling