The idea of marketing the big front-drive Avalon here was that it would take Toyota into the big car class for the first time and go head-to-head and toe-to-toe with the established stars, Ford’s Falcon AU II and Holden’s Commodore VT II.
It had to go into battle with the two Australian heavyweights and – if you were to take the television advertising literally – knock their mirrors off. Instead, though it’s racked up 345 sales since mid-2000, the Avalon has made little more than a ripple in the big car sales pond.
There’s no doubt Toyota went in brimming with confidence: the name of the base model Avalon wasn’t even subtle about its aims. It was called the Conquest, the motor industry’s buzzword for a sale you make at another manufacturer’s expense: a conquest sale, where you take Commodore or Falcon owners out of Holden’s and Ford’s grasp and put them into Toyotas.
There were three prongs to Toyota’s attack: the base model and, as it’s turned out, unfortunately named Conquest ($41,800); the middle ground Vxi ($46,800), and the top of the line and sumptuously-equipped, beatifully-finished Grande ($52,300), the subject of this road test.
Toyota seemed almost beaten before it started when it was noted the Avalon being sold here and in Australia was a mildly updated version of the just-superceded US market Avalon and used a warmed over version of the Camry’s 3,0-litre V6 rather than the more potent Lexus-based unit used in the new US Avalon.
Old (and it looked old) ultra-conservative styling was going up against the contemporary look of the Commodore and Falcon.
The VT Commodore is unequestionably one of the most handsome sedans on the road, full of nice little styling details from the pen of Mike Simcoe and his team at Holden. It looked great when it was launched three years ago and it still looks great in revised VX form. More than any Holden before it, the VT looked all of a part, with no jarring styling notes.
And Simcoe’s squad succeeded in making a big car look smaller than it is, a key factor in wooing Camry class drivers up a size.
The Falcon was, well, controversial when it first appeared. A friend felt it looked like the radically-styled Ford Taurus after someone had stood on its roof, pushing the roof flatter and making the car wider. Ford made matters worse by the bizarre toothy grille on the Forte. Only the Fairmont Ghias and the XR series cars looked right.
The AU II revision improved the Ford’s looks by toning down some of the more excessive aspects of the original AU and taking the Fairmont look across the range.
So Toyota’s old-look Avalon found itself up against Holden’s refined glamour and Ford’s radical chic. Both the Australian cars were determinedly late-1990s in looks against the early ’90s flavour of the Toyota.
Mind you, the new Avalon on sale in the USA is no great looker, either, and has been criticised by American writers for its stodgy styling (and, incidentally, its price which is perceived as too high).
In terms of size our Avalon is almost as long as, nearly as roomy as, a little narrower, and a little taller than the Falcon, and the Falcon and the Commodore are within millimetres of each other in key dimensions.
So aside from a little less elbow room and rear seat headroom, the Avalon provides almost as spacious a cabin.
There’s plenty of legroom for driver and front seat passenger, and as our photos show there’s generous rear seat legroom too.
Toyota quotes boot space at 523 litres, a handy increase on the Falcon’s 460. The boot is a little shallow but will swallow a huge amount of luggage and gear. Into it we crammed a week’s worth of luggage for two people who never travel light – not to mention the extra demands of the mobile office, camera gear and the selection of wet weather gear needed to cover motor racing. Despite the amount of stuff we had there was room to spare in the well-dimensioned boot and everything remained easily accessible.
The Avalon is a heavyweight. Even the Conquest, at 1535kg, is five kilograms heavier than an AU I Falcon XR6. The VXi is 1545kg and the range of standard equipment baloons the Grande to 1570kg.
That weight and the comparatively low-powered 3.0-litre V6 mean the Avalon loses out to its more potent Australian rivals, even though it’s a brisk performer with relaxed high-speed cruising ability and strong acceleration for open road passing moves.
The Camry-derived Toyota motor produces 145kW at 5200rpm, and peak torque of 284Nm at 4400rpm. Though that’s ballpark with what Ford and Holden sixes used to produce, it’s no match for the current Australian motors.
Ford’s six now puts out 164kW (the same as its V8 once did); the Variable Camshaft Timing version pumps out 172kW and the 5.0-litre V8 is good for 185kW. It’s the same story with torque: the three Ford motors develop 366Nm, 374Nm and 412Nm. Where the V8 is concerned, the Holden puts Ford in the shade with a thumping.
