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The Toyota Avensis is adequate family transport, but a very sensible used buy

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A mate had a Toyota Avensis once – the first-generation model launched in 1997 and just nine months old. He wanted it because his father had owned two and swore by them. 

Of course, it suited his father because he was at an age where a car’s reliability mattered more than its badge.

The large family car sector used to be dominated by reliable but forgettable cars

It suited my mate for a couple of years too, until he became bored with it and replaced it with a new BMW 320d Coupé, which, incidentally, suffered a failed turbo within weeks of him taking delivery.

Any car can suffer a component failure, of course, but my friend’s and his father’s firm belief in Toyotas never suffering so much as a rattle is shared by many car buyers.

To such people, a Toyota is the hero on their driveway. And with the third-generation Avensis, on sale from 2009 to 2018, Toyota strove to reward their faith with the best-engineered version to date.

It was built at Toyota’s factory in Burnaston, Derbyshire, and offered in saloon, estate and, for a time, hatchback bodystyles. Rivals included the Ford Mondeo and Vauxhall Vectra – the Ford a close match for the Toyota in terms of reliability but streets ahead of it in driving pleasure.

Inside and out, the Mondeo was also better looking. In reply, the Avensis was quiet, comfortable, nicely finished and reasonably roomy.

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With a growing family, my mate appreciated that last feature, right up until he bought his wife a hatchback and replaced his Avensis with that BMW coupé.

From launch, it came with a choice of engines. Most private buyers opted for the 145bhp 1.8-litre petrol and business users the 124bhp 2.0-litre diesel.

With 221lb ft of torque available, the diesel is a useful tow car. However, it’s a Euro 4 motor so is a dirty old polluter and subject to a ULEZ charge. The Avensis was facelifted in 2012.

Along with styling updates, improvements in noise, vibration and harshness, and new, more supportive seats, it gained a cleaner and more efficient 2.0-litre diesel engine, although only Euro 5. Three years later, in 2015, it got the full Botox with the adoption of Toyota’s new corporate styling and the firm’s Touch 2 multimedia system.

The Tourer estate was also renamed Touring Sports. Other changes included updated diesel engines – a 1.6 and, our pick, a 2.0-litre with 141bhp and 236lb ft, both Euro 6. They joined the already familiar petrol engines: 1.6, 1.8 and 2.0-litre. Of this trio, only the 145bhp 1.8 exists in any numbers. It will return up to 45mpg but feels pretty gutless.

Like all D-segment cars, the Avensis set its sights primarily on business users, which is why it never suffered for want of kit. Safety was a particular strong point, with all versions having seven airbags. Today, mid-spec TR and, from 2012-15, Icon are the most plentiful and worth it for their 17in alloys, sat-nav and air-con.

From 2015, Business Edition is the one to sniff out for its reversing camera, climate control and full suite of safety tech. Stretch to a rare Business Edition Plus and you will be rewarded with Alcantara trim, adaptive LED headlights and keyless entry and go.

Discreet, comfortable and well appointed, especially in Tourer estate form, the Avensis still has much to offer in these SUV-obsessed times. Just ask my mate’s dad.

Toyota Avensis common problems

Engine: The model’s reputation for reliability might lead some owners to neglect servicing, so go through the service history carefully. Early 2.2-litre diesel engines can suffer DPF issues, leading to over-fuelling and damaged piston rings and bores. The petrol engines have to be worked hard to generate any meaningful performance so make sure the oil level is up to the mark and there are no unusual noises. 

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Gearbox: Aside from the usual advice about checking for clutch slip and notchy changes on manual cars and less than smooth changes on CVT autos, there’s little to report. 

Suspension: A fresh MOT should reveal any safety-critical wear.

Brakes: Check the action of the electronic parking brake, if fitted. There have been some reports of actuator failures and repairs are expensive. Loose and rattly front brake calipers have also been reported. 

Interior: On some cars, the check straps that prevent the front doors from opening too wide might have cracked the door frames. Be sure all features, especially on higher-spec cars, work. In 2015, a technical bulletin was issued about an update for sat-navs running software version 2.8.4al.

Body: The Avensis is a large car, so check the extremities for any damage. 

Recalls: Yet there is one large elephant in the room: recalls. This Mk3 Avensis has been the subject of more of them than its reputation would lead one to expect. They are easy to check on the government’s recall website and with a Toyota dealer and, of course, they are limited in number and to only specific production runs but some are fairly serious all the same.

They include the possibility of the accelerator pedal failing to return to idle, the rear suspension arm separating, the roof window glass detaching, the bolts on the exhaust side of the turbo being incorrectly tightened and the right front seat side airbag not deploying.

Check if the car you are interested in has been the subject of one of these recalls and, if so, that the required rectification work has been done. 

Additional reporting by John Evans

DESIGN & STYLING

Toyota Avensis rear

One of Toyota's priorities for the Avensis was to increase the European look and feel of a car that traditionally maintained a Japanese ambience in spite of being partly designed and engineered, and entirely built, in Europe.

