I've always thought the Toyota Avensis wagon has had a bit of a raw deal in New Zealand.
The British-built vehicle has been like every other Toyota sold here - well built, very reliable, smooth to drive.
But it has never sold well here, and the major reason was because it was sourced from the UK. Toyota New Zealand needed an estate vehicle to replace the Camry wagon, and its only choice was to import the Avensis from Europe. But this meant the retail price was higher than equivalent product sourced out of Japan by other marques, and as a result sales never did reach the levels they perhaps deserved to.
Not only that, but some of this country's motoring critics jumped aboard the British media bandwagon and declared the Avensis to be deadly-dull boring.
I always thought that was a bit of a raw deal too, because I felt the vehicle did exactly what it was designed to do - provide proficient and conventional estate-style motoring.
But it is true that the Avensis cost too much. Thanks to the vagaries of exchange rates between the Kiwi dollar and the British pound, this Toyota ended up with an RRP into the mid- $50,000s.
But last year, Toyota NZ was able to launch a new Avensis Tourer at a much more appealing price. Due to exchange rate gains, the vehicle hit the market at $47,990 which was more than $6400 lower than the model it replaced. And that made it lineball or better against the likes of the Ford Mondeo Zetec wagon, Honda Accord Euro Tourer and the Mazda6 wagon.
And, after a recent week behind the wheel of this latest Avensis, I found I really enjoyed driving the vehicle. It's very comfortable in a European sort of way, featuring seats that have been redesigned for better lateral support, and the seat fabric has been changed.
Being a medium-sized wagon, rear load space is important.
In this vehicle, the luggage space with all seats in use is 543 litres, and the area has been improved with a cargo net and side boards to help secure cargo items. With the rear seats folded down, Avensis has a cargo capacity of 1609 litres.
This latest Avensis wagon has a bolder and more refined exterior design, and driving dynamics have also been enhanced via some changes to the exhaust settings.
Power is via a 2.0-litre Valvematic petrol engine that offers 112 kilowatts of power and 196 Newton metres of torque - and that is perhaps this car's greatest failing. Compared to other similar product currently on the market, it simply isn't powerful enough, even though good use can be made of its seven-step continuously variable automatic transmission with sports sequential manual mode.
But then again, the efficiencies of that engine and transmission combine to give a fuel consumption of 7.1 L/100 km.
So overall, I found myself quite impressed with this latest Avensis. Performance might be quite modest, but the ride and handling are both European competent. There's plenty of interior room and comfort, and most importantly this time around the price is attractive.
Little wonder then that Avensis sales in New Zealand have tripled since this latest version arrived mid-year.
Right down at the other end of the Toyota wagon scale, there's the marque's smallest offering, the Corolla.
At the middle of the year, a new 11th generation version arrived in New Zealand, which was well before the launch of the brand-new Corolla hatch.
The launches were at different times because the vehicles are, in fact, totally different.
While the hatch is a swept-looking new vehicle, the wagon has looks that are very much a case of substance over style.
But that's OK, because to my way of thinking that's exactly the intention behind the Corolla wagon - an inexpensive, as in $30,490 for the manual model that I drove recently, easily-operated vehicle with plenty of load space at the back.
The wagon continues to be powered by a 1.5-litre engine, which delivers 80 kW of power at 6000 rpm, and 138 Nm of torque.
As with the previous model I drove 18 or so months ago, I found it very easy to stall this car when taking off from standstill. But once the car gets going, it's fine; and I was impressed to discover it offers an average fuel consumption of a low 5.1 litres per 100 kilometres.
This wagon also boasts stability control and traction control, a full suite of front, side and curtain airbags, and ABS brakes with brake assist and brake-force distribution.
This new wagon is 60mm shorter and slightly lower than the model it replaces, but the interior room is bigger, particularly at the rear where the load area is longer.
With all seats in use, the load area is 407 litres, and this increases to 872 litres when the rear seats are folded down.
The interior is impressive for its basic usability. The front seats have manual slide and recline adjustments, while the driver's seat is also height adjustable.
The 60/40 split-folding rear seat has a recline function to improve comfort, while the remote folding mechanism with levers in the luggage area makes it easy to convert the Corolla from carrying up to three passengers to moving cargo.
The rear seat folds flat for easy loading and unloading. There are also shopping bag hooks, deck hooks and a retractable luggage cover to keep items organised and out of sight.
Corolla wagon has a wide collection of storage areas throughout the cabin. The instrument panel hosts a glove box and passenger's side upper storage box with space for one two-litre plastic bottle or four 350ml bottles.
There is a slide-type coin holder for the driver. There are two removable cup holders in the front console as well as a storage box for items such as CDs. Each of the front doors has a pocket with space for a 500ml bottle or A4 papers. The centre console box has a fabric-covered lid and space for a variety of items, plus there is ample space for smaller items between the front seats.
So this little wagon has been designed to be a practical sort of car. It drives well, too. Although the 1.5-litre performance leaves a little to be desired, the ride and handling are rather good - despite the fact this is Japanese domestic- specification car, and those vehicles are often notable for soft and often squishy ride.
New Zealand is actually the only right-hand-drive country outside of Japan to take the Corolla wagon - thanks to the flexibility of our compliance rules, which let us take Japanese domestic-market- specification cars.
After thoroughly enjoying a week behind the wheel of this practical small car, I think we should be quite thankful for that.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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