SENSE AND SENSIBILITY
Thinking of a Mondeo-sized medium range car? They you may not be considering Toyota's Avensis. Yet perhaps, if sensible charms matter, you really should be. Jonathan Crouch reports on the improved, better equipped version.
Ten Second ReviewFor more than two decades, Toyota has provided customers in the medium range Mondeo segment with a safe, conservative set of wheels. Not, perhaps, the most exciting choice but the most sensible one. An Avensis stood for just that - and so does this improved third generation version. Now offered with extra equipment, it's better in all the ways that really, really matter.
BackgroundToyota's improved MK3 Avensis might not look much different from the original version, but that's because the engineers have sweated over more important changes.
And true enough, the 2.0 D-4D diesel variant that most customers choose is substantially more efficient than before. While inside, the introduction of a range of advanced Toyota Touch & Go multimedia and sat nav systems can enable you to do everything from Facebooking your friends in a traffic jam to checking out your destination on Google Maps. On top of all of that, even more recent changes have added to a fresh trim structure and extra equipment.
On the move, the car is impressively quiet for those long motorway trips. And, so you've something to say when talk turns to Top Gear around the water cooler, Toyota has also tweaked the ride and handling package in recent times to sharpen things up on the twisty stuff. Nothing too extreme of course. Avensis folk wouldn't appreciate that. Just enough to meet the class standard so that there's nothing to distract the attention from the sensible stuff this car does so well. But will all that be enough in the face of fine competition from the Mondeos, Insignias and Passats of this world? Let's find out.
Driving ExperienceHere's a car designed very much for the people who will drive it. Those who have to cover long distances quickly and use the time while they do effectively. Little point then, in the range providing us with a 'sporty' model. But that doesn't mean there isn't plenty of punch across the engine line-up. Most are satisfied with the volume unit, the 124bhp 2.0-litre D-4D diesel we tried, now with a 310Nm torque figure that gives it 20% more pulling power. And it's that pulling power that makes it feel a good bit faster than the ten second rest to sixty figure might suggest. You hardly have to stir the six-speed manual gearbox at all for instant poke in almost every gear. For those who are in search of a little more performance, there's a 148bhp 2.2-litre version of this unit, the main virtue of which is that it also offers an automatic gearbox option.
Petrol people are becoming a little thin on the ground in the fleet-dominated Mondeo market, but those remaining have the option of a 145bhp 1.8-litre Valvematic variant, with drive either by 6-speed manual or Multidrive S auto transmission with steering wheel mounted paddle shifts. All of which is much as before - as is the driving experience on offer, though those owners well familiar with this MK3 model will be the first to appreciate the changes made to improve it. The suspension tweaks for example - though I can't help feeling that these have actually made the ride a touch less settled over the poorest surfaces. It's still great on the major routes though, an environment in which you'll appreciate the useful strides forward Toyota has made when it comes to refinement.
Design and BuildThis improved MK3 Avensis features what apparently, is Toyota's latest 'design language' - the so-called 'keen look' which is supposed to give a more dynamic feel to the company's product range. At the front, narrower headlamps are fitted with de rigeur daytime running lights and flank a trapezoidal grille that's larger and wider with deeper blades. It sits above a more sculpted bumper with this protruding centre section housing a large air intake, intended to emphasise the car's wide stance. The effect is to give this car the more assertive look that it always deserved.
And inside? Well, there are plenty of trendier and smarter-looking cabins in this sector, but subject any of them to a couple of hundred thousand miles of hard work and I'd doubt whether any would stand the test of time as well as this one. The team at the British Burnaston factory in Derbyshire have done their work well here. That said, Toyota has recognised the need to add a little extra 'showroom wow' factor, so in this revised model, the appearance, touch and feel of the dashboard have all been improved and the layout of the centre console re-designed so that the switchgear is easier to locate and use.
The air vents are smarter and those parts that are touched most often - the door grips, the switchgear and the front console - all get higher quality soft-touch detailing. Behind a leather-covered steering wheel that adjusts for both reach and rake, existing owners will notice the smarter white instrument backlighting and the more supportive seats. But the main highlight will be the 'Toyota Touch & Go' multimedia system with its 6.1-inch colour touchscreen.
Market and ModelAs with most cars in the Mondeo segment, you'll be paying from just under £20,000 to just under £30,000 for this one. There's a £1,000 premium if, like 55% of buyers, you want to move from a saloon like this to the Tourer estate. The premium's also around £1,000 if at the foot of the range, you want to move from the 1.8-litre Valvematic petrol model to the 2.0-litre D-4D diesel we tried, the variant that the vast majority of buyers choose. I wouldn't bother paying the extra £1,000 on top of that that's necessary to get the much dirtier, much thirstier and not much faster 2.2-litre D-4D diesel - unless you particularly want its automatic gearbox option. I would though, allow an extra couple of thousand above baseline spec for the 'TR' trim level that most customers choose, including as it does most of the extra features that really make this car what it is.
There's a revised trim structure these days, from 'Active Icon', to 'Icon Plus' and on to 'Excel'. Whichever Avensis saloon or Tourer estate model you choose - 1.8-litre Valvematic petrol or either of the 2.0 or 2.2-litre D-4D diesels - you should find it better equipped than before. All models now get follow-me-home headlights that'll see you to your front door and night and most get a DAB digital radio as standard. Plus there's Bluetooth compatibility for your mobile 'phone, a leather-covered steering wheel and daytime running lights all aded to a kit list that already included air conditioning, an MP3-compatible audio system with steering wheel controls, heated electrically adjustable door mirrors, electric front windows and a multi-information display. There's an auto gearbox option on both the petrol 1.8 and the diesel 2.2 - and a huge panoramic glass roof available on the Tourer estate.
Cost of OwnershipAll Avensis powerplants feature Toyota's Optimal Drive technology, a package of fuel-saving features that use low-friction, lightweight components and advanced engine technology to cut carbon dioxide emissions and boost power. But with this revised third generation line-up, most effort has been centred on just one variant when it comes to reducing the cost of ownership: this 2.0 D-4D model, already Euro5-compatible and fitted with a Diesel Particulate Filter.
The engine's lighter for a start, with a revised turbocharger and a lower friction bearing system and electric actuator. The result of this modest-sounding package of changes is actually anything but modest. Fuel consumption is a full 17% better than it used to be, the saloon model managing 62.8mpg on the combined cycle. CO2 emissions meanwhile, has been improved by 14% in recent times, dropping from 139g/km to a Volkswagen Passat BlueMotion-rivalling 119g/km. Opt for the pokier 2.2-litre D-4D diesel though, and these returns take quite a hit - 52.3mpg and 143g/km. In the petrol 1.8, you'll manage 43.5mpg and 152g/km, all of these figures being for saloon variants, the Tourer estate only marginally worse.
SummaryI'll cut straight to the chase here: the Avensis is well worth a fresh look. By upping equipment, improving efficiency and incorporating some seriously impressive technology on board, Toyota has forced it back into class contention. When you have a car efficient enough to be able to put tax benefit-in-kind cash back in your pay packet. And one clever enough to enable you to email, tweet and text on the move, you have one that's going to endear itself to plenty of people, especially as it's British-built.
Could it be more exciting, both to look at and to drive? Well probably, but you can see why Toyota weren't keen to go too far and upset the legions of customers attracted by the sensible charms of previous Avensis models. The brand knows that the medium range market is closely fought and highly populated, with buying decisions often coming down to the smallest detail. And worryingly for some of its rivals, this car seems to have got many of the details that really matter just about right.