Steve Prangnell, Toyota New Zealand's general manager of sales, was looking very pleased with life when he addressed a media conference in Auckland last week.
So he should. He was armed with statistics showing that his company holds a massive lead in vehicle sales thus far in a calendar year that in itself is tracking well ahead of motor industry forecasts. He was also in the comfortable position of being able to introduce two new Toyotas that have the potential to help at least maintain that sales lead.
And what a lead. Up until the end of May, Toyota had sold 7670 new vehicles, approaching double the 4167 sales of second-placed Ford.
That sales performance comes at a time when almost all the car companies are operating ahead of budget, in many cases because vehicle supplies have returned to normal after months affected by last year's natural disasters in Japan and Thailand.
The Christchurch rebuild is also contributing to the increase in vehicle sales - Steve Prangnell said the city's two Toyota dealerships were doing "extremely" well. Latest forecasts suggest total annual sales will lift towards 100,000, which was the level achieved before the global financial crisis hit.
"We anticipate a continuing strong market for the rest of 2012, which will help us reach our year- end target of 23 per cent share," he said of his company.
That will be helped by the launch of some much-anticipated new models later in the year, Prangnell added. "There is already excitement building among sports- car fans about the Toyota 86 - which will hit the market in August - and the new-generation Corolla hatch, which is New Zealand's favourite passenger vehicle, will be here in late October."
And the two new models launched in Auckland last week? They were both wagons - a brand- new Corolla wagon which is introduced to New Zealand as the only export market for this Japanese specification vehicle, and a seven-seater Prius V hybrid wagon which is available in three levels of specification.
Actually, there were three wagons at the media event - the third was the European-sourced Avensis Tourer, which arrived in New Zealand several weeks ago.
But it was added to the function as a means of underlining TNZ's claim that it now has the fullest selection of wagons in the country.
"It's second to none," said Steve Prangnell. "We now have wagons covering small, medium and business vehicle requirements, and we also have a large wagon in our Previa MPV."
Cute Capacious Corolla
A brand-new Corolla hatch arrives in New Zealand later this year, to be followed next year by the sedan version. When these cars do arrive, it is a certainty they will continue the model line's stellar career, which has seen it become the world's most popular car with an astonishing 39 million sold since the first model rolled off the assembly line in 1966.
The advance guard for the hatch and the sedan has already arrived, in fact. It's the all-new 11th generation Corolla wagon, which goes on the Kiwi market on July 1 with prices the same as the model it replaces - $30,490 for manual and $32,490 for auto - despite the fact it has improved standard specification.
But don't look at the photographs of this wagon to get any clues as to what the 11th generation hatch and sedan will look like. Their looks will be totally different, said Steve Prangnell. That may be just as well - because my immediate impression of this new wagon is that even though it is cute, its design is very much a case of substance over style.
But that's OK, because wagons should be all about intelligent packaging, and this new model certainly offers that.
Even though it is 60mm shorter (albeit 50mm of that via a shorter front overhang) and slightly lower than the wagon it replaces, it offers improved interior room, particularly in the rear load area which is longer than before. With all seats in use, the load space is 407 litres, increasing to 872 litres with the rear seats folded down.
The wagon continues to be powered by a 1.5-litre engine, which delivers 80 kilowatts of power at 6000 rpm, and 136 Newton metres of torque at 4800 rpm when mated to a continuously variable automatic transmission, or 138 Nm at 4400 rpm with the five-speed manual. Average fuel consumption is 5.1 L/100km with the CVT model and 5.7 L/100km with the manual.
There are some important changes to this Corolla wagon that help make it a better proposition than the model it replaces.
The first is that this time around it gets stability control and traction control as standard features, as well as three-point seatbelts for all seats. It also has a full suite of front, side and curtain airbags, and ABS brakes with brake assist and brake-force distribution.
A second improvement is that although this Corolla is Japanese domestic specification, its ride and handling doesn't feel that way anymore.
A new suspension package combines with electric power steering to help give the vehicle driving characteristics that felt quite nice during a short drive programme at last week's launch.
Standard features include manual air conditioning, CD tuner, USB input and 3.5mm auxiliary jacks, iPod control, Bluetooth, voice recognition, a muli-information display, tilt and telescopic adjustment of the steering wheel, 60/40 split folding rear seats with remote folding function, and power windows. Not bad.
New Zealand is the only right- hand-drive country outside of Japan to get this wagon, thanks to the flexibility of our compliance rules which let us take Japanese market domestic specification models.
Prius V for versatility
Still having trouble accepting the Toyota Prius hybrid as just a normal vehicle? Then consider this - during the opening quarter of this year it was the third-most popular car in the world, behind the Toyota Corolla and the Ford Focus, with 247,000 sales.
