Make or Break for New Mid-Range Toyota in Europe
By Andy Bannister
There are some unusually nervous faces at Toyota’s European operations just now as bosses anxiously wait to see what reception will be given to the company’s latest mid-range car, the third generation Avensis.
Smaller than the Camry – which has always been too big and bland to achieve much success in Europe – the Avensis was designed in France and is built in England. It is aimed squarely at some pretty formidable competition, including the class-leading VW Passat, Ford’s Mondeo, and the GM Insignia, recently crowned European Car of the Year.
Toyota sales have been disappointing of late, even before the current economic woes began to bite. The company was left with egg on its face after its grandiose ambitions to become the leading import brand in Germany in 2008 failed to materialise. Growth has also stagnated in other key markets.
Unlike Nissan and Honda, Toyota seems to have failed to convince European buyers its cars are designed by and for Europeans, despite almost all its current line-up (SUVs excepted) being built on the old continent, with plants in France, the Czech Republic and Turkey, as well as in the UK.
The Avensis’s smaller brother, the VW-Golf sized Auris, while undoubtedly well-built and reliable, looks just a little too timid compared to many of its rivals. Despite constant promises to the contrary, Toyota’s designs often repeat the mistake of being just a little too conservative and traditional for their own good.
The first Avensis was just a warmed-over Japanese Corona, whilst the outgoing second-generation model had a little more identity and was neatly styled, if hardly inspiring. Tellingly, an Avensis is a very popular choice for taxi drivers across Europe.
One immediate problem the new model faces is that Toyota has decided not to offer the five-door hatchback configuration which many European buyers prefer, despite it being available in the last two generations. This bodystyle is, however, available to buyers of the Mondeo, Insignia and another Japanese rival, the Mazda 6.
The new Avensis, described as “cutting edge” by the company, is therefore only offered as a four-door saloon or an estate car (inevitably dubbed “Touring” in an attempt to give it some cachet of desirability).
The styling has some Lexus overtones and certainly looks classier and less boxy than the old model, but it lacks any wow factor. The front aspect, with that uninspiring grille and squiggle of a badge, is not its best feature.
Inside, the Avensis offers good quality materials but adopting a totally risk-free design that won’t scare but won’t seduce either. On the road, the car is certainly refined enough to compete with its rivals.
Mechanically, the car offers 1.8-litre and 2.0-litre petrol units with the option of a new Continuously Variable Transmission developed by Japanese maker Aisin Seiki, which helps reduce those all-important CO2 emissions, increasingly linked to European tax bands. There’s also a 2.2-litre diesel.
A further challenge for Toyota is the fact that the segment the Avensis sits slap in the middle of has been steadily shrinking for years, squeezed between premium badges like BMW and Mercedes on one side, and very competent, smaller and cheaper-to-buy-and-run hatchbacks which offer almost as much space and refinement.
Arch-rival Nissan recently abandoned this sector of the market altogether, scrapping the European-built Primera (and its smaller Almera sister) in favour of the Qashqai crossover – a move that seems to have paid off handsomely, with booming sales of the clever Qashqai one of the few bright spots in 2008.
Toyota is hoping the Avensis will at the very least help maintain production at its well-regarded UK plant, which has recently been forced to scale back output of the Auris due to falling demand. The target is to sell 100,000 units of the Avensis in 2009, up around 20% on this year, which looks a bit of a tall order in the current climate and with some good new rivals around from Germany and France.
This includes sales in Eastern Europe and Russia, however, where the Toyota badge is well respected and the more traditional four-door saloon style is still a popular choice. Toyota must be hoping these markets escape the full force of the cold winds of recession.