Review and road test of the Toyota Avensis (1998 - 2003)
BY GRAEME ROBERTS
Spacious, comfortable and well-equipped, the Toyota Avensis quickly picked up the mantle of its well-liked predecessor, the Carina E, on which it was based. It's a popular used buy for those for whom value for money is a priority. This family-sized Toyota could be a bit more involving for the driver, but build quality and reliability are unquestionable.
Like the Carina E, the Avensis was designed specifically for the European market and rather more so; unlike its predecessor you won't see it on the other side of the world. All models are built at Toyota's factory in Burnaston, Derbyshire and most have engines made in Deeside, North Wales.
4dr saloon, 5dr liftback, estate: 1.6, 1.8, 2.0, 2.0 turbodiesel, 2.0 D4-D turbodiesel [S, GS, GLS, CDX, SR]
Launched at the end of 1997, the Avensis was based on the Carina E, the first British-built Toyota. However, although some components and engines were carried over, albeit with numerous improvements, the car looked different enough, inside and out, to be considered as a brand-new model and Toyota's marketing boffins even thought that a new name was appropriate.
Having chosen the right formula with the Carina, Toyota saw no reason to fiddle much with the choice offered to buyers and again offered a four-door saloon, a five-door hatchback ('liftback' in Toyota-speak), and a five-door estate. Four engines were available from launch - 1.6-litre, 1.8-litre and 2.0-litre petrol units and a 2.0-litre turbocharged diesel.
Trim levels were rationalised, compared with the Carina. Buyers chose between S, GS, GLS, SR and CDX though not all trims were offered with all body styles or engines. SE special editions were launched in mid-1999. Based on the S specification, the SE models have additional items such as air conditioning and alloy wheels at extremely competitive prices when compared to the equivalent Ford Mondeo or Vauxhall Vectra. In November 1999 the Avensis SR D4-D four-door saloon arrived. The D4-D moniker stands for Direct injection, 4-stroke common rail Diesel engine, Toyota's first twin-cam four-valve-per-cylinder unit of this type. Towards the end of 2000, the range received a slight facelift, with improved equipment levels and reduced list prices.
In summer 2001 an Avensis Verso compact MPV was launched, although this was based on the next generation Avensis platform and should, to all intents and purposes, be considered a separate model. The next generation Avensis itself arrived in early 2003 to replace the original range.
What You Get
New or used, there's no shortage of quality competition for the Avensis in this hotly contested family and fleet sector. However, the Toyota's high specifications, build quality, long warranty, low depreciation and rear seat cabin space make it well worth serious consideration. So does the fact that owners like it - regular independent customer satisfaction surveys usually put the Avensis at or near the top.
Stung by early criticism of the original Carina E for a lack of safety equipment, Toyota hasn't made the same mistake with the Avensis - all models have driver, front passenger and side airbags plus anti-lock brakes as standard.
The wide choice of three distinctive body styles, three petrol engines and two diesels, plus a variety of trim levels, should make choosing the right model relatively easy. Even the entry-level S models have remote central locking, power mirrors and power front windows, and you gain air conditioning, an alarm and a sunroof as soon as you step up to GS level. The sporting SR and more luxurious GLS and CDX come with an even longer list of goodies including, dependent on model, alloy wheels and a CD player.
As a driver's car the Avensis is not the most exciting in its class but it is nonetheless predictable and well behaved, with a comfortable ride. All controls operate with the precision of a Swiss watch and leave you confident that all will still be working tens of thousands of miles hence. For many buyers, the long-term peace of mind associated with Toyotas will be reason enough to choose an Avensis.
What to Look For
Although it's still too early for any major Avensis failings to emerge, very little went wrong with the Carina E and that's likely to prove the case with its successor. Check for the usual signs of wear and tear, a full dealer service history, and also ensure the Avensis you're considering is still covered by the balance of Toyota's three-year/60,000-mile warranty. It should be, as the oldest cars only went on the road at the end of 1997, but a previous owner could have breached the warranty conditions in some way. The range-starter S trimmed cars are very good value and the pricier GLS, SR and CDX variants have loads of equipment.
Though they're quite stylish, the estates aren't all that spacious and the standard turbodiesel, rather typical of a Japanese oil burner, isn't as economical as you'd expect. If economy is a priority, opt for either the 1.8 petrol whose 'lean burn' technology is good for up to 45mpg on the open road or the saloon-only D4-D common rail turbodiesel which returns up to 47.9mpg.
(Based on a 1.6-litre Avensis S - ex Vat) Good quality spares are a little more expensive than the competition. A new clutch will cost you about £130. Front shock absorbers are about £65 each and rears around £90 apiece. An exchange alternator is about £240, an exchange radiator about £130-£250 and a replacement windscreen just under £140. A tail lamp is about £42 and a nearside front wing about £80. A catalyst is just over £400.
On the Road
Forgiving with a bit of sparkle is a good way to describe the Avensis driving experience. Its Carina E underpinnings were sharpened up by Toyota's chassis engineers and the car's response is now good enough to encourage you to take the B-road home occasionally, instead of the bypass. A comfortable ride and low noise levels are strong plus points for motorway cruising, too.
All the engines are willing performers but only the two-litre petrol engine can honestly be described as brisk. The 1.8-litre lean burn unit combines ready acceleration with impressive economy; at least 35mpg around town and between 45-50mpg at cruising speeds.
With figures like that on offer, you'll need to be a confirmed diesel enthusiast to opt for the standard oil burner. However, in the SR D4-D rest to sixty takes just 11.5s on the way to 121mph: not startlingly quick but it can feel that way on the road. This is because common rail turbo diesels like this one have an extremely wide spread of torque: that in turn means strong pulling power in almost any gear - a seamless surge of power uninterrupted by the need for constant gear changing. That's a boon around town, as is the combined fuel consumption of 47.9mpg.
Every Avensis is well equipped and most buyers will probably be more than happy with the specifications of even the base S models. At every level, the equipment is usually better than the opposition.
An excellent used buy for the family. Choose with the usual care and be rewarded with years of peace of mind.
Toyota Avensis (1998 - 2003) review by GRAEME ROBERTS