Narrower headlamps and larger grille for the facelifted Avensis

Narrower headlamps and larger grille for the facelifted Avensis

So you're the world's most famously sensible car company. You've also had one hell of an annus horriblus, a year in fact that could have dealt a killer blow to car companies with a lesser cash pile than Toyota's. Your president has publicly shed tears over the deaths of people for whom a supposedly faulty throttle design was blamed. Now you just want 2011 to be over. To celebrate the arrival of better days ahead, you launch a back-to-basics sports car but you keep an eye on the bottom line by sharing the development costs with a partner, Subaru parent FHI.

As the year draws to a close, Toyota is in fact doing a lot better than many might have thought, even just a few months ago. It might be outsold by Nissan in China but it's still doing extremely well there. In Japan, it's head and shoulders above all rivals, sales in the US are returning to normal and a new plant has just opened. Toyota is also number one in various medium-sized markets such as Australia and (via Daihatsu) Indonesia, and is performing well in Africa, and on the rise in Brazil.

But there is one major problem region where the company continues to punch well below its weight. In Europe, Toyota has been under assault in all its major markets (the UK, Germany and Russia) squeezed by a stealthy war of incentives that Volkswagen is conducting, as well as by one excellent new Hyundai or Kia model after another. What to do? The answer of course is new products.

The recent visit by British prime minister to Toyota Motor GB's Burnaston plant in the English Midlands was trumpeted by Toyota Motor Europe (TME) as the first step in what would seem to be a regional fightback. New investment for the facility was announced, though tellingly, the company did not name the next generation 'C-segment' model which it intends to manufacture there.

No doubt that new model will be the 2013 replacement for the Auris five-door, while TME has at least officially confirmed that a follow up to the Auris Hybrid will also be made at Burnaston. And could the Corolla name be on the way back for Europe's next five-door C-segment car? Or might TME instead be thinking of a direct rival for the hugely successful Nissan Qashqai. I put these questions to Katsunori Kojima, the managing director of Toyota Motor Manufacturing UK.

"Our C-segment hatchback (Auris) is a core model and this is a core segment for Europe and TME. Toyota builds the main models, the appropriate models for regions in those regions," he stated. Kojima would not be drawn on the likelihood or otherwise of a rethink for TME in the C-segment but he did admit he was impressed by Nissan Europe's 250,000+ annual Qashqai sales.

What about an Avensis Hybrid? "The Prius is a D-segment car in Europe. In fact, sales of five-door cars in the D-segments have been shrinking and so we no longer offer an Avensis hatchback. Instead, the Prius is our competitor".

And in reply to my suggestion that TME might build another hybrid model at Burnaston, perhaps the Lexus CT 200h (currently made in Japan): "We do make many of the components for the Auris Hybrid at our powertrain plant in Wales but for now, there are no plans to make Lexus vehicles in Europe".

Pressed for his personal opinion on building Lexus models in one of TME's plants (England, France, Russia or Turkey), he would only say "I hope so". I insist that TME must at least be thinking of running the CT 200h or its successor down the same line at Burnaston as the Auris replacement; after all, Toyota has been building the RX in Canada as a hedge against the Yen/dollar so why not make a little Lexus in Europe? "But RX is a high volume model in America" is all he would say.

As for the updated Avensis which is just being launched across Europe, the car has had a mid-life facelift as well as new seats, softer materials for the dashboard, a couple of all-new SatNav systems, one new engine and some attention to the suspension to flatten to ride.

Behind the wheel, I found both the sedan and estate to be high on comfort and low on NVH levels but to drive, still not quite up there with the class leaders and big sellers such as the Passat and Opel/Vauxhall Insignia. I can't think of another vehicle in this segment that has such flawless paint, however, while the interior fit and finish were first class on the cars I drove.

The Avensis is certainly roomy and very quiet but the standard in this class is so high now that unless you can offer a car that has a strong brand image, a low CO2 number and a high residual value you tend to get looked over. TME is anticipating 70,000 sales for the Avensis in 2012, which is about the same level that it looks like attaining in 2011.

Exports should continue to make up about 85 percent of Avensis production. The wagon, by the way, is also shipped to Japan and sold there as a high-end model. And if you're looking for more info-nuggets,  Russia is the only large global market where Toyota offers both the Camry and Avensis. Kojima-san says it's simply a case of local buyers preferring to have the choice of both the St Petersburg-built Camry or the UK-made (and marginally smaller) Avensis.

Along with Toyota Motor Manufacturing's managing director, Jon Williams, the managing director of Toyota GB (and also now its president following a recent promotion) was also on hand to talk journalists through the updated Avensis. He maintains that it is a vital car for TME though I thought it interesting that in the recent media release concerning that new C-segment five-door for Burnaston, there was no mention about any Avensis successor being built there. Perhaps that announcement will come later in 2012: the second generation model had a five-year lifecycle so by that measure a fourth generation Avensis is due in 2013.

Williams told us that the Avensis facelift not only reveals the styling direction for TME's next generation models, but for the first time, the mid-cycle engineering changes for a core model were done in Europe. 'Keen Look' is TME's phrase for the more assertive stance of this car, as well as for various Toyotas to come.

Of course it wouldn't be a car launch in the D-segment without mention made of the model mix and competitive CO2 numbers and so Williams noted that the top-selling 2.0-litre diesel engine now has a CO2 average of only 119g/100km (120g for the wagon, thanks to slightly more aerodynamic drag and weight). This 2.0 D-4D unit has shed 3 kilos and has been extensively reworked, with a smaller turbocharger that delivers maximum torque at lower revs.

As for the rest of the powertrain offerings, these consist of a 2.2-litre diesel and a 1.8-litre petrol, and there are three transmission options: six speed manual, six-speed auto or seven-step CVT, dependent on which engine you choose.

I came away from driving the Avensis thinking that this isn't the car to shift the image of Toyota in Europe but it will certainly do its bit. The car has few real faults and unlike me, buyers in the D-segment don't car too much about sports handling. It will probably outlast all its rivals too, if the number of old-shape Avensis hatchbacks on UK roads is any guide. And it's good to see that Toyota is one company that speaks honestly about its sales targets: 70,000 for 2012 seems realistic.

Author: Glenn Brooks