In this segment of the market horsepower figures count for a lot and even if it’s quick in real world terms, the Avalon is outgunned on paper.
The fact the Avalon range has only one engine option to its rivals’ three each means there’s also a lack of an aspirational progression in the line-up.
The 164kW Falcon Forte driver can aspire to a 185kW Fairmont Ghia V8 with a raft of luxury trappings. The Avalon Conquest driver can only look forward to the luxury trappings in the Grande. With its higher weight the car will in fact be slightly less powerful than his current car.
It seems to us that when it comes to doing battle with the Falcon and Commodore for the big car buyer’s dollar the Avalon is on a hiding to nothing.
And that, really, is sad because the very real merits of a car that is good in its own right are being obscured by its being asked to perform a task for which it’s not suited.
Ironically, the car which is its true rival – and which it beat roundly in the US market because of its conventional styling, good all-round ability and rock-like engineering and quality – was Ford’s bizarrely-styled droop-snooted and droop-tailed Taurus V6. Put the Avalon up against that car and its merits would be much more evident (though we thought the Taurus was great, despite its oddball styling).
The one major area in which the Avalon is ahead of its Australian rivals is in the refinement of its V6 engine. The Falcon inline six is still a raucous unit despite recent revisions; so too is the Holden’s Buick-derived V6.
The Avalon’s re-tuned Camry motor is smooth, quiet and seldom obtrusive. When you ask it to lift its work rate it responds instantly and smoothly and with a nice – if muted – cammy sound.
We’ve racked up more than 2000 kilometres in two Avalons – 1500 in a Conquest, around 600 in the Grande – and enjoyed every one of them.
Some of my colleagues think I’m crazy when I say that, but it’s true.
I could find very little about the car that I didn’t like.
It was a fine companion for loping along South Island roads (the Conequest), capable of packing a good number of kilometres into an hour with minimum effort, turning in excellent cross-country times without exceeding the speed limit (a testimony to its ability to maintain momentum with a blend of strong performance and good handling).
It was great for commuting in Auckland’s nightmare rush-hour traffic (the Grande), the excellent Compact Disc sound system helping ease the frustrations of the traffic snarl with the modal sounds of Miles Davis’ classic Kind of Blue among other records.
And I spent a fine couple of hours letting the Avalon’s hair down by storming some favourite Auckland region roads (the Grande again) where it proved surprisingly-agile with totally-unflappable roadholding and extremely forgiving handling.
My friends thought I was mad when I said I’d been out charging along demanding winding roads in the fat cat Grande.
They said it wasn’t intended for that kind of driving.
Well, I’ve got news for them. Intended for it or not, the Grande acquitted itself extremely well, was even rewarding to drive. The only downsides were a slight amount of brake fade after a particularly demanding section of road, and a touch of sledging on tight corners taken hard.
This sort of driving also showed up a shortcoming in the four-speed automatic gearbox.
It’s the familiar Toyota auto, reasonably smooth-shifting when left in Drive (though not a patch on Ford’s seamless unit), with quick and not too harsh kickdown.
It can also be shifted manually, though again it doesn’t feel quite as satisfying as the Ford’s when you take over the shifting tasks yourself.
But shifting the Avalon’s gears manually is essential if you’re pressing on along winding roads: leave the gearbox to its own dcevices and you invariably find yourself a ratio too high and battling understeer as there’s a pause before the unit downshifts.
So manual it is as we charge through the countryside. Downshifts are surprisingly smooth and jolt-free; upshifts are almost imperceptible, marked only by a whisper-change in the engine note and a flickering of the rev counter needle.
But shifting manually reveals the need for another gear ratio. Third is a little too high, second a little too low for many corners. You find yourself revving the engine harder than you’d like to.
Steering is well-weighted, with plenty of assistance for parking but firming up nicely at open road speeds. It also offers good feel.
Turn-in to corners is crisp and direct and the car is unfazed by mid-corner bumps.
Ride comfort is excellent, and the Avalon ironed out several of the more irritating bumnps on our regular commuting and test routes.
The 205/65 R15 Bridgestones provided excellent grip and complemented the accomplished chassis. The Avalon didn’t give the feeling that it owed more of its road manners to the tyre choice than to the basic soundness of the chassis design.