The programme’s chief engineer, Takashi Yamamoto, even drove 3000 miles across Europe to gain a feel for the culture here, while 35 European engineers were dispatched to Japan to influence the design from there. 

The Avensis is more European in look and feel than ever

The result? Hmm. The Avensis was more European in look and feel than before, certainly, but if you are looking – inside or out – for the sort of flair that runs deep through cars like the Vauxhall Insignia, or indeed compact executive cars that most D-segment cars aspire to become, the Avensis is left wanting. To say it is more distinctive than the outgoing model is like saying milk is tastier than water. 

Toyota has a design tagline called ‘Integrated Component Architecture’, under which it’ll emphasise a component - such as the bonnet’s clamshell shutline - which it thinks contributes to the overall shape.

The bonnet’s leading edge, for example, is low and smooth. It forms quickly into the A-pillars, and Toyota says this is one of the reasons why the saloon has a lowish 0.28 drag coefficient (0.29 for the estate). Despite a lowish front end to the bonnet, there’s crushable space behind the grille and bumper to aid pedestrian impact protection.

As with the clamshell line around the bonnet, there’s a character line around the rear bumper which flows out and up to the rear lights, both emphasising the components and visually connecting them with the body.

INTERIOR

Toyota Avensis interior

‘Solid’ and ‘dour’ were two words that kept cropping up as various testers emerged from the Toyota Avensis cabin back when it launched in 2014.

It is hard not to be impressed by the tightly constructed dash, close-fitting materials and overall feeling of indestructibility. We’d wager that if you were to take several of its rivals and drive them for 300,000 miles, it would be the Toyota’s interior that would fare best. 

The Avensis offers its occupants little in the way of excitement

However, next to the swooping, stylised cabins of some rivals – the Vauxhall Insignia in particular – the Avensis offered its occupants little in the way of excitement. The lines of the fascia are clean and the contrast between the textured dash and the charcoal-effect centre console (standard on higher-spec models) works well, but the expanses of vertical surfaces give a conservative feel.

Lacking flair was not the Avensis’s only problem, the positioning and design of some ancillary controls are less satisfactory. The rotary heating controls are too shallow to get an easy purchase, the mirror controls are nothing more than flat squares of plastics and the release for the electric parking brake is hidden from view behind the steering wheel. 

Other than some testers complaining that the seats proved insufficiently comfortable for longer journeys, there was little else to fault in the cabin accommodation. There is adequate seat and wheel adjustment to suit most drivers, and the rear cabin, if not quite as accommodating as the Ford Mondeo, is respectable for the class.

Standard equipment on the entry-level Active model included - 16in steel wheels, air conditioning, Bluetooth, cruise control and a pre-collision system, while upgrading to Business Edition got you some fleet-friendly equipment such as 17in alloy wheels, Toyota's Touch 2 infotainment system, sat nav, DAB radio, a reversing camera, automatic wipers and lights, Toyota's full complement of Pre-Sense safety tech and climate control.

If you went for the Business Edition Plus and you'd find a leather and Alcantara upholstery, adaptive LED headlights, tinted rear windows, and keyless entry and go, while the range-topping Excel trim adorned the Avensis with 18in alloy wheels, and electrically adjustable and heated front seats. The estate version also got a panoramic sunroof and integrated boot rails. 

When it comes to load carrying in the estate, you have a flat floor on your side, which stays that way when the seats are dropped, and there’s a standard-fit rail system for securing loads, but the seat cushion does not lift to form a protective bulkhead, and the load bay itself is relatively shallow and narrow for the class.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Toyota Avensis side profile

The 1.8-litre petrol engine proceeds with moderate zeal and high-speed stability, and the Toyota’s cruising ability is quietly impressive. Overall, though, it is short on low-down grunt and refinement is ruined because it needs to be worked hard. Frugal though it is for its size, most buyers in this class went for the diesel.

Toyota's 2.0-litre diesel could only be had with a manual gearbox, which offered decent frugality and emissions and gave little away in real world terms to the smaller diesel.

While we have no qualms with the performance of the new Avensis, we do with its engine refinement

Slightly taller gear ratios than some rivals mean the Avensis’s in-gear performance is not so all-conquering. Away from the track, though, the spread of power and torque proves as useful for give-and-take road motoring as it is does outright performance. The full 250lb ft of torque might not arrive until 2000rpm (later than rivals at the time) and does so with a pronounced step in performance, but it lasts until 2800rpm before tapering off – longer than its rivals could manage.

You rarely wish for more low-down grunt, and anywhere between 2000 and 3500rpm the diesel proves sufficiently willing to rev. Couple this with the tall gear ratios and gearshifts can be kept to a minimum. Which is no bad thing. Not because the change is poor (with the exception of second to third, which can occasionally baulk), but because the tall lever doesn’t fall naturally to hand. 

