The Toyota Unser was introduced in Malaysia back in mid-1998 – just when the country was entering a major economic crisis period and the auto market was about to contract severely. It seemed like a quick response to the situation by UMW Toyota Motor but in reality, it was simply ‘good timing’; a new model program cannot be established overnight and for sure, no one could have expected such a major crisis to occur.
Nevertheless, the Unser – which is the local equivalent of the Toyota Kijang in Indonesia – was an important model for that time and sold very well. And it has continued to sell well all through the years to be the best-selling MPV. Of course, some may argue about that ‘MPV’ classification but with three rows of seats, it certainly qualifies.
The success of the Unser – over 11,000 units were sold in the first 10 months of 2002 – has been because of its versatility as well as price and of course, the legendary Toyota quality. It’s been quite popular with families and could be considered the Malaysian version of the American minivan which is often the vehicle of choice for families.
Toyota originally developed the Kijang for the Indonesian market in the mid-1970s and it has done extremely well there to become almost like a ‘national vehicle’ as it dominates the market. Its introduction in other markets took a while as the early Kijangs were quite basic, suitable enough for Indonesia but not for more sophisticated markets like Malaysia.
It was only when the engine was upgraded to a 1.8-litre EFI that the model became viable for selling in Malaysia. That plus some improvements in the design and cabin which added more comfort. Although the Kijang name is well known, UMW Toyota Motor chose to give it a new name in Malaysia and from some sources, ‘Unser’, it is derived from some German word (and not anything to do with the Unser family which is famous in American motorsports).
While some cosmetic changes have been made over the years, 2003 will see the most significant changes being made to the Unser. Actually, the new model has been quietly advertised on the UMWT website for the past month or two (our AW forummers were quick to spot it!) but because its price has not been approved by the government, actual deliveries have not commenced.
The new 2003 Unser not only has refreshing new looks but also a host of new features inside and out. Numerous cosmetic changes on the exterior give a classier image to the vehicle while additional convenience features in the cabin make motoring even more pleasurable.
External changes can be seen from all sides: a bolder appearance is evident with the new overfenders & side claddings as well as a larger radiator grille – giving an appearance rather like one of those big imported Land Cruisers. Also new are the restyled multi-reflector headlamps which follow current trends for lighting units. The sportier bumper, with integrated foglamps at each extremity has a neat K-bar design.
At the rear, the tail light units are enlarged for added safety with additional reflectors incorporated on the rear door. Also new on the rear door is the chromed licence plate holder which provides a neater recess for installation of the numberplate. As before, a translucent sunshade is fitted over the rear windshield.
Also new in the 2003 model are the large chrome door mirrors (now with remote control adjustment from the dashboard), chrome door handles, low-profile roof rail, chrome trim for the windshield moulding. Side steps are part of the LGX package for 2003, along with newly-designed 6JJx15 chrome-finished alloy rims (previously 5.5JJx14).
Two new metallic colours are available – Winestone Red and Sky Blue – in addition to the popular Arctic Silver, Sahara Brown and Marine Blue. A two-tone colour scheme visually extends the vehicle while adding sportiness to its appearance.
Inside the spacious cabin (have you seen that award-winning TV commercial where the guy ‘loses’ someone he is chasing inside the Unser?) of the new Unser is the same passenger car-like feel. The functionally-designed dashboard now has a dual-tone with the upper section in a dark brown shade and the lower section in a lighter beige shade, this increasing the feeling of spaciousness. A new pattern is also used for the softer fabric upholstery to distinguish the new model from the old.
A touch of class is the wood trim insert for the redesigned panels while the centre console box between the front seats now has integrated cupholders. When not in use, the cupholders fold neatly into the top of the console box. The audio system has also been upgraded to a 2-DIN module which includes an integrated single-CD player and six speakers.
One of the popular aspects of the Toyota Unser has been its flexible 3-row seating arrangement which can accommodate up to eight persons. For the 2003 model, this flexibility is improved with a redesign of the third row of seats. Previously a bench seat, this is now divided in two equal parts which can be separately folded against the sides when not required or when extra cargo space is needed.
Also provided as standard is a dual air-conditioning system specially developed for the Unser. This system has a second low-profile ceiling-mounted ventilator with its own blower. The vents on this unit provide lots of cool air for the rearmost passengers, eliminating the discomfort that passengers in this location often experience in other vehicles.
Every occupant in the Unser gets a seatbelt. The buckle points for the seatbelts are integrated neatly into the seats, making them easy to use at all times. Other safety features include laminated glass for the windscreen and childproof door locks on the rear side doors.
The Unser is still available only with the 1.8-litre Toyota 7K-E 4-cylinder engine. This EFI engine has an integrated timing control valve for more precise delivery of fuel, making for better fuel economy, stable performance and low toxic exhaust emissions.
As part of its maintenance-free electronic ignition system, the engine also has Electronic Spark Advance. This ensures that the most appropriate ignition timing is used not only to maximise output and promote combustion efficiency but also to reduce the chances of damage (engine knocking) due to poor fuel quality.
Contributing to fuel economy is the inclusion of an Idle Speed Control system which automatically sets the idling speed to the lowest rpm possible (determined by various operating conditions).
As many Unser owners would have found, driving through moderately flooded stretches can be done confidently with their vehicle. This is because the air intake entry point is positioned higher than normal to avoid problems of water entering the engine. The vehicle itself also sits a bit higher from the road.
Buyers have a choice of either a 5-speed manual transmission or an 4-speed automatic transmission with electronic controls. Having electronic controls in the automatic transmission make shifting smoother and more efficient through the spread of gear ratios. An overdrive ratio for the top gear brings the engine speed down at higher cruising speeds to reduce fuel consumption and noise.
To provide a ride quality and handling comparable to a passenger car, the Unser has independent double wishbone front suspension with a live axle at the rear. The rear suspension uses leafsprings which may seem ancient but is still a valid solution for carrying heavy loads. Besides tuning of the suspension to suit local conditions and be more comfortable, the moderate height-to-width ratio (less than that of a window van) enhances cornering stability which will increase driver confidence.
Pending final approval by the Ministry of Trade and Industry, the estimated Peninsula Malaysia prices of the new 2003 Unser LGX are RM87,500 for manual transmission and RM92,100 with automatic transmission and with metallic finish.
Like the latest Camry the 2003 Unser LGX comes with a 36-month/100,000 kms warranty. This warranty certainly reflects the confidence that UMW Toyota Motor has in the superior build quality of vehicles from its own assembly plant in Shah Alam, Selangor.