Its fleet success was so great that Toyota heralded it as its first 'truly competitive fleet car', which spearheaded a record fleet sales volume that year.
This year, the car is charged with leading a second push in the fleet market, with a new engine range and some smaller styling updates. It appeared at dealers at the start of this month, priced from £12,995 on-the-road. However, this time it is backed by a completely revamped Toyota range, including the eye-catching MR2 and Previa, while the ground-breaking Prius petrol/ electric hybrid is also due this year, which is raising awareness of what Toyota has to offer to fleet.
Outside, the car gets new jewel-effect clear glass headlamps, a reworked front bumper, new rear combination lamps and a chrome exhaust. The main changes are under the bonnet though, with four new engines.
The new 1.6-litre, offering 109bhp at 6,000rpm and 110lb-ft of torque at 3,800rpm, is already offered in the Corolla. A new 1.8-litre petrol engine in the Avensis offers 127bhp at 6,000rpm and 125lb-ft of torque at 4,200rpm, which powers the car to 60mph in 10 seconds and on to a top speed of 127mph. Both engines are important new developments for Toyota, as they incorporate VVT-i technology, which offers variable valve timing to give the optimum economy or sportiness, depending on driving style.
A third new petrol engine in the Avensis is a UK first for the company - a 2.0-litre direct injection unit, also with VVT-i. The model has already been launched in Japan, but work had to be carried out on the catalytic converter to cope with the higher sulphur content of petrol in the UK. A key benefit of the engine is its low CO2 emissions of 181g/km. The 147bhp engine offers 17% more power and 12.4% more torque than the previous unit, but is more than 7% more economical, offering an average 36.7mpg, along with a 130mph top speed and 0-60mph time of 9.1 seconds.
The petrol cars are joined by a 109bhp common rail diesel unit, carried over from the previous Avensis, which is 11% more fuel efficient than before, offering 47.9mpg and 184 lb-ft of torque from 2,000 to 2,400rpm.
Three body styles will continue to be available - saloon, hatchback and estate - in six trim grades, with GS expected to be the big fleet seller. S, GS, GLS and CDX follow a clear hierarchical structure to compete directly in the fleet market against models such as Ford Mondeo and Vauxhall Vectra.
A new TNS200 turn-by-turn satellite navigation system is standard on all GS, GLS and CDX models, the latest sign of the technology becoming as common as anti-lock brakes in the fleet market - and is available as an option throughout the range. Air conditioning is fitted as standard to GS and above. All versions also have anti-lock braking and electronic brake force distribution.
Fleet managers are being tempted with extended service intervals of 20,000 miles or two years for both petrol and diesel, with a 10,000-mile 'health check', along with the usual three-year/ 60,000-mile warranty and 12-year anti-perforation warranty. Together with higher levels of equipment, Toyota claims the car is between 3% and 15% cheaper than its nearest competitors.
Keeping wholelife costs to a minimum will be the main strategy for tempting fleet buyers to the Toyota range. Along with extended service intervals, the manufacturer is launching national menu pricing to ensure that fleets obtain the same running costs wherever they are based.
In 1998, Toyota's fleet sales were 43,000, dropping to 38,500 last year as the product range started to be renewed. Now with nine new models introduced or being introduced, the firm expects to hit 40,000 sales this year.
First impressions last and the impressive sense of quality and quietness that were clearly apparent on climbing into the Avensis will not be quickly forgotten.
This is not down to the revamp - the car has always been this good - just the fact that Toyota is still fighting to raise awareness of the model among many fleet buyers, particularly the growing user-chooser market.
With 147bhp on tap, the front wheels do have a tendency for torque steer under hard acceleration, even with the help of the standard vehicle stability control, traction control and brake assist system.
The fly-by-wire throttle provided instant response and despite the intended sporty nature of the car, the ride was smooth and quiet. During motorway journeys and country road driving, there was little to be heard in the cabin, particularly from the engine.
There is little obvious change inside the cabin, although there are improved heating and ventilation controls, an integrated audio system with multi-function display and steering-wheel mounted stereo controls on some models. Damping has been added to the glovebox cover and ashtray 'to give a high quality feel to the cabin'. Controls are unchanged, with well-weighted steering and a well-positioned handbrake within easy reach of the driver.
Moving to the common rail diesel model, which was launched in the 'old' Avensis, it is in no way a second-best option. Once again the engine was smooth and quiet, but it felt more flexible than the petrol engine. Common-rail is rapidly replacing old diesel technology as it offers quieter running, more low-down power - in this case maximum torque from 2,000rpm - better fuel economy and the chance to cut benefit-in-kind payments under the new tax regime from 2002.
Although it averages nearly 48mpg, the car is no slouch, as long as the revs do not drop below 1,500rpm. Diesels may have a limited rev range, but because of their higher gearing and greater torque, that should not slow down company car drivers looking for economy.