When Toyota set out to create a replacement for the Avensis, it wanted a car that combined the safety of Renault's Laguna, the build quality of the Volkswagen Passat and handling to rival the Ford Mondeo. But it aims to leap ahead of these key rivals with one vital addition to its weaponry lying under the bonnet.
The latest version of the company's 2.0 D-4D diesel engine complies with strict Euro IV emissions rules.
Normally, diesel engines are subject to a 3% penalty when assessed for benefit-in-kind tax purposes, so a petrol engine with emissions of 200g/km would incur tax on 24% of its P11d price for 2003/2004, while a diesel with the same emissions would incur tax on 27% of its price.
However, diesel engines meeting the Euro IV emissions standard are not subject to this tax penalty.
Toyota has succeeded in making its existing 2.0 D-4D engine Euro IV compliant, while at the same time increasing power from 109bhp to 114bhp, improving fuel consumption and reducing CO2 emissions.
This is certainly welcome news, as when manufacturers were first challenged to meet this target by Fleet NewsNet they feared it could actually lead to an increase in fuel consumption and emissions by 5%, which would offset any benefits of the 3% drop in tax.
In real terms, a 22% taxpayer could save about £152 a year by driving an Avensis compared to an equivalent Mondeo or £123 over the similarly-specced Passat. The entry-level diesel is priced at about £15,000 on-the-road, £500 more than the car it replaces, but it still rivals other mainstream models that have dominated the fleet heartland.
Toyota has set its sights on a five-star Euro NCAP rating during the next bout of crash tests later this year and there is certainly plenty of safety kit, with nine airbags fitted as standard. There's even one for the driver's knees – a UK first – plus every vehicle in the range gets Toyota's vehicle stability system.
The new car also gives the Volkswagen Passat a run for its money when it comes to design and interior quality. This sense of quality is continued inside with the expensive looking interior.
I liked the soft-touch plastics and the way the centre consoles in the high-spec versions are finished with metal trim and not silver plastics. Its exterior styling will split opinion, but the impression of weight it conveys offers a sense of solidity that its light and airy predecessor could never manage. Even the doors resonate with a satisfying clunk when closing.
Some drivers won't like the styling but ultimately, the new Avensis is hard to fault: capable on-road dynamics, well built and safe, roomy and spacious inside.
Behind the wheel
Toyota's diesel units are already refined and this updated engine is quiet at motorway speeds thanks to a new kind of sound-proofing material used in the cabin. Power delivery is also smooth, but there is a lack of urgency about this under-stressed engine. Despite a respectable 0-62mph time of 11.2 seconds, performance is slightly hampered by a narrow torque band, offering maximum pulling power of 207lb-ft between 2,000 and 2,200rpm. However, a more powerful version of the D-4D unit is undergoing durability testing, and the ultra-clean D-CAT engine is due at the end of the year.
On our Spanish test route, the tyres gripped the road well while the double wishbone rear suspension, developed from the rear suspension in the Celica, delivered excellent body control and stability through corners. It's not as good as the Mazda6 under heavy braking, but there is nothing that will unsettle its relaxed attitude to making progress.
While some drivers will crave more power from the capable diesel unit, there's no doubt that Toyota's latest D-sector offering should have the Mondeo and Passat worried. The new Avensis is a fine alternative with the added benefit of lower tax bills for drivers.
Model: Toyota Avensis 2.0D-4D
Engine (cc): 1,995
Power (bhp/rpm): 114/3,600
Torque (lb-ft/rpm): 207/2,000
Max speed (mph): 121
0-62mph (sec): 11.4
Fuel consumption (mpg): 48.7 (Tourer: 47.1)
CO2 emissions (g/km): 155
Fuel tank capacity (l/gal): 60/13
On sale: May
Price: £14,995 – £19,495