Changes for Irish favourite


FIRSTDRIVE TOYOTA AVENSIS:The Avensis is a hugely popular car, but the all-new model lacks some much needed sparkle, writes Alisdair Suttie

THE DIFFERENCE between good food and great food is the way it's cooked. This same methodology can be applied to cars and the Toyota Avensis as an example is a perfect slice of pre-packaged, staple-diet, family saloon. There's nothing exotic or spicy about the Avensis: it's comfort car owning.

Toyota says it has added a bit more seasoning to its new Avensis saloon and estate models. There's nothing too radical in the mix, but the styling is definitely a shade bolder thanks to some more daring lines and stronger edges than its predecessor.

Let's not kid ourselves though; the curators at the Museum of Modern Art won't be freeing up a space for the Avensis to go on display, but at least it has a little more presence than the old model's melted candle appearance.

Then there's the interior, which again Toyota tells us is an all-new concoction. From where I was sitting, it looked very much like the last Avensis with new trim here and there. There's nothing wrong with that, as the car is magnificently well made, but it's a shame that some of the materials don't have the soft-touch allure of many of its rivals.

Much more of a concern in the cabin is the poor front seat comfort. Fiddle with the driver's seat and two-way adjustable steering column as much as I could, backache still set in after an hour or so of typical town and motorway driving.

At least there's generous rear seat space and the boot has a long floor in both the saloon and estate. That said, the boots of both versions are not the largest in this class due to height restrictions from the roof line.

It's a surprise that Toyota has missed the comfort mark by such a wide margin, so we'll hope that this issue is sorted out by the time cars reach Ireland.

The Avensis's chief designer, one Mr Yamamoto, proudly says he drove 5,000-kilometres all over Europe in his search to make the new car as Euro-friendly and suave as possible. He must have spent most of his time on smooth motorways at a steady 120km/h, because this is about the only time and place where it feels at home.

On the motorway and at the legal maximum, wind and engine roar are subdued, though some road noise slips through the net. The suspension also does a competent job of keeping bumps and dips at bay, and the Avensis feels as stable and assured as you'd expect of a Toyota family car.

However, it begins to unpick at the seams when you travel anywhere else. In town, the suspension jitters, stutters and generally baulks at anything other than a perfectly even piece of tarmac.

Switch to country roads and the Avensis is as sure-footed as any of the competition, but there's none of the lively, alert feel you get in a Ford Mondeo, Mazda6 - or, indeed, the new Opel Insignia.

There's no doubt the Toyota will get you there, thanks to its enviable reputation for reliability - but just don't expect to enjoy the journey.

On the upside, any journey in the new Avensis will use less fuel than in the previous generation. Toyota has fine-tuned the engines with what it calls "optimal drive" and it's applied to the three petrol and three turbodiesel units on offer.

The result is combined economy as high as 5.1-litres/100km for the 2.0-lite D-4D 130 turbodiesel and emissions as low as 134g/km for the same engine.

A better bet, though, is the 2.2-litre D-4D 150 with 148bhp. It feels much livelier and is not far behind the smaller engine with economy of 5.5-litres/100km and 147g/km emissions.

All new Avensis's come with a six-speed manual gearbox as standard, though buyers can choose a six-speed automatic with the 2.2-litre turbodiesel. For the petrol engines, the 1.6-litre sticks with a manual but the 1.8- and 2.0-litre motors can be ordered with Toyota's new Multidrive S CVT (continuously variable transmission). After trying all three, the manual is the one to go for.

Whichever engine you choose and whichever trim level you pick, the car will be generously fitted out. Toyota says all new Avensis models will come with a CD stereo, air conditioning, electric front windows and seven airbags, which includes an airbag for the driver's knees. As you rise through the Avensis' ranks, all but the basic model are likely to come with alloy wheels, climate control, Bluetooth phone connection and cruise control, though Irish specifications have yet to be finalised.

A well-appointed cabin may appeal to some in the new Avensis, but it's not enough in our book to warrant it sitting anywhere but in the middle ranks of this class.

If you spend your driving life on the motorway, the Avensis is a sound choice for pounding out the miles. If you have a more pick 'n' mix bag of driving needs, there are too many more talented rivals available for much the same price that offer stiff competition to the latest Avensis.

Factfile: Avensis 2.2 D - 4D 150

Performance:0-100km/h: 8.9 seconds

Max speed:210km/h

Peak power:148bhp at 3,600rpm

Peak torque:340Nm at 2,000rpm

Transmission:Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive

Emissions:147g/km CO2