It’s a big, heavy, front-wheel drive car, so naturally it understeers, but the understeer is well-controlled. The general handling feel tends towards neutral unless the car is being pressed hard in a sequence of tight corners. Then you need a little more lock as the front end starts to run wide. Balance is excellent on long, fast, sweeping corners where the car behaves very nicely with just a hint of rear-end movement.
The handling is forgiving in extremis as we discovered when a downhill corner tightened unexpectedly and I had to apply extra lock very quickly to prevent the car running on to the wrong side of the road. The tail end started to come around, but a quick application of opposite lock and a throttle adjustment had everything under control instantly.
One of the Avalon’s major faults is its poor turning circle. Even on reasonably wide surburban streets it needed to make three-point turns. Anyone used to the tight turning circle and good confined space manoeuvrability of a Commodore or Falcon would find the Avalon clumsy.
The brakes – ventilated front discs, solid rear with an ABS anti-skid system – provided strong stopping power. The parking brake is foot-operated (both engaging and releasing, a much better arrangement than the engage-by-foot, release by fingernail-threatening under-dashboard lever) and proved very strong.
The seating position is multi-adjustable and I was able to achieve my preferred low seat, high steering wheel set-up with ease.
The seats are excellent and the leather used is grippy, holding you in place well during vigorous cornering. I especially liked the amount of shoulder grip the seats offered; they were right up there with the standard-setting front seats you find in Saabs.
Visibility in all directions is good and the view forward in the Grande is marred only by the woodgrain trim on the dashboard. The Conquest’s plainer dashbord is much preferable.
The Grande is comprehensively equipped. The two-tone exterior paint treatment is mainstream Japanese luxury car, and the Grande suffers from the current fascination with chrome grilles (the body-coloured grille of the Conquest looks much better). Exterior items include fog and driving lamps and smartly-styled factory alloy wheels.
The top quality sound system has seven speakers and a six-disc dashboard-mounted Compact Disc player.
The headlights can be left switched to automatic, turning themselves on when the light becomes dim and switching off if it brightens.
The steering wheel lifts up and out of the way when you remove the ignition key, presumably to allow you to get your corprate belly past as you get out of the car. The steering wheel lowers when you put the key in the ignition.
Radio aerial, exterior mirrors and windows are all operated automatically, and the driver’s window has an auto up and down function with jam protection. The remote-control central door-locking uses a wireless system that only activates the locks when you’re close to the car.
Front seat height, fore/aft and backrest angle adjustments are powered on both driver’s and passenger’s sides.
The climate-control air-conditioning system is unobtrusive – as it would need to be to compete with the outstanding systems in the Commodore and Falcon.
Front and side airbags are standard, and the car gets an alarm system with engine immobiliser. There are plenty of storage spaces, and the Avalon has Toyota’s excellent, large pockets on the front seatbacks. Among their practical attributes, they provide a safe place to carry bottles of wine home from the supermarket.
The steering wheel and auto shift lever are leather-covered.
The Avalon’s cabin is a comfortable, quiet enviroment – only the harshest chip surfaces produce much in the way of tyre roar – and wind and mechanical noise are muted. The car has a slight tendency to be upset by crosswinds.
The driving position is very good and the controls are well-placed. Like most Toyotas, it’s user-friendly and full of thoughtful touches. Driving it and using its features you get the feeling the dsigners have really thought about the car’s end-users.
There’s no question about whether the Avalon Grande is a good car. It is.
But it’s just not the car to carry out the task that’s been set for it. In no real way is it a rival for a Ford Falcon or a Holden Commodore.
Rather like the last rear-drive Cressida marketed here – another Toyota that some might have thought could offer an alternative to the big Aussies – the Avalon is a fine, honest, refined, rapid and good-handling car.
Unlike the Cressida – and aside from the cabin and total body width – the Avalon is close in size to the big Australians.
But that’s as near as it gets; trying to take the fight to the rear-drive big two with a front-drive car that weighs as much but concedes a minimum of 20kW of power was always going to be – mission: impossible.
It’s a pity the task was asked of it because – the old, somewhat stodgy styling apart – as a refined, high-quality, solid and dependable executive level car, with the usual Toyota attributes of straightforward and dependable engineering, the Avalon Grande is very much a case of – mission: accomplished.
Photographs: Mike Stock.
Test reprinted courtesy of Prestige & Classic magazine