Thursday, December 18, 2008

Toyota Avensis

Toyota Avensis
First Drive

A good product, but not as distinctive as we wanted it to be. That is how Toyota described the old Avensis. It’s not often that a manufacturer owns up to making a less than successful car, but we wouldn’t argue — the old Avensis was dull. This time, Toyota says, we’re getting an Avensis of “cutting edge position”, shot through with “European innovative dynamism”. No, I’m not sure what that means either, but the estate looks nice. And it’s the estate, or Tourer, that Toyota reckons will outsell the saloon this time around.
In its quest for a car that will excite consumers, Toyota has renewed the Avensis from bumper to bumper. The car rides on more sophisticated suspension; it’s propelled by reconfigured engines labelled Optimal Drive, which are claimed to deliver improved power, fuel consumption and emissions; and it has an all-new interior fashioned from higher-quality materials. Also improved are its safety and the gadgets and fittings that come as standard. And if Toyota’s numbers are to be believed, it should prove cheaper to run than its predecessor and many of its rivals too.
It’s arguments such as those, however, that underpinned the previous model; the issue is whether this latest Avensis can muster some street cred and attract a younger crowd. The best you can say of the saloon’s styling is that it’s tidy but virtually indistinguishable from a heap of other cars. The estate is more appealing, though it won’t seem new to the owners of Ford Mondeo and Honda Accord wagons.
The Toyota is better inside, where a nicely designed cabin — including an elegant wheel, attractively lit instruments and a neat cupholder and centre armrest — shows sophistication. The TR trim, likely to be the most popular, has an electrically adjustable driver’s seat, Bluetooth, cruise control, automatic lights and wipers, an excellent six-speaker stereo and steering-wheel-mounted controls. Most of what the long-distance traveller needs, in fact.
Motorways are the preferred habitat for this car, its suspension engineered for relaxed high-speed cruising. This it delivers: the Toyota feels reassuringly stable at speed, its 2.2 litre diesel engine barely discernible. But add speed and hours behind the wheel and you’ll uncover flaws — above 85mph, wind roars from the base of the windscreen, and if the road surface is coarse you’ll hear the hum of speeding rubber.
More disappointing still is a seat that becomes uncomfortable — other testers made the same complaint — and you won’t ease the ache by playing with the electric lumbar adjustment. It’s far from uncivilised, this Avensis, but it’s less soothing than you’d expect, or want.
Leave the motorway and things deteriorate. The Avensis rides potholes, depressions, ridges and patches with a lack of cushioning that, at worst, shook the test car’s trim and, at best, felt ragged. Better is the electric power steering, which has none of the slack artificiality that can trouble these systems, but a feel for the road below is largely absent. If you’re looking for some entertaining back-roads agility, you’ll need the more athletic Ford Mondeo.
The car we tested was an estate, but it still didn’t drive as well as others in its class. The same goes for its carrying capacity. The boot is long, longer still with the seats folded and flat, but rivals provide more width and more height and have back benches with a folding mechanism that creates a protective bulkhead behind the front seats.
The Toyota also delivers generous space for rear-seat passengers, who enjoy an almost completely flat floor, and there’s plentiful small-scale accommodation for the flotsam and jetsam of modern travel. Such paraphernalia will be easier to locate than the electric handbrake — it lurks beneath instruments, masked by the steering wheel. That will be amusing when the Avensis, as it inevitably will, makes it into hire-car fleets.
Despite the hidden handbrake and some other surprising flaws, there’s an earnest appeal to this Avensis, and as an estate it at least evinces some of the visual flair that Toyota has been chasing. It also does well on running costs, including fuel consumption and maintenance bills.
Toyota reckons it will hold its value, but of that European innovative dynamism there is too little evidence. All of which makes this Avensis disappointing. It’s a better car than before, cheaper to run and more stylish; but it’s still a deadly dull effort, at a time when car companies can’t afford to be lost in a crowd. Toyota should have paid more attention to its own spiel.
Toyota Avensis Tourer TR 2.2 D-4D
ENGINE 2231cc, four cylinders
POWER 148bhp @ 3600rpm
TORQUE 251 lb ft @ 2000rpm
TRANSMISSION Six-speed manual
FUEL / CO2 50.4mpg / 150g/km
ACCELERATION 0-62mph: 9.2sec
TOP SPEED 131mph
PRICE £20,065
TAX BAND C (£120 a year)
VERDICT Not the best you can buy
Ford Mondeo Estate 2.0 TDCi Zetec £20,651
For: Roomy and practical; great to drive
Against: Pricier than the Avensis
Vauxhall Insignia Sports Tourer S 2.0 CDTi £19,515
For: Attractive cabin; roomy boot; quiet at speed; excellent ride
Against: Rattles at idle; numb steering

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