European styling helps Avensis deliver

When Toyota replaced the Camry wagon with the Japanese-sourced Avensis Verso in mid-2002, the vehicle met such buyer resistance it lasted barely a year before being quietly phased out.

Objectively, there wasn't a lot wrong with the machine, but its boxy people-mover styling was poorly received by the image-conscious New Zealand company car fraternity so critical to the success of a vehicle of this type.

Toyota responded late last year by sourcing another Avensis, this time from Europe, and introducing it as the direct successor to the Camry wagon, almost as if the Japanese Verso had never existed.

Three models of the European Avensis are on offer in New Zealand, opening with the five-seater $39,250 manual-only 96kW 1.8-litre GL, and topping out with the auto-only seven-seater $46,995 110kW 2.0-litre Touring.

In between is the 2.0-litre GX, which was supplied for appraisal in $44,900 automatic form (the manual GX is $2000 cheaper).

If image really was the downfall of the Verso, then Toyota can claim to be back on track with the new Avensis. Like the Echo and Corolla, it was penned by the company's design studio in France and is a handsome wagon. The high-sided, cab-forward look carries more than a touch of Audi, and a long wheelbase and short overhangs hold the promise of plenty of space inside.

Sure enough, despite being smaller on the outside than some immediate rivals, the Avensis matches the best of them for cabin space, with ample room for tall occupants front and rear.

Capable of swallowing 520 litres with the rear seats up, the luggage compartment is highly practical.

There is a large, wide, flat load space, and extra out-of-sight storage for smaller items under the floor.

The rear seats (split 60:40) fold forward easily to further increase luggage space and there are tie-down hooks and supermarket bag hooks to secure items, and a pull-out rear load cover.

The cabin also has good storage spaces, including cup holders front and rear and pockets in the front seat backs.

One of the talking points when this model was released in Europe was the innovative air-bag system which, together with other more fundamental structural strengths, helped the Avensis to the maximum five-star crash test rating.

The impressive air-bag count runs to nine. There are dual front and side bags, and front and rear curtain bags. The odd one out is a driver's knee bag, which aims to reduce injuries in severe frontal and front three-quarter impacts. There are three-point belts all round. The front belts include pre-tensioners and load limiters, and there are tethers and ISOFIX child seat anchor points in the rear.

The GX version also packs in the active safety features, including antilock brakes with assist and force distribution systems, plus full stability and traction control.

In terms of creature comforts, dual-zone climate control and an eight-speaker CD-radio with fingertip controls on the steering wheel are the big-ticket items. Cruise control, power windows and mirrors, remote central locking, and rain-sensing wipers also feature on the GX. One feature that did catch me out a couple of times by leading me to erroneously think the car's lights were already on was the back-lit instrumentation.

A quality feel is engendered by the trim materials, not to mention the fine standard of fit and finish within the cabin. Clearly, the standards Toyota applies to its Japanese production are also being met at the Derbyshire factory where the Avensis is built.

The front seats provide excellent support. The driver's seat adjusts for height as well as rake and reach. Together with the tilt and reach adjustments for the steering column, this makes it easy to find appropriate positions for drivers of different sizes.

If there is a weak link in the driving experience, it comes from the engine, which produces its peak outputs quite high in the rev range, and it needs to be worked reasonably hard to deliver its best.

The crying shame is that this car is offered in Europe with a 2.4-litre motor as well. It is essentially the same 2.4-litre seen here in the Camry sedan, and its extra torque would give the wagon quite a lift, especially if it could be partnered with a five-speed rather than a four-speed automatic gearbox.

The need to rev the 2-litre in a spirited fashion when passing and powering up steeper hills also impacts adversely on refinement but, generally, the Avensis is a quiet car.

Like an increasing number of European cars, a felt-style lining has replaced the traditional plastic in the wheel arches. This helps keep road noise down, especially in the rear of the cabin, but is not easy to keep clean if you have been motoring on gravel roads.

Ride quality is first rate, on and off seal. So, too, is the car's handling, particularly by wagon standards.

In fact, it seems to revel in twisty roads, both sealed and metalled, and shows fine balance and a refreshing responsiveness to inputs through the steering wheel and brakes in particular.

If you are one of those company reps who couldn't abide the way the old Verso looked, but are attracted by its successor's stylish stance, then this unexpected dynamic prowess will surely be the icing on the cake.


European styling helps Avensis deliver
At a Glance


Price (as tested) $44,900 

Test Rating: 4 1/2 stars.

For: Fine looks and handling, safety credentials, build quality.

Against: Peaky 2-litre engine does not combine well with auto.

Verdict: Sharp-dressed and practical wagon promises a fine ownership experience. 

1998cc 16-valve 4-cylinder VVTi
Power: 110kW@5700rpm
Torque: 200Nm@4000rpm.

Four-speed auto, front-wheel drive.

Brakes and Stability Systems:
Front ventilated discs and rear discs with ABS, EBD & BA.

Wheels, tyres:
Alloy rims 205/55 R16 tyres.

91 Octane unleaded, 60 litres.

Length 4700mm, Width 1760mm,
Height 1525mm, kerb weight 1420kg.

3 years. 100,000kms.

Main rivals:

Ford Mondeo Zetec Wago: $43,600

Mazda 6 Sportwagon GSX: $43,745

Mitsubishi Diamante XR ES Wagon: $41,990

Nissan Primera Ti CVT Wagon: $41,500

Subaru Legacy Wagon: $46,990.