Despite wayward predictions from other manufacturers about being first with Euro IV-compliant diesel engines, Toyota sneaked through with the new Avensis this month and will be following it next month with a Corolla using the same engine. It means the car will not be subject to the 3% benefit-in-kind (BIK) tax penalty levied on all diesels so far and for this year at least will fall into the lowest band for BIK at 15%.
Meanwhile, in the first Euro NCAP tests to use even more stringent criteria, the Avensis joined nine other cars to achieve a five-star rating for occupant protection, with the highest score ever recorded.
As well as offering nine airbags as standard across the range (including the first car in the UK to offer a driver's knee airbag) it also has persistent seatbelt reminders for driver and passenger, which must have helped it score extra points.
Toyota tried to make up ground in the quality stakes with the new Avensis, taking some of the experience from its upmarket Lexus brand and applying it to a volume fleet car, with the Volkswagen Passat firmly in its sights.
It has largely paid off with tight, uniform panel gaps, some discreet chrome touches and a deep, lustrous metallic paint finish.
The centre console with audio and climate controls could almost have been lifted from a Lexus GS and the interior has an upmarket feel that makes it stand out from the likes of Ford, Vauxhall, although it isn't as sober and logical as a Volkswagen.
One or two niggles, though. Although the seats are comfortable, the range of adjustment on the driver's seat isn't as great as in the Vauxhall Vectra, and with the optional electric sunroof (£500), headroom is tight in the front.
And, while the audio system might look like a top-of-the-range model – and it does sound amazing – it only has a single slot CD while giving the appearance of a six-CD in-dash autochanger.
However, the Avensis has impressed as the early miles have progressed. The engine is just about as muted and refined as the best in this sector, although it needs some encouragement to offer its 114bhp and 207lb-ft of torque. However, it is returning 50.7mpg – 2mpg up on the official figure. We hope that as the miles pile on, the engine will loosen up and offer its performance more easily.
The boot is vast and has two hooks for shopping bags to prevent food carnage by the time you return home from the supermarket.
This, along with the safety achievements, is all good news for the staff at Fleet Towers who will be using this car for the next six months.
Company car tax bill 2003/04 (22% taxpayer): £49 per month