For a market sector that is shrinking, car manufacturers seem to be paying an awful lot of attention to the upper-medium segment. Looking at the line-up of cars offered, most are either fresh from a redesign or are brand new. In fact, it is only the Peugeot 406 and Volkswagen Passat that have not benefited from any recent attention, although a new Peugeot 407 is due to make an appearance later this year. An all-new Passat is still some way off.
The latest upper-medium contender to be revised is Toyota's Avensis. It is now bigger than before and Toyota is aiming the car at the top end of the upper-medium segment where it is planning to rival the Volkswagen Passat on quality.
In fact, quality is the word that springs to mind when you mention the word Avensis. Toyota's marketing machine has made much of the car's deep lustre paintwork, tight panel gaps and high grade materials used for the interior.
In that respect, it is hard to argue against Toyota. The Avensis looks and feels solid and the build quality, both inside and out, is on a par with the benchmark in the sector, the Passat.
Where the Avensis also scores is on standard equipment – dual-zone air conditioning and an electric driver's seat are fitted to all models, as is a lengthy list of airbags including, for the first time, a driver's knee airbag. All of this comes at a fairly reasonable price. Our test model, a 1.8-litre T3-X, costs £15,495 on-the-road. You'll notice that two of the rivals compared here are 2.0-litre models, but all are similar on power and price.
Compared with its rivals, it is keenly priced – it undercuts the Passat and Ford Mondeo although it cannot match the Mazda6. Even in 2.0-litre guise, the 6 is much cheaper than any of the cars here.
And in driving terms, the Mazda6 wins out too. Its sporty engine and chassis set-up make this the driver's choice. The Avensis feels much slower in comparison and its handling is not in the same league.
Although the Mazda and Toyota are similarly sized, it feels as though the Toyota is a much bigger and heavier car. The 1.8-litre VVTi engine in the Avensis offers 126bhp but to extract that performance the engine really needs to be revved and when you do the engine feels coarse and the noise it generates intrudes into the cabin. However, once you are up to cruising speed the noise suppression is much better and the Avensis happily eats up the motorway miles in comfort.
And that is the Avensis' raison d'etre – high mileage in comfort which, in this sector, is no bad thing to offer.
But will drivers, and in particular user-choosers, want the Avensis as their company car? In terms of running costs (see below), benefit-in-kind taxation, quality and equipment, the Avensis scores highly.
But, the styling is unconvincing. While everyone else is going for stark, angular lines, Toyota has plumped for a strange design mix, including strange bulges over the bonnet which makes the Avensis look old-fashioned already.
Compared to the previous Avensis, Toyota has raised its game considerably but the rest of the market has also moved on. The Avensis is a worthy car that will serve a fleet well for three-years and 60,000-miles but it will not excite your drivers.
Toyota Avensis 1.8 T3-X
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £15,330
CO2 emissions (g/km): 171
BIK % of P11D in 2003/04: 18%
Graduated VED rate: £140
Insurance group: 7E
Combined mpg: 39.2
CAP Monitor residual value: £5,225/34%
Depreciation (15.66 pence per mile x 60,000): £9,396
Maintenance (2.12 pence per mile x 60,000): £1,272
Fuel (9.74 pence per mile x 60,000): £5,844
Wholelife cost (27.72 pence per mile x 60,000): £16,632
Typical contract hire rate: £332.90 per month
Three rivals to consider
THE Mazda6 is, quite simply, a bargain. Even in higher powered 2.0-litre guise it undercuts the Avensis by more than £500 yet still offers comparable specification, although the Avensis does offer a higher level of safety features as standard. And a 1.8-litre Mazda6 TS is £400 cheaper still. As you would expect, the Volkswagen is the most expensive in this test, coming in at a whisker under £16,000. The Mondeo falls right in the middle, costing £15,465.
ALL four rivals are pretty evenly matched in this sector, but it is the Avensis that wins on servicing, maintenance and repair costs. Toyota has engineered low cost of repair into the design brief for the new Avensis so parts can be replaced more cheaply and in less time – resulting in shorter vehicle downtime. However, this sector is the lowest in cost percentage terms and the remaining three cars are not that far behind.
YOU may think that cars with badges such as VVTi are just marketing ploys, but they actually indicate technology that helps drive up fuel economy. Witness the Avensis and its 1.8-litre VVTi engine. The clever valve technology helps it record 39.2mpg on the combined cycle – easily the best performance here. As a result, the Avensis wins convincingly over the Ford (36.2mpg), VW (34.9mpg) and Mazda (34.9mpg), although the Mazda's 2.0-litre 139bhp engine is the most powerful.
WITH the upper-medium sector still shrinking but big enough, it is no surprise to see models in this segment scoring low on residual values. Such is the case with the Mondeo, which CAP predicts will retain just 29% of its cost new after three-years/60,000-miles, resulting in a depreciation cost of 17.87ppm. The Passat, getting on a bit now, is rated at 32% by CAP for a cost of 17.10ppm. Surprisingly, the Mazda6 has a CAP figure of 31%, not good for a new model that is winning plaudits. The Avensis fares better, predicted to retain 34% of its cost new.
A CLEAN sweep for the Avensis in this road test. It takes first place in SMR, fuel and depreciation costs, resulting in a victory on wholelife costs. At 27.52ppm, the Toyota is nearly two pence per mile clear of the second-placed Mazda6 on 29.35ppm. The Volkswagen and Ford fall behind and end up scoring about 30ppm. Where the Avensis secures its victory is on fuel costs – its margin of victory in that section is convincing.
Emissions and BIK tax rates
THE Toyota takes a clear lead here, thanks to having the lowest carbon dioxide emissions by a clear margin. At 171g/km, the Avensis falls into the 18% of P11d value for benefit-in-kind tax for 2003/04, three bandings clear of its nearest rival, the Mazda6. Despite its lower front-end price, the Mazda cannot make up ground. The Toyota will cost a 22% tax-payer £50 a month in BIK tax, compared with £57 for the Mazda.
IN many areas the Avensis has this competition sewn up. It is the cheapest to run, offers drivers the lowest benefit-in-kind tax bills and is very well built, certainly on a par with the Volkswagen Passat. But it already looks old-fashioned and the driving experience is forgettable. For a fleet decision-maker, the Avensis is the one to go for but your drivers will probably opt for the Mazda6, a better all-round car.