JAPANESE upper-medium cars are renowned for being reliable vehicles, but until now they have never had that star quality. Our leasing panel assesses the latest cars from the East.
Japanese cars have always rightly held a reputation as reliable and trustworthy, but it has not been until recently that you could also say that finally they have got some style to go with their substance.
For years, Japanese upper-medium saloons were a bland photocopy of a generic European saloon, but the major manufacturers – Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Mazda – have all brought out new models within the past 18 months signalling a new, more exciting direction.
Take the Nissan Primera as an example. Compared to the old car, which was dull to the point of anonymity, the replacement version was a complete shock. It looks unusual from the outside, has an interior that puts all the dials and control systems in the centre of the dashboard, and generally does things that no European car company would dare to do.
In many ways, it shows off the Japanese tendency towards eccentricity that is kept safely tucked away in Japan. But now it has been exported, and while sales have not soared, it offers a different package that is certainly worth a look.
The Toyota Avensis is the most conservative of the new wave of cars. From the outside it looks hefty and solid, although sexiness is not its forte.
The interior doesn't spring many surprises either, but it is a strong range which is carrying on the company's famed reputation for reliability. There's plenty of space too, and a five-star EuroNCAP crash test plaque on the wall for added measure.
Plenty has been said about the Mazda6. It has kick-started a revolution at the firm, from which Mazda has never looked back. It looks great, is an alert and agile-handling car, and while the interior may not be up to the standard of the Avensis, it has an excellent seating position and the driver feels very involved.
It is certainly the choice for a blast down a back road.
The Honda Accord feels and looks like a relation of the Mazda6, sporting the same design philosophy of a high rear and sharp nose. It is bigger, heavier and set up to be more of a tourer though. Inside, the Honda has the atmosphere of a premium car and for a driver looking for an alternative to a German premium marque, the Accord will most clearly fit the bill.
But what if you have a family and want more space? There are a couple of options from the Japanese makers in the mini-MPV market.
The Nissan Almera Tino is long in the tooth but has recently had a facelift and an injection of extra equipment to keep it competitive. It's probably the most prosaic choice here.
The Honda Stream was launched as the sporty MPV, although sales have been disappointing, suggesting that sportiness is not a draw for MPV buyers. But for those with a family of more than four or five, it could well be the best option with its third row of seats.
Operations director, Inchcape Fleet Solutions
Buying Japanese brands tended to mean bland but major strides have been made in different ways. The sporty Mazda6 was the start of a turnaround for Mazda right across its product range, while the Honda Accord is a strong brand in its own right. Curiously however, the Japanese, who are past masters at developing and making a success of other people's ideas, have yet to make a successful mini-MPV.
Managing director, Zenith Vehicle Contracts
'The UK car market has been dominated by the Germanic marques in recent years, characterised by their strong brands and high build quality, which has left the Japanese manufacturers trying hard to gain market share. The Japanese are now fighting back, utilising European design touches and new technology. Spearheading this attack is the Mazda6 which has thrust Mazda into the fleet market.
Pricing manager, Lloyds TSB autolease
'Japanese manufacturers are well known for the reliability factor they bring to the car market. However, they are often criticised for lacking flair and innovation. This may have been the case in the past but is not always the case now. The styling on the Mazda 6 proves this. The Honda Accord is the best all-round car, offering high equipment levels, competitive rentals and low carbon dioxide emissions.
Commercial director, Alphabet
The Japanese vehicle manufacturers have steadily improved their fleet sales and support operations in recent years and now they are coming through convincingly with products to match their service. Drivers who haven't looked outside of the usual European car ranges for a while are likely to be surprised at the extent to which Japanese cars have shed their 'reliable but bland' image, and are now much more exciting.
Head of UK & international sales development, Arval PHH
I can still remember the day I lost my Cherry. A wonderful car – no wonder someone stole it. In those days the Japanese led the way with quirky design. The passage of time has seen their distinctiveness fade. Nevertheless, they are firmly part of the UK fleet and in this group my vote goes to the Avensis for all-round value, with a high score for the Accord whose strong RV brings it well into the budget for price with quality.
