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New Car Test - Toyota Avalon Grande

A damn good car.

by Julian Edgar

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Toyota aren't used to losing in the Australian market. Boasting numbers that currently place the cashed-up Japanese company in the Number Three position in new car sales, the marque has had success in every niche from subcompact to luxury. In the latter class they confounded the critics by launching from scratch the Lexus, a car that went on to become a full range of BMW-competing (and, some would say, beating) luxury cars. Nope, Toyota like to win.

But it's in the uniquely Australian class of large, cheap, family cars that their products have been thin on the ground. And without a Commodore and Falcon competitor, Toyota has always struggled for supremacy in fleet sales, the area that makes up most of the big Australians' market.

Enter the Avalon.

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The commitment to the new full-size car has been taken so seriously that Toyota has elected to build the car at the Altona plant in Melbourne. Even given that much of the tooling is hand-me-down stuff from the previous US model, you don't re-engineer a production line in the (relatively) tiny market of Australia unless you seriously want to kick some sales butt. Yep, the Avalon is Toyota's biggest gamble in this market for many a year.

In fact, it's worth briefly reliving some Australian automotive history. The last car to take on what was then the 'Big Three' (Ford, Holden and Chrysler) failed ignominiously - even though in the P76, Leyland had arguably a better car than its contemporaries. Time has certainly shown that it takes more than just a good car to sway the loyalties of the Australian family car market. Which in a way makes it a bit sad that Toyota has so specifically pitched the Avalon at the Commodore and Falcon buyers - that's a damn hard nut to crack. Add in an advertising campaign featuring a comedian absolutely irrelevant to anyone aged under 45, and body styling that reeks 'boredom', and we have some doubts as to how the Avalon will succeed in the marketplace.

And that's a shame, because the Avalon is a damn good car. How good? Bloody good!

From its grunty and refined 3-litre V6, intelligent auto trans, to its meaty and precise power steering, generally excellent ride and luxurious and comfortable interior, the Avalon impresses from the moment the door opens. And then when you shut the triple-seal design, a superb 'clunk' reinforces the initial impressions of excellent build quality.

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Within minutes of getting into the car for the first time we were pitched into dusk Melbourne peak-hour traffic. Then the clarity of the instruments (whitely luminously lit in Lexus fashion on the Grande) and ease of use of all of the controls immediately inspired confidence. Even that usual symbol of technological confusion - the digital climate control - was logical and effective. You won't find demisting the Avalon's front screen that all-too-common nightmare of battling automatic, frustrating functioning. Simply want some cool air on your face? A bypass switch mounted separately to the climate control gives you instant air, whatever the digital settings. Competent and effective - just like the rest of the car.

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And grunty? You betcha. The combination of the 1MZ-FE 3-litre V6 engine and A541E 4-speed auto gives instantaneous part-throttle kickdown response, the Avalon surging down the road with surprising urge. And off the line it's not too shabby, either. Travelling in convoy with AutoSpeed Deputy Editor Michael Knowling - who was pedalling an EFI 5-litre '95 Mustang - we couldn't resist a straight-line drag. From a standing start up to well over the 100 limit, the two cars were absolutely line-ball. It may look like a Grandfather's car, but it sure doesn't drive like one..... And not around corners, either. A pillowy ride with lots of body roll and shock rates out of Fifties America? Not on the Avalon! Instead, the damping of the four-wheel MacPherson struts is quite firm - over sharp bitumen ripples taken at low speed, perhaps too firm in fact - and the handling is characterised by flat, grippy cornering.

Charge into a tight corner, floor the throttle and sharply wind on the lock and the 1555kg Avalon behaves just as you'd expect any large front-wheel drive car with a good dose of grunt to do - it plough understeers with the inside 205/65 15 RE92 Bridgestone spinning so hard that it smokes. But drive the car - rather than throwing it around like a small sports car - and the handling is sweet and benign, telegraphing well in advance the behaviour that the chassis is about to undergo. However, in the tested top trim Grande, we were surprised at the lack of even a basic traction control, let alone an intelligent system that can detect the difference between cornering and straightline acceleration.

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The 3-litre V6 develops 145kW and 284Nm from its 24-valve, DOHC per bank design. Tricky ingredients include a dual-length intake manifold, all-alloy design, and pistons coated with molybdenum. The engine management uses direct-fire ignition, sequential injection and dual knock sensors - with a compression ratio of 10.5:1, the latter are needed! Most unusually, the main muffler uses a variable internal design, with a free-flow path (normally blocked by a sprung internal flap) automatically opening up when gas flows are high. To reduce NVH, a liquid-filled front engine mount is used; however, while generally smooth and refined, the engine of the very low kilometre example that we drove was a little throbby at idle.

