REVIEW DATE: 09 Dec 2008
Toyota's latest Avensis is aiming to retain its core attributes while injecting a little more sparkle into proceedings. Steve Walker checks out the 1.8 petrol model.
The Toyota Avensis has always focused on being solid and dependable and the latest version follows that familiar theme. In 1.8-litre petrol form, it delivers high levels of comfort and refinement with good performance given the engine size and strong economy. Build quality is first rate, equipment levels are high and the interior is neatly designed. When Toyota finally gets a handle on design flair and handling verve, it'll be unstoppable.
Toyota freely admits that its second generation Avensis was somewhat dull. It's a refreshingly open approach at a time when most manufacturers would rather put their hands up to a spate of arson attacks on orphanages than concede that one of their products is anything less than wonderful. Admitting your mistakes can often be a first step on the road to rectifying them which is partly why hopes were reasonably high for the third generation Avensis. Here we look at that car in 1.8-litre Valvematic petrol form. It's not the most obvious point in the range to seek out an injection of charisma but it is a version that will account for quite a chunk of overall sales.
Toyota's strengths are well known. It builds practical, functional cars to very high standards of fit and finish, instilling them all with its trademark dauntless reliability in the process. What it struggles to do is to design the sort of vehicle that has prospective buyers swooning with admiration in the showroom and distracted pedestrians tripping over their dogs when one passes them in the street. If Toyota could do that, it'd be borderline unbeatable. The hope with today's Avensis is that it can nudge the marque's dull but worthy medium range family car model line in a more desirable direction. The car is built in the UK at the Burnaston plant which deserves to carry some weight with buyers over here and in the shape of the 1.8-litre Valvematic unit, it has an engine that's very much of the times.
The 1.8-litre petrol engine acts as the mid-point to the Avensis petrol range in the UK. It employs Toyota's latest generation petrol engine technology which is known as Valvematic. This is a progression from the previous generation dual VVT-i powerplants because as well as varying the valve timing according to throttle inputs, it can also adjust the valve lift. The end result is greater efficiency manifested in better fuel economy and more power. This 1.8-litre engine develops an impressive 147bhp and can sprint from zero to sixty in 9.4s. Most notable however is its torque, which gives far better flexibility at lower to medium engine speeds than Toyota's less advanced VVT-i powerplants did. The engine sounds sweet enough and doesn't become harsh if you do hold onto the gears. Motorway refinement is also strong. The engine is certainly good enough to raise questions over the need for the 152bhp 2.0-litre Valvematic engine that sits above it in the range.
"The Avensis is another example of Toyota doing what it does well.."
If you've experience of other Avensis models, you won't get into this third generation one expecting to embark on a rollercoaster ride of thrills and exhilaration. Toyota's past efforts have been competent from a driving perspective and little more but we can state from the outset here that this Avensis is something more. I'm willing to push the boat right out and declare it 'extremely competent'. That's praise indeed. At least, it is for a Toyota saloon. The Avensis serves up an assured ride and maintains its composure even if you corner it fairly quickly. It will fidget a little over minor surface imperfections and the seats could be more supportive but this is a genuinely comfortable car. The steering has a nice weight and the wheel is well shaped but there's little feedback and a lack of accuracy from the helm. The Avensis is neither one of the best nor worst handlers in the sector and that middle of the road position is a step forward for Toyota. As a tool for commuting and devouring motorway marathons, however, it's much nearer the top of the pile.
Much of the desirability that Toyota has set its sights on achieving with the Avensis is rooted in the way a car looks. There's no doubt that Toyota's designers have been allowed to let their hair down a little but, at risk of overplaying the metaphor, it looks like the top brass have drawn the line at dreadlocks and bubble perms. The car still plays it very safe. The shallow side windows, defined shoulder line and raked windscreen give some purpose and there are nice touches, particularly around the rear of the saloon version, but the unusual headlamps and deep grille still need work. Inside, the cabin is sober but predictably well put together. There are some upmarket finishes and the controls layout is as easy to fathom as you could wish for. Everything works and feels like it will continue to do so for a long time to come.
The Avensis has resisted the trend amongst large family cars to indulge in serious middle age spread between generations. It's scarcely any bigger than the MKII car. This means that it lags behind the sector's most spacious offerings but there's still room for a couple of six-footers in the rear and the boot is nothing to be sniffed at. The car uses fully independent suspension all-round and Toyota has assembled a fine line-up of transmission options, the 1.8-litre engine being offered with the six-speed manual or a 7-speed CVT 'box that's dubbed Multidrive S.
There are four Avensis trim levels but as a 1.8-litre Valvematic customer, your choice will be limited to entry-level T2, the second rung TR and the T4 models. The basic package includes air-conditioning, a 6-speaker stereo system, electric heated mirrors, an electronic parking brake and remote central locking. The TR is the most popular trim level in the whole range and it adds 17" alloys wheels, front fog lights, automatic lights and wipers, cruise control with a speed limiter, electric rear windows and an AUX input for an MP3 player. Toyota isn't offering a hatchback, so buyers can either choose the saloon or the Tourer estate at a premium of just under £1,000. All models have VSC+ stability control and an array of airbags.
The medium range family car sector has been losing customers to premium range compact executive models for some time now so there's no surprise that Toyota is following the lead of the market's other major players in aiming to push the Avensis upmarket. There's certainly plenty of equipment and advanced features but Toyota has resisted the urge to increase the price accordingly, keeping the car at similar levels to its predecessor.
The advanced combustion system on Toyota's Valvematic engines comes with major cost benefits. The 1.8-litre unit achieves economy or 43.5mpg on the combined cycle with CO2 emissions of 154g/km. This marks it out as one of the most efficient engines of its size in the sector and will go down a storm with the fleet customers that constitute the lion's share of the medium range market.
It's true that close to 80 per cent of all Avensis models will find their way into the hands of company car users and Toyota is at great pains to emphasise what a cost-effective product the Avensis will be for fleet customers. Strong residual values and long service intervals will work in conjunction with the efficient engines to maximise affordability.
The Toyota's Avensis has always been a car that you bought with your head while your heart wasn't looking and despite attempts to instil the latest model with some additional pizzazz, that seems unlikely to change. The Avensis drives competently and is extremely well put together, while the Valvematic technology gives Toyota's petrol engines a real edge in efficiency over most rival units. In 1.8-litre form particularly, it's a car that's well-suited to the number-crunching fleet managers who green light most purchases in the medium range sector but private buyers spending their own money might want a little extra excitement.
The Avensis is another example of Toyota doing what it does well. Even in 1.8-litre petrol form, the car gets the basics right and would serve ably as a comfortable, reliable, affordable family car. The fun factor is still sadly lacking but by playing to its strengths, the Avensis will persuade buyers who keep their heads screwed on and their hearts on a tight leash.
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