The Toyota Harrier has sped up to become one of the most popular parallel imports
No barrier to Harrier STRIKINGLY DIFFERENT: The Harrier G's is based on the Harrier Grand but with a very distinctive body kit and interior.rnPHOTO: ARTHUR LEE

THE new Toyota Harrier SUV may have been introduced here by parallel importers only in the second quarter of 2014 but it was so popular that it became last year's third best-selling grey import model.

Since the first Harrier was first sold here in 2000, it has never been available from the authorised Toyota distributor. But the parallel-imported Harrier was desirable anyway for its price and because it looked exactly like a Lexus RX except for the badge.

The third-generation Harrier is a sleeker and more handsome crossover. However, it no longer shares the same platform as the RX, although it is similar to the one used by the Lexus NX. Instead, the latest Harrier has the same chassis and 2.0-litre engine as the Toyota RAV4, except that the Harrier uses an improved continuously variable transmission.

Called Super CVT-i, this is Toyota's latest CVT and the same one found in the Corolla Altis. CVT-i is what Toyota calls a Super Continuously Variable Transmission with intelligence. It shifts more smoothly and more responsively - like a conventional automatic. The seven-step CVT-i also supports sportier driving behaviour with a manual shift gate.

There are no steering wheel-mounted shift paddles but the wheel itself can be electrically adjusted for height and reach on the Toyota Harrier Premium, one of four trim levels available. The base model is called the Toyota Harrier Grand. Sitting one notch below the Harrier Premium, it lacks standard equipment such as the electric adjustment for the steering as well as front seats. The seats are also upholstered in fabric.

Above the Harrier Premium is the Harrier Premium Advance, which comes with additional equipment such as adaptive cruise control and pre-crash safety system.

A sporty SUV option is also available. The Harrier G's is based on the Harrier Grand but with a very distinctive body kit and interior. Inside, the two-tone dashtop and wood trim are replaced by black leather and carbon fibre. The red-lit meters in the instrument binnacle also stand out for their metallic finish, while the bright red engine start button has a "G's" logo on it.

The Harrier G's is strikingly different, but it is the Harrier Premium which appears to be the most popular variant for now. With its 2,660 mm wheelbase, it offers a spacious interior. Boot space is also generous and a powered tailgate is standard.

The cabin is tastefully upscale and a clear departure from other Toyota interiors before it. The dashtop is partly covered with contrast-stitched leather (either natural or man-made) and the buttons on the centre console have been replaced by a capacitive touch-sensitive panel.

One new control is the auto engine start/stop function, making Toyota one of the first Japanese manufacturers here to include this fuel-saving feature. So, despite weighing in at over 1,600 kg and with variable four-wheel-drive, the Harrier claims 16 km per litre under the combined cycle.

It may not have sports car performance. But the Harrier's efficiency, combined with the useability from its car-like handling in a tall vehicle with good all-round visibility, are its best attributes.