One hundred and forty five kilowatts and a kerb mass of over 1.5 tonnes don't usually add up to scintillating performance, but the Avalon never feels short of grunt. The test car had less than 1000km on the odometer and so we didn't run performance figures, but other testers have achieved a 0-100 time in the low nines, with a standing 400 metres in the mid-high sixteens. On the road it feels faster than that. Economy is in the low twelves around town, while the AS2877 test shows an 11.5 litres/100km city cycle and an astonishing 6.8 litres/100km highway test result.

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Steering is by a magnesium alloy wheel that uses a fat, oval cross-section rim. The rack and pinion system's weight is initially unexpectedly high, but the driver soon gets used to this characteristic, instead noticing more the confidence-inspiring quick and direct ratio. However, the front-wheel drivetrain can allow a little torque steer in some conditions, notably when one of the front wheels is on a more slippery surface than the other. In general, though, power tugs through the steering are non-existent. The wheel in the Grande is electrically adjustable for both height and reach, automatically rising and withdrawing when the key is removed from the ignition lock. Slide the key back into place and the steering wheel returns to its previous position. This slightly weird behaviour is designed to allow the driver easier entrance and egress, but the wide-opening doors (front and rear) and roomy cabin makes getting in and out pretty easy anyway, even for those who may be elderly or not very athletic.

Braking is by four-wheel discs across all Avalon models, with the tested Grande getting 4-sensor, 3-channel ABS. The front discs use a 275mm diameter, ventilated design while the rear discs are 291mm. The car pulls up strong and straight, with the pedal travel increasing a little after three or four hard stops from 100 km/h, but with the retardation not noticeably diminished. Unlike some cars, the ABS also continues to work well on loose surfaces like dirt.

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Inside the cabin the Avalon has plenty of space in all directions - but one. While rear seat room is inviting in its head and legroom, rear passengers can't place their feet under the front seats. This makes an amazing difference to comfort, causing passengers' knees to be positioned far higher than would otherwise be the case. Rear occupants are looked after with twin rear maplights, a fold-down armrest with in-built cupholders, and a centre lap-sash inertia belt. Behind that there is a positively huge boot, well shaped and easy to load. However, the rear seat doesn't fold forward - instead there is a large (but hidden) V-shaped structural member placed behind the rear seat back.

Back in the front, and the seats are comfortable and supportive. However, there is a surprising lack of adjustment in the electric chairs - we couldn't find the lumbar support (though one is said to be fitted), and the seat height adjustment causes only the rear of the squab to move up and down around a front pivot point. So if you want more under-thigh and lower back support, it seems you can't have it. But given that the seats are pretty right from comfort and positioning perspectives, these are minor quibbles. In fact, the words that kept springing to mind whenever we were in the Avalon were 'competent' and 'liveable'.

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Unfortunately the standard 8-function trip computer is a let-down. Holden has set the benchmark with its triple-window, intuitive-to-use system - and the Grande's trip computer is a long way behind that. Incorporating the clock - you can have a trip display or the time but not both - the operating logic is not particularly clear and the pressbuttons are a long reach for the driver. However, this is one of the few downsides of the controls. The lights incorporate an 'auto on' function (and they're auto off too), and the fairly complex sound system head unit (in-dash CD six stacker plus tape and radio) is easy to use. The music system is fine, although with careful positioning of the fader control it's possible to learn that the front tweeters and single rear deck subwoofer are not particularly good. Instead the front and rear door speakers do most of the work - put it this way, we're sure that replacement upgrade speakers could really lift quality....

The Grande-standard glass sunroof tilts and slides, there is leather in abundance, and the remote locking can be programmed to give a delayed headlight on time or beep the horn when the system is armed. A panic mode is also available. Safety is through four airbags and the usual front/rear crumple and door intrusion bar techniques.

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The Avalon is a surprise package. On the road it rates as 'excellent' or 'good' in nearly every area we can think of - it's a car that is responsive, handles well, is comfortable and practical. Rolling and standing start performance are more than adequate, and the measured fuel consumption (even on the tight test car engine) was fine. Pricing extends from a base model $28490 Conquest to the tested Grande that will set you back a considerable $48490. (We can't imagine that the Grande is actually a twenty grand better car than the Conquest - so if you like your luxuries, you're gonna pay for them!)

And the old-world, bland-with-chrome-bits styling?

You make up your own mind - but for a car this good, we think we'd be prepared to shut our eyes when we walked up to it in the carpark...

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