Vital statistics: how our models compare
Average monthly rental rates
Nissan Primera £307
Honda Accord £340
Nissan Almera Tino £344
Toyota Avensis £348
Honda Stream £359
Average maintenance costs (3years/60,000 miles)
Nissan Almera Tino £1,420
Honda Accord £1,421
Toyota Avensis £1,530
Honda Stream £1,594
Nissan Primera £1,695
RV forecasts (3years/60,000 miles)
Honda Accord £5,539/34%
Honda Stream £5,460/32%
Toyota Avensis £4,525/28%
Nissan Almera Tino £4,466/27%
Nissan Primera £4,008/25%
CO2 emissions (g/km and tax band)
Honda Accord 176/19%
Toyota Avensis 191/22%
Nissan Almera Tino 199/23%
Honda Stream 203/24%
Nissan Primera 208/25%
Honda Accord 38.2
Toyota Avensis 34.9
Nissan Almera Tino 34.4
Honda Stream 32.8
Nissan Primera 32.5
Honda Accord 2.0i VTEC SE
Pout: 'In moving the Accord from the volume to the premium sector Honda has done a great job. The car drives well and Honda's typically efficient engine offers plenty of support to the enthusiastic driver. The Accord stands out for quality, looks, driving appeal and RVs.'
Cope: 'Honda has shaken the 'mature' image of the Accord with the latest redesign. The SE offers luxury equipment levels and a good safety score in the EuroNCAP tests.'
Schooling: 'It's much more of a driver's car than before, even though its carbon dioxide rating incurs the lowest benefit-in-kind tax here. It should succeed in attracting some younger drivers.'
Brown: 'The Accord has a strong image and is the aspirational choice in this group. It combines strong performance, good ride and handling with low CO2 emissions. Many will opt for the larger wheels as they enhance the looks.'
McMahon: 'The Accord is a big improvement over the out-going model with little road or engine noise. It also benefits from the best levels of equipment, lowest maintenance budgets and low CO2 emissions.'
Average monthly rental £340
P11D price £16,330
Average net price £13,661
Average maintenance £1,421
Average RV £5,536/34%
Arval PHH £337.83
Lloyds TSB autolease £339.68
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £683/£1,241
2003 VED bill: £145
Mazda6 2.0 TS2
Cope: 'The Mazda6 is a well-equipped car, offering good levels of build quality which, in turn translates to a positive and sporty, yet smooth ride. The low P11d value makes this car a wise fleet choice.'
Schooling: 'Again, a big step forward dynamically from its competent but lacklustre predecessor. Good looks and equipment only let down by a slightly anonymous interior and an engine that's a bit coarse when pushed hard.'
Brown: 'The Mazda6 rides and drives well and incorporates new styling themes to create a distinctive look. Promotion of the marque with a more sporting image has met with some success.'
McMahon: 'The Mazda 6 has a very sporty look and may appeal more to younger drivers. Inside there is a stylish layout with metallic trim which also adds to the sporty feel.'
Pout: 'This award-winning car still looks great while the driving dynamics of the vehicle ensure it sits well on the road. It is very competitively priced and limited volumes should ensure that residuals hold well, making it an appealing vehicle.'
Average monthly rental £349
P11D price £16,315
Average net price £13,057
Average maintenance £1,526
Average RV £4,468/27%
Arval PHH £357.90
Lloyds TSB autolease £343.42
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £790/£1,436
2003 VED bill £160
Nissan Primera 2.0i SE
Schooling: 'The Primera offers a winning combination of sleek looks and sharp handling allied to a smooth, powerful engine. It's very well equipped, too, adding to the value of the whole package.'
Brown: 'Bold styling, if not attractive, is combined with some interesting technology. The central console works well but the reversing camera is not as successful. Received a reasonable reception from the press but hasn't caught on so well with buyers.'
McMahon: 'The Primera provides good value for money but the exterior isn't everyone's cup of tea. It has the lowest residuals, highest CO2 emissions and poor fuel economy.'
Pout: 'This is not the most inspirational vehicle – the market is still getting used to the look but sales are increasing as it becomes a more familiar figure on the street. Again the spec level is good but it does suffer from a poor residual value.'