While we have no qualms with the performance of the Avensis, we do with its engine refinement. The problem is not smoothness – little vibration is transmitted to the cabin – but noise. Under full throttle, as the engine reaches its peak torque, it emits a noticeable grumble – part muted diesel rattle, part induction roar.

RIDE & HANDLING

Toyota Avensis cornering

In setting its priorities for the new Toyota Avensis, Toyota wanted a car that was more agile than its predecessor but no less stable and with even better ride comfort. In other words, pretty much what every other manufacturer seeks to do with a new car.  

On the motorway the Avensis is an easy car to drive. As with most electrically assisted steering systems, the map is programmed to reduce sensitivity around the dead centre to improve straight-line stability, and with the Avensis this was particularly well judged. Keeping it straight requires little effort, yet applying the correct amount of lock comes intuitively when bigger inputs are required.    

The steering, although accurate, has none of the natural feel you get with the Mondeo

Driven enthusiastically across country, Toyota's claims of improved torsional stiffness and suspension that is quicker to translate steering input into response rung true.

The Avensis is quick to change direction, steers accurately and grips well. Fully use the chassis’ capabilities and the engine’s punch and the Avensis can be moved along quite briskly

But drop the pace to something more representative of everyday driving and the case is much less convincing. There is nothing intrinsically at fault with the way the Avensis drives, but where it falls short is in providing much in way of feedback or enjoyment.

The steering, although accurate, had none of the natural feel you got with the Ford Mondeo at the time. And while in extremis the Avensis is perfectly agile, in more measured circumstances it never possessed the poise of either the Ford Mondeo or Insignia

The Avensis’s biggest failing, though, is its ride. While impressively compliant, it manages to combine a nervousness over small, sharp ridges (particularly at low speeds) with inadequate body control over more challenging road surfaces. 

Admittedly if you drive predominantly on motorways it might never provide cause for complaint, but in more mixed conditions its damping shows room for improvement. 

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Toyota Avensis

Toyota has a fine track record here with the Avensis.

This Avensis requires servicing frequently (at 10,000-mile intervals) but as a result its oil doesn’t need to be synthetic, while other consumables have a lengthy life.

Both previous models have proven particularly easy to live with

Resale values aren’t too bad and a notch above mainstream rivals – due in no small part to the popularity of the Avensis in the used market. A high-spec diesel auto Avensis will hold its value very well for the class, likewise the estate.

Economy figures are reasonably competitive across the range, although there was no eco version to rival the likes of the Volkswagen Passat Bluemotion, Ford Mondeo Econetic or Vauxhall Insignia Ecoflex. The 2.0-litre diesel, which officially delivers more than 60mpg, was the port of call for the vast majority of buyers.

Equipment levels, as you’d expect from these fleet-orientated vehicles, were pretty much on a par with rivals, maybe a touch more generous, but not much. Entry-level models got basics including air-conditioning and an auxiliary input socket, but most buyers upgraded to Business Edition or Business Edition Plus trims. These featured sat-nav, electric rear windows, automatic headlights and windscreen wipers, Bluetooth connection, alloy wheels and dual-zone climate control.

VERDICT

Toyota Avensis rear quarter

Like the car it replaced, the third-generation Toyota Avensis is a well engineered, tightly built and practical vehicle, both in saloon and Tourer forms.

It is a car that pulled off the not inconsiderable task of near combining class-leading performance with reasonably impressive economy and emissions figures. This alone is evidence of the engineering effort Toyota poured into its development. 

We wish Toyota had made the Avensis a more gratifying car to own and drive

There are a few faults, especially the ride – it’s fidgety and a bit uncomfy around town where neither the primary or secondary ride is especially well resolved. Things are better on the motorway where the Avensis really comes into its own as a comfortable and refined cruiser.

Refinement is a bit of an issue around town with the diesel engines – they’re a bit rattly. Some of our testers also found the seats less than comfortable.  

If your search begins and ends with a car that will transport you and yours quietly, safely and reliably, the Avensis will prove wholly satisfactory. There’s plenty of space inside, a decent level of equipment and residual values are surprisingly good for a mainstream D-segment car.

If only Toyota had spent a little longer making it a little more visually desirable inside and out, those resale values could be so much better. As it is, the Avensis appeals more to the head than the heart.

As enthusiasts, we also wish Toyota could have diverted a little more effort into making the Avensis a more satisfying, engaging car to drive and own. Because what it lacks most is sparkle.

The owner's view

Tony Baker: “I always buy Toyotas for their reliability and good equipment. My Avensis is a 2.0 D-4D Business Edition Touring Sports, registered in 2018 and now with 84,000 miles on the clock. It’s been totally reliable and is very economical. However, like all the Toyotas I’ve owned, insurance is not cheap. It may be a Japanese brand but the model is built in Britain, so I don’t understand why.”

Toyota Avensis 2015-2018 First drives