If the old Avensis were a biscuit, it’d be a Digestive. Bland, boring, well-priced and very safe. You can’t go wrong with a Digestive.
The problem is, there are other, more exciting biscuits on the market. Jammie Dodgers, for example...
It’s the same with cars. The old Avensis looked dull next to tastier competition: Mondeo, Accord, Passat, etc. Competent, yet dull – a bit like the Vectra. Vauxhall realised this, and moved things on a notch with the Insignia. Toyota has tried to do the same with the new Avensis. But does it take the biscuit?
No. Just look at it. Does it excite you? Would you peep between your curtains at night just to watch it sat there on your driveway? You might with a Mondeo, Insignia or C5, but not with this – the design is frumpy by comparison. If you look really quickly, or see one in your mirrors, it’s got a bit of Lexus about the front-end, which is kind of cool; the estate has nicer lines, but it’s still too high and too boxy. These pictures really flatter it – in the metal, it’s not a looker.
The Lexus-ish theme continues inside too. The instrument panel borrows cues from the IS, which lends a quality feel – a good bit of interbreeding, which makes the cabin this car’s strongest point. And it’s a British-built Toyota, so it feels solidly put together. You’ll get a lot of kit for your cash too; ‘value’ is high on the list of buzzwords.
So is safety. The Avensis is loaded with it. So you get things like Steering Assist, which automatically counteracts under- or oversteer in sticky situations, where the driver ran out of talent a few hundred yards earlier, and it’s fitted as standard to all models.
Then there’s Lane Assist, which actually steers you back on course should you stray outside the white lines. It works, but it’s more invasive than Honda’s equivalent. And there’s a pre-crash system, which tightens your belt, bleeps some bleepers and eventually applies full-on braking if it thinks you’re heading into a wall, or something similarly immovable. It’s like the system on the Volvo XC60, but not quite as intrusive, and not guaranteed to stop you. The cruise control and headlights are adaptive too. But do you really need all that? An option box marked ‘brain’ might work better.
Of course, all this implies that you’d actually be using it at the time. Which you might not bother to do if, say, you like driving. It really is boring on the move. Whereas the Mondeo and Insignia feel alert and involving, the Avensis does not. The 2.2-litre diesel is noisy, the auto ’box is slightly ponderous, and you have to heave it through corners. Hustling this thing feels like making a sloth disco dance. It’s just not interested.
And then there’s the ride. On dodgy surfaces, which we’re very used to in Britain, it’s unrefined and crashy. Considering Toyota sent 35 European engineers to Japan during the car’s development – to make sure it catered for us – that’s a little disappointing.
The auto ’box doesn’t help things. It has flappy paddles, but they’re just redundant, stalky ornaments. Or just bloody useless, in other words. Upshifts are fairly smooth, but kickdown is sluggish, giving it the feel of an olde-worlde slushbox. There is a 7-Speed CVT ‘multidrive’ option, but only on the petrol engines. That’s better, as the response is more instant and predictable, but you’re probably best off with a simple old manual.
On a motorway, it’s better behaved. Its natural cruise is around the legal limit, and it smoothes out crests and undulations. The only problem is some slightly intrusive wind noise – thanks to that bluff front end, with all the aerodynamic qualities of Wayne Rooney’s face. But overall it’s good, which is lucky, ’cos motorways are where it’ll earn its keep (with a boot full of samples and a seat full of rep’s arse).
Ah yes, reps. Toyota reckons fleet sales will outweigh private sales by about five to one. Residual values should be strong (see, Top Gear does do consumer advice), so it’s likely to be plonked on company car lists quicker than you can say ‘mission statement’. CO2 emissions are relatively low across the range, which will also please the firm’s Chief Financial Officer.
All of which is very boring. Very Toyota. Like we said in our drive of the Aygo Crazy a while ago, it’d be nice to see the company inject a bit more fun into their cars. Remember, these are the people that built the Supra, the MR2, ran Celica WRC cars and still run a Formula One team. If even a tiny bit of that raciness filtered down to cars like the Avensis, it’d attract buyers who need all the practicality/safety/affordability of a saloon, without settling for an average drive. That’s what Ford and Vauxhall are doing, so why can’t Toyota?
So to return to the wonderful world of biscuits: “Once a Digestive, always a Digestive.” If only Toyota had added a layer of caramel, or some chocolate, this new Avensis could’ve troubled its opposition. Until a sportier version comes along, we’ll just have to dunk it in tea. Or a lake.