So why, oh why am I writing about a car that’s been out of production for several years, and was never really all that interesting in the first place? Surely I should be chasing conquest visits to Roadwork, and encouraging people to return. Writing about a three-year old sales-reps estate car is no fit way to achieve that, is it?
Well, I can justify it partly because I’ve just spent three hours in the car and might as well get something out of it, and secondly, because the conclusion I reached was totally unexpected.
Not all that long ago I had reason to drive a Honda Accord. A recent-ish car, the most up to date shape, highly specified and from a brand known for quality and innovation.
And I pretty much hated it. Well, hate is a strong word, but it wasn’t the car I expected it to be. The adverts and styling had presented it as all things to all men, a near world-beater. A cut above, bridging the gap between mass-market Mondeo and proto-premium Passat.
So often a car promises the earth, and delivers disappointment.
It was with no expectations whatsoever that I took the keys for this three year old Avensis Estate. The very most I could hope for was that it would be comfortable and would take me the 95 miles I needed to travel without causing undue stress, breaking down or bringing me out in hives.
It’s a plain looking car, the Avensis. It’s not spectacularly ugly, nor is there anything fundamentally wrong with its proportions. But then, there are no particular design flourishes to tell you that the designers were really having fun with it. It hasn’t got any particular identity, doesn’t look designed for sportiness or elegance. OK, it’s bland and unadventurous compared to the current Mondeo, for instance, but isn’t offensively drab. It looks, well, like a Toyota Avensis.
This Estate variant is arguably better looking than the saloon. The Avensis is a fairly well nourished, bulky car, and the extra mass on the rear end makes for a more coherent shape overall. Things are helped in no small part by the 17” wheels that don’t look hopelessly lost in the wheel arches.
Open the door and take a seat. The door is weighty and clicks shut after a reassuring thunk. Then you sit on the pleasant, robust seat fabric and take in your surroundings. Never before has a car interior been so adequate. There is virtually nothing here (ashtray under the handbrake aside) that feels under-built. There isn’t a sub-standard plastic anywhere within reachable radius of the drivers seat. The dashboard mouldings are soft touch or heavy to the tap. There is no tinniness.
And the exterior of the car is reflected on the interior, in as much as there is basically no creative flair on display anywhere to be seen. I mean, the HVAC controls and displays have a slightly metallic sheen to them, which is nice, and the dashboard is curvy without being overstyled. All in all, perfectly pleasant, with only one peculiar peccadillo, the Avensis logo moulded below the door handle is a slightly quaint Japanese affectation of the old school. No European car has had such a quirk for a long time.
One thing, though, is genuinely good; the Optitronic instrument binnacle illumination. The yellowy orange needles and numerals are crisp and clear and, well, good. This, here, is a genuine plus for the Avensis, the first one so far today.
The engine started with no undue commotion and settled into a typical diesel tickover with little to delight or anger me. The gearbox slid into gear with typical Japanese fluidity, the clutch was well balanced and I started up the road in an efficient, if not spectacularly stylish manner.
This particular car has Toyotas SatNav system on board, which I had to get to grips with in order for it to guide me out of Milton Keynes. It doesn’t let you do anything much more complicated than adjust the volume when you’re moving, so I parked up again to input my destination.
When you’re in and out of different cars every day of the week, you have to familiarise yourself with dozens of different interfaces, with different modus operandi. By and large the German systems move in the same orbit as BMWs iDrive, with a twisty-turny mouse thing and a few buttons. The Japanese mostly use touch screen, which I usually hate because of the fingerprints you end up with smeared all over your dashboard.
And hardly any of the Japanese touch-screens use interfaces that seem even vaguely related to each other. The commands are different, (one system might say confirm, one might say update), and the order in which the bits of an address are entered seem to be different. It means that every time I jump into a Japanese car I have to give myself a crash course in yet another navigation system.
I entered the postcode, then the street. It told me that the street didn’t exist in the local area, which I already knew, and I didn’t want to go to the local area anyway. I tried again, it repented this time and started issuing directions; it told me to go back the way I came. OK, said I, there’s probably some clever short cut I’m not aware of.
There wasn’t. It had simply reverted to the last set of instructions it was issued, and was taking me the complete opposite way to which I wanted to go. I pulled over and renegotiated with it, and this time it offered me a package whereby it would guide me in the right direction. I was delighted, but five miles off course.
This all meant I had wasted ten minutes, time I would never get to live again. I was getting old, and this spurred me into driving in a more aggressive manner than I usually would have. I began injecting myself into Milton Keynes' myriad roundabouts at a far higher pace than I had been doing earlier. There was never any more power available than was strictly necessary, and there was much body roll, and quite a sensation of weight being shifted around, but it was all benign behaviour and clearly didn't intend to do me any lasting harm.
Pretty soon I was on the M1, heading home. I discovered that there was a cruise control stalk, so I set it. Interestingly, something deep within my soul told me to dial up 75mph. I sat at that speed, comfortable, relaxed, my blood pressure was falling. All was well with the world.
I then noticed that I'd been listening to Radio 4. An interesting current affairs program was on, and the The Archers. The villagers of Ambridge were being pestered by two amateur Journalists. What bastards; I thought. Also; what the bloody hell had happened to me?
This was extraordinary. I was feeling zero sensation, the Avensis was being a numb, insular, insulated transport module with a subdued engine and fine ride. The miles were ticking down with such a total lack of effort, my need for a toilet break felt to be imposing arrogantly on the cars plans.
In the service station I bought Octobers MOJO magazine, with a big special feature on Pink Floyd, and a cover CD of various artists performing covers of tracks from Dark Side Of The Moon. Excellent, I could wean myself off Old People's radio and listen to Old People's music, instead. It would probably be rubbish, anyway.
It was superb. A few duff tracks here and there, but terrific for the most part. And the stereo in the Avensis sounded excellent, partnering well with the extremely comprehensive sound deadening on board. I had to temper the settings a little, somebody had turned the bass and midrange up to a point where the speaker cones were tearing themselves from their suspension. But, throttled back, I enjoyed the album all the way home.
And that pretty much sums up the Avensis experience. It provides you with an environment in which to think about things other than cars. It is, in a sense, the anti-car. I’ve just devoted more space in this review to a CD than I did the cars handling, and it really doesn’t matter.
Had the Avensis carried a more dynamic name, been from a more sporting stable or been styled more flamboyantly, I would probably have moaned colourfully about how disappointing the whole experience was. But, instead, the car deliberately makes no reckless promises about what it can do.
It promises absolutely nothing but delivers a transport solution that can’t really be knocked. The Avensis took me by surprise. I expected a tedious journey from Milton Keynes but ended up enjoying myself in a way that far superior cars often can’t manage. I doubt I would have reached my destination with anywhere near as low a heart-rate had I driven a 3-Series, for example.
It's hard to countenance, but I have a new-found respect for the Toyota Avensis. Neither you nor I are in any danger of buying an one anyway, and I wouldn't recommend buying one unless you're diametrically opposed to the notion of “driving for fun”. It's a stress reliever, not an envelope-pusher. But I can easily see the appeal it has, and understand its continuing popularity. particularly within the demographic that sees cars to be just another chore, another necessary evil. And , if you're a minicab driver, then I can think of few other cars more directly suited to you.
Beaded seat covers ought to be fitted as standard, really.