Cope: 'The Primera represents a move away from the field in terms of styling. The design although new and different is still quite bland, although unique which may attract interest.'
Average monthly rental £307
P11D price £16,015
Average net price £11,088
Average maintenance £1,695
Average RV £4,008/25%
Arval PHH £310.64
Lloyds TSB autolease £309.25
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £881/£1,602 2003 VED bill £160
Toyota Avensis 2.0 VVT-i T3-X
Brown: 'Far more competitive than the old model, it is comfortable, refined and cheap to run. The Avensis is a quality car that reflects all the benefits of Toyota ownership but maybe loses out in the image stakes to the Honda and Mazda.'
McMahon: 'The Avensis is one of the classiest looking family cars and also handles well. The interior has a quality feel and there is a lot of leg room. However, the rentals are among the highest of the vehicles in this survey.'
Pout: 'This is a great improvement on the previous version. In fact the whole feel of the car makes me wonder if they got hold of a German designer to give it that quality. Whatever, they have certainly got it right in terms of production quality – smooth, quiet all round, well built and a bit more interesting than before.'
Cope: 'A vast departure from the old model's minicab image. Toyota has followed Mazda with a highly equipped and well-built car.'
Schooling: 'Toyota has succeeded in giving the latest Avensis a quality feel. The new look is distinctive, if not to everyone's taste, and as with the other offerings here, you get a lot of extras for the price.'
Average monthly rental £348
P11D price £16,315
Average net price £13,090
Average maintenance £1,530
Average RV £4,525/28%
Arval PHH £343.68
Lloyds TSB autolease £347.71
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £790/£1,436
2003 VED bill: £160
Honda Stream 2.0i VTEC SE Sport
McMahon: 'The rentals on the Stream are the highest in this survey. This is caused by a fairly high list price and maintenance budget. The Honda Stream also has high CO2 emissions and poor fuel economy compared to some other vehicles in this survey.'
Pout: 'Cleverly designed and practical, this is difficult to rate against the rest of this group. Although it's Sport by name I wouldn't say it's Sporty by nature. Nevertheless, Honda's engineering quality makes this a good performer and it stacks up as value for money.'
Cope: 'The Stream is an expensive alternative to its rivals in the mini-MPV market. Although spacious, inside the third row of seats are compromised reducing the value of its MPV status. However it offers an enjoyable, sporty drive and a four-star EuroNCAP rating.'
Schooling: 'Honda's sporty MPV lives up to its GTi image at the wheel but, even though the interior is built for comfort rather than speed, it can't quite swallow seven adults.'
Brown: 'Not as successful as it should have been, the Stream is a missed opportunity. Billed as a sporting MPV at launch, it is far more fun to drive than a Zafira, if not as flexible.'
Average monthly rental £359
P11D price £16,815
Average net price £14,072
Average maintenance £1,594
Average RV £5,460/32%
Arval PHH £350.86
Lloyds TSB autolease £359.19
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £888/£1,614
2003 VED bill: £160
Nissan Almera Tino 1.8 SVE auto
Pout: 'This one's not so popular on our own fleet where it suffers against the competition. There's no doubt that it represents good value for money but it just doesn't have the image or appeal to enable it to justify itself readily among its peer group.'
Cope: 'The Almera Tino is now beginning to show its age and sits uncomfortably in this basket of vehicles. Its size, specification and four-speed automatic gearbox hamper its performance and desirability.'
Schooling: 'The Nissan is good to drive, with a versatile and attractive interior that make it an inviting and comfortable choice, both as a workplace and as a family car.'
Brown: 'Aimed at the retail market rather than fleet and hampered by a lack of image. Off the pace in this comparison it isn't helped by the automatic gearbox. There are better options at this price but good value at entry level.'
McMahon: 'The Almera Tino was a late starter to the mini-MPV market and has since been superceded by Touran, Focus C-Max and the new Scenic. The Almera Tino benefits from a good equipment level but is the slowest at 0 to 60mph.'
Average monthly rental £344.26
P11D price £16,815
Average net price £12,332
Average maintenance £1,420
Average RV £4,466/27%
Arval PHH £379.58
Lloyds TSB autolease £312.62
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £851/£1,547
2003 VED bill: £160