With most of its models Toyota gets tantalisingly close to the reputation for reliability and solid future values enjoyed by German marques, with the result that the Derbyshire-built Avensis soldiers on strongly in the sales chart. Up to the end of September, 18,392 of them had been registered in the UK in 1999 - about 60% into fleets - slightly down on last year, but performing in line with mainstream manufacturers' fortunes.
There's no doubting the Avensis's value-for-money credentials: while the standard list starts at ú13,875 on-the-road Toyota has introduced a batch of SE special edition models from ú13,495, kitted up with air-conditioning, 15in alloys with locking nuts and Sony single-disc CD player/tuner on top of an impressive standard equipment list. But the consistent criticism of Avensis is that, despite offering a competitive package, the range has little to offer in radical styling to help lift it further above the upper medium run of the mill.
In what appears to be an attempt to shrug off criticisms of Avensis dullness, Toyota has added a sporty SR trim to sit between GS and GLS in the S, GS, GLS and CDX line-up. Just two models get the treatment: five-door liftback and four-door saloon, both with the 16-valve 2.0-litre 126bhp four-cylinder petrol engine and manual transmission. The other non-SR power units available across saloon, liftback and estate variants - also revised versions of those offered with the Carina E predecessor - are 1.6 and 1.8-litre lean burn petrol engines and an 86bhp 2.0-litre eight-valve turbodiesel.
The SR tested here is the Liftback, which costs ú16,720 on-the-road. Its four-door counterpart is priced at ú16,570. What both get as part of the SR package is GLS spec without its electric sunroof but with Momo 15in alloy wheels, rear spoiler, chrome mesh front grille, chrome exhaust finisher, metallic paint finish and front fog lamps. Inside, the seats are finished in San Remo sports trim with suede-effect bolsters, black wood insets around the centre console and driver's side air vent, a leather steering wheel and leather gearshift gaiter. It's what Toyota describes as 'the sporting proposition'.