What is happening to the upper-medium sector? Faced with the challenge of drivers taking cash alternatives and spending their own money on something with a premium badge on one side and more practical compact MPVs offering more space for the whole family on the other, the traditional repmobile risks becoming an outcast.
Furthermore, at disposal time, with residual values crashing through the floor, the traditional upper-medium hatchback seems about as desirable as the plague.
Even the Volkswagen Passat, once the bastion of rock solid residuals, can only hope for 30% of its original value to be retained over three-years/ 60,000-miles.
The answer has to be to move cars upmarket. This is what Honda has done with the latest Accord and it seems that Toyota is planning to do the same with the new Avensis.
On sale from March 2003 with Euro IV compliant diesels two months later, the new Avensis will have to perform an astonishing feat if it is to leapfrog the likes of the Volkswagen Passat, Ford Mondeo, Vauxhall Vectra, Nissan Primera, Renault Laguna and others in terms of perceived quality.
Although the current Avensis has long been among the lowest priced vehicles in its sector, with economical petrol engines and good levels of standard equipment, it was lacking in areas of driver appeal and has been overtaken in interior space by the latest generation of rivals.
It would also have relied on Toyota's reputation for reliability which has been proven with high ratings in the FN50 reliability survey two years running. The two petrol engines offered in the UK have been updated for the new model, while the 2.0 D-4D will be Euro IV compliant.
Meanwhile, the Avensis will be the first Toyota to benefit from the company's super-clean D-CAT technology which claims emissions substantially below Euro IV requirements, and the engine will replace the D-4D towards the end of next year when sulphur-free fuel becomes more widely available.
The Avensis will also be the first car to offer a knee airbag for the driver as standard, and it also has a dual-stage seatbelt warning with a light and a buzzer that gets progressively louder if you don't belt-up. Both are sure to give the Avensis a high score when it undergoes Euro NCAP crash tests.
Toyota is emphasising the concept of 'superior quality' on the Avensis and it seems it is putting some of the lessons it has learned with its luxury brand, Lexus, into play on the new car.
The designers have tried to improve the 'perceived quality' of the car, working on the touch, feel and sound of interaction. Panel gaps have been reduced, paint is thicker than before and sound levels are targeted to be lower than rival cars. Dual-zone air conditioning will be standard on cars in the UK as well as eight-way electrically adjustable front seats.
To make the new Avensis a more attractive prospect for user-choosers as well as large fleets, Toyota has chosen a design proposed by its European studio.
Engineers also claim that the handling has been tuned to European tastes, but this is something we have often heard before, only to be disappointed when we get behind the wheel.
We will not get to drive the car until next year, but what we can tell you is that the interior of the prototype cars convey a sense of improved quality and there is more than a hint of Lexus about them. Plastics are pleasant to touch and the movement of buttons, switches and stalks is in keeping with a more upmarket vehicle.
Rear space is also impressive, with ample headroom for six-footers in the saloon and hatchback as well as remarkable legroom. The estate, with its 70mm longer wheelbase and extended roofline, has even more space.
Toyota expects the estate to make up 40% of sales across Europe, with the saloon and hatchback taking 30% each.
In the UK where most drivers will be essential users rather than lifestyle buyers, the hatchback is expected to take more than 70% of sales, (the majority, no doubt, to fleets) with the saloon and estate fighting for the spoils. Total sales for the full year are expected to comfortably exceed 20,000 units.
The 1.8-litre engine will offer class-leading carbon dioxide emissions of 171g/km (18% benefit-in-kind tax liability after April 2003), while the Euro IV diesel will offer 15% in 2003/04, rising to 16% a year later.
The new Avensis seems to have much in its favour.
|Toyota Avensis fact file|
|Model: Avensis||1.8 VVT-i||2.0 D-4||2.0 D-4D|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||127/6,000||145/5,700||114/3,600|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||125/4,200||145/4,000||207/2,000|
|Max speed (mph):||124||126||118|
|Fuel consumption (mpg):||39.2||34.9||50.4|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||171||191||154|
|Fuel tank capacity (l/gal):||60/13|
|Service intervals (miles):||10,000|
|Transmission:||5-sp man or 4-sp auto|
|On sale:||March (1.8 and 2.0 D-4), May (2.0D-4D)|
|Prices (est):||£14,500 - £20,000|