Gareth Butterfield finds there’s lots to like about the sporty new Toyota Avensis
A little while ago a good friend of mine who knows a thing or two about cars bought a second-hand Toyota Avensis and then surprised me by sending me regular updates extolling the virtues of what he insisted was an “extremely under-rated car”.
I know two other blokes who drive a Toyota Avensis by choice, and they are really, really boring people.
I was left with no choice but to assume my mate had taken leave of his senses and I struck him off the Christmas card list.
But then Toyota suggested I should review its latest Avensis and, remembering all the nice things my friend had said about his pride and joy, I thought it might be time to see what all the fuss was about.
To give it its due, the Midlands-built Avensis has been a big success over the years. As I keep reminding my friend, it’s a big favourite among taxi drivers and it’s also a hit in the company car world.
But just because fleet managers and taxi-firms snap them up in droves doesn’t make it a good car. That just means the numbers work and Toyota has always been good at making numbers work.
So I was in for a surprise when I took delivery of the Avensis and backed it into a parking space at work as I noticed a slick gearbox, a comfortable and, if anything, quite sporty driving position and a very upmarket interior.
The other thing I’ll say about the new Avensis is it’s absolutely stunning to look at. I’ve got the Touring Sport for the week, which is the estate version and it’s significantly more attractive the saloon. True to form with Toyota at the moment, the front end looks sculpted and exciting, while the pretty lines flow from front to back in a clean and modern way that gives it an attractive and upmarket profile. If this the taxi of the future, we’re going to have some very attractive high streets in years to come.
My test car comes fitted with the brand new, range-topping 141bhp 2.0-litre diesel engine. It sits alongside a more frugal 1.6 but it’s an absolute gem and makes the car feel very quick off the mark.
The interior is a lovely place to sit, too. Toyotas are increasingly doing away with some of the bits and bobs that have annoyed me in the past and the build quality in all their latest cars feels top-notch.
In many ways, this new Avensis actually feels expensive. I was beginning to think Toyota was deliberately fitting cheap parts here and there to distance the models from its upmarket Lexus brand but there’s nothing low-rent about this interior. It’s bright, roomy, comfortable and very well kitted out.
This being the estate version, there’s plenty of room in the rear seats and the luggage area is cavernous. It’s not a small car, by any stretch, but there’s been some very clever packaging design to make all the dimensions work together and to ensure nowhere is sold short.
It’s fair to say the latest Avensis has seen a series of tweaks, rather than a complete re-work but it’s obvious this wasn’t a quick facelift. The engineers have had a big project on their hands, and it shows.
Take the suspension for example, while the main bulk of the setup remains much the same, with a MacPherson strut up front and double wishbones at the back, it’s all been jiggled about with to improve steering feel and responsiveness.
The whole car feels more rigid and this adds to the sporty feel when you take it through the bends with a bit of vigour.
Not that it’s all about a sporty drive. Most Avensis customers will be taking their cars on long, monotonous journeys and Toyota knows this. It’s been designed to be more refined and a pleasant place to while away a long commute.
There’s more sound insulation in the new model, as well as thicker rubber seals. The air conditioning has even been made quieter. More evidence, then, that there’s some welcome Lexus DNA going into this car.
It’s not as though you’ll need a Lexus budget to run one, though. Fleet buyers are interested in numbers and the Avenis remains fairly competitive.
The 1.6 D-4D engine generates CO2 emissions of just 108g/km and even if you step up to the 2.0-litre engine, you’ll still only be faced with 119g/km to tax – a 24g/km reduction on the performance of the outgoing 2.2-litre unit.
So it’s more efficient, better equipped, has a higher feeling of quality inside and out and is still just as practical as ever, while pulling off a neat trick of looking pretty dashing too.
I’m still not sure my mate has been right all along. I think this is a sign of a strong evolution of good form for Toyota, and they’ve produced their best Avensis yet.
If there’s one thing he is right on though, it’s that the Avensis is under-rated. But perhaps that’s about to change. Perhaps the world will wake up and realise it’s not just for taxi drivers and company car owners and Toyota might have a big hit on its hands. It deserves it.