Space, smoothness, quietness, competence
Room for improvement
Bland looks in side and out
By BRUCE NEWTON 24/07/2001
A TRUE challenger for the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon had to happen sometime, and it makes sense that it would emerge from Toyota.
Enter the Avalon, a car whose name evokes images of celtic legends, golden northern Sydney beaches and fading rock stars turned crooners.
The reality is rather less exotic or entertaining. This is a conservative car, aimed at a conservative market, with conservative sales ambitions.
Toyota is not kidding itself that this four-model range - differentiated only by trim levels - can actually take on and beat the much broader Falcon and Commodore ranges, which offer multiple performance and body options as well as trim variations.
Toyota is looking to sell just 24,000 Avalons a year. Compare that to the 70,084 Falcons and 85,648 Commodores sold in 1999 and you can see the Toyota marketing men are not aiming to put Avalon on top.
No, it's more of a spoiler. The plan is to cannibalise enough sales from the two great family car rivals to ensure Toyota sits atop the overall sales heap when the smoke clears at the end of each year.
The Avalon you see here is the Conquest; translation equals base model and the expected biggest seller. You get standard automatic transmission, dual front airbags, power windows, mirrors and aerial, remote central locking and height adjustment on the driver's seat.
It misses out on standard air-conditioning, anti-lock brakes, side airbags for the front-seat passengers, CD player and alloy wheels - all standard items on the other models.
Pricing is competitive with the Falcon and Commodore once you add up all the bits and pieces, but it's pretty close to the Camry too.
So the risk for Toyota is that Avalon will not only take sales from Ford and Holden, but also feed on its own relations.
It's an understandable fear, considering the Avalon and Camry share the same 3.0-litre V6 engine, four-speed automatic transmission and revised version of the same MacPherson strut suspension, all sitting on the same floorpan.
The crucial difference is that the Avalon is 115mm longer overall, 50mm longer in the wheelbase, 25mm higher and 10mm wider.
Basically, that brings Avalon up close to the same size as Falcon and Commodore, negating that old Camry bugbear of being half-a-size smaller, despite spin doctors insisting that Camry is a "wide-body" car. We shouldn't hear too much about that now.
Over those very similar mechanicals, Camry's bland sheetmetal has been replaced by - even blander sheetmetal.
That shape was produced in the US for a domestic audience and has already been superseded. We end up with it because Toyota Australia could purchase the tooling for a relatively miserly sum and therefore attack the large car market on a budget.
The looks are undoubtedly the car's biggest weakness. The original AU Falcon was seen as ugly, but at least it inspired emotion - the Avalon just doesn't inspire at all. The shape lacks crispness, the overhangs are substantial, the front and rear ends devoid of character.
Is that important? Well, much of the VT Commodore's outstanding and continuing success can be attributed to a graceful and attractive exterior package. And the AU Falcon foundered on a look that just did not gel.
It may well be that conservatism works for the Avalon, considering the target market is 50-plus. But against that is that age group's traditional predilection for rear-wheel drive cars, be it on ideological or practical (read towing) grounds.
There's less to fear than what this ageing group of buyers may imagine.
Toyota Australia's engineers have thoroughly reworked this car under the skin. The new floorpan means much more body strength, the suspension and steering have been retuned, the interior refined and refettled.
Their work has not been in vain. Anyone concerned about the implications of front-wheel drive on a big car would soon be soothed by the Avalon's benign steering, good level of grip and - most impressively - outstandingly supple ride. Ripples, stutters, potholes and patchwork are all despatched with an impressive level of control and comfort.
The steering's got the same dead feel at the straight ahead as the Camry, but there's none of the kickback the Camry's short travel suspension transmits back through the steering rack - at least partly because Toyota changed rack suppliers for the Avalon.
There's little hint of torque steer and when the going gets tight and/or slippery the inclination is for a little predictable understeer - all very safe stuff.
Wheelspin can be provoked, particularly in very tight corners, loose or greasy surfaces and from standing start. But you'll rarely strike it unless you go looking for it.
Engine power and torque is down compared to its rivals and its peaks are produced at significantly higher revs.
But while the Avalon does not provide the same sheer kick as the other two, the 3.0-litre, V6, 24-valve engine is quiet, vibration-free and smooth right up to the redline.
That means you can demand more of the engine higher in the rev range without ever feeling you're stressing it.
The intelligent adaptive automatic transmission - with push-button overdrive - plays its part too, for the most part providing smooth up and down shifts which are appropriately spaced and delivered, although the tall final drive ratio inhibits initial acceleration in the interests of fuel consumption.
Only when you are urgent with the throttle and the gearbox kicks down two gears at once does it deliver a jolt.
That's one of the Avalon's few noise, vibration and harshness hiccups. This is a brilliantly quiet car with only tyre roar, some wind noise from the mirrors and a smidgin of suspension noise noticeable.
Braking performance is up to scratch with solid feel and resistance to fade.
Move inside the cabin and Camry drivers will feel right at home, because Avalon is more than vaguely familiar.
A big basic dash in front, a big basic steering wheel to grip and a centre console that has all the basics, although at least the stereo head unit has larger buttons than the miniscule one found in Camry.
However, the trip computer buttons are too small and too far away from the driver. A better solution would be to fit them to the steering wheel. But at least they are there.
The firm front seats are bigger and broader than their Camry brethren, but lack a little in side support.
The driver's seat gets height adjust while the steering wheel is tilt-adjust only, so you should be able to get comfortable. One advantage of the conservative shape is easy entry and exit and excellent all-round vision.
Rear seat comfort is excellent with headroom fine and legroom absolutely outstanding thanks to the stretched floorpan and plenty of footroom under the front seats - it really is a true match for Falcon and Commodore here.
Width is a different story with more than two adults a squeeze. Three young kids fit comfortably though.
There's no split-fold thanks to a strengthening cross-brace behind the seat, but there is a ski-port to aid versatility and it doubles as an armrest with two in-built cupholders.
The boot itself is wide and flat but shallow and inhibited by protruding speaker cones.
There's plenty of storage space in the front seats, including a lidded centre box that doubles as an armrest, narrow front door pockets, a pen holder and a shallow bin at the base of the centre console. The glovebox is quite small and the front cupholders are a nice pop-out concept let down by what looks to be a fragile execution.
There are few other indicators of fragility in what is a well executed interior; the front passenger's power window mount popped out and there was a tear in the vinyl on the driver's door armrest.
Otherwise, Toyota's usual combination of slush-moulded and hard plastics finished in an anonymous brown-on-grey, combined with a spotted cloth trim called "Mosaic", reigns supreme.
So should Ford and Holden be scared?
They might well be in the long term but we'd rather they were motivated right now to match this car for subtlety of ride, quality of finish and quietness, for there's no doubt this is where its greatest strengths lie.
We just wish it inspired some emotion - any emotion.