Toyota is forecasting that annual worldwide Prius sales will break through the million-unit mark this year, and will continue to increase so that within a decade it will take over from the Camry as the biggest-selling Toyota in the all-important US market.
Obviously, in little New Zealand, the Prius sales figures aren't anywhere near that high - but in their own way they are impressive all the same.
The smallest model, the Prius C, has proved so popular since its launch earlier this year that the entire initial 2012 allocation of 260 vehicles has been sold out and there is now a waiting list of up to eight months for the car. Toyota NZ has responded to this demand by putting customers into Yaris hatchbacks until their Prius Cs arrive, and then swapping vehicles.
There is also continuing strong demand for the larger flagship Prius hatch, with sales forecast to exceed 400 units this year.
And now TNZ has added to the strength of the Prius nameplate via introduction of a third variant - a Prius V wagon. The company is expecting to retail around 300 this year, which will combine with all the other Toyota and Lexus hybrids on offer to achieve more than 1250 hybrid sales this calendar year.
"The Prius was a niche model when it first went on sale 15 years ago. But now, from a global viewpoint, the Prius V adds the additional flexibility needed to take us to the verge of an era where hybrids are the normal choice in cars," said TNZ general manager of sales Steve Prangnell.
Newly designed from the ground up - to the extent it does not share any sheet metal with the standard Pruis, and with bigger dimensions and an extended wheelbase, it can carry up to seven people.
Adoption of three-rows of seats has been achieved, thanks to a highly compact lithium-ion battery pack - the first for a Toyota sold in New Zealand - that has been ingeniously placed under the centre console between the front seats.
This location means there is only a very small amount of storage space in that centre console, but there is plenty of minor storage elsewhere, including in a double- compartment glovebox. When all three rows of seats are in place, there's not a lot of cargo space available, just 180 litres in fact. But nor is there a lot of legroom in that third row, so in typical medium-sized seven-seater fashion it will only be there to be used when it is really needed.
When the third row is folded down out of the way, luggage capacity increases to a more reasonable 485 litres, which Toyota reckons can store four sets of golf clubs. I'll wait and see.
The second row of seats are impressive. All three seats can independently slide, recline and split-fold, and are raised slightly above the front seats for good front visibility - and the rear ceiling offers 45mm more headroom than the standard Prius hatch.
Prius V showcases the latest generation of Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive powertrain, which combines a 1.8-litre Atkinson Cycle petrol engine with a 60 kW electric motor for a combined system output of 100 kW. Average fuel economy is 4.1 L/100 km.
The new model is available in three levels of specification - a $50,990 Prius V, $55,490 s-Tech, and a top $65,490 i-Tech.
Standard version comes with a 6.1 inch display screen audio system, automatic air conditioning, leather-accented steering wheel, energy monitor, keyless entry and start, electric power steering, 16-inch alloys, daytime running lights, rear spoiler, and rear privacy glass.
The s-Tech adds a head-up display, lumbar support and height adjustment for the driver's seat, manual rear window shades, additional smart key door sensors, and a large panoramic style roof with electronic sun shades.
Right at the top is the i-Tech, which is the most expensive of any Prius in New Zealand. But, for the money, the buyer gets satellite navigation with a seven-inch touch-screen display, premium audio, synthetic leather upholstery, heated front seats, automatic LED headlights, a pre- crash system with dynamic radar cruise control, and an intelligent park assist system.
Elegant European Avensis
Toyota's European-sourced Avensis Tourer wagon has always suffered from one thing - it has been too expensive for its own good.
But now there's a new model on sale in New Zealand; and thanks to favourable movements in currency exchange rates, it has able to have been introduced for $47,990, which is $6400 less than the asking price for the previous model.
"Avensis can now challenge rivals in the fleet market more effectively, with keen pricing to match its European styling and upmarket specification," said Toyota NZ's general manager of sales Steve Prangnell, adding he expected the vehicle to dominate the medium four-cylinder wagon segment.
This latest model has been redesigned to give a more elegant and athletic appearance, particularly at the front where the vehicle boasts the new face of the next generation of Toyota product. The design emphasis is on enlarging the lower grille for a more aggressive look.
Inside, the Avensis Tourer gets improved finishes and upgraded upholstery, with the centre console layout redesigned to improve the operability of switchgear. Front seats have also been redesigned so they can be more supportive, and the seat fabric has been changed.
Improvements have also been made to the luggage area via the addition of a cargo net and side boards to help secure cargo. With all seats in use, the rear cargo space is 543 litres, and this increases to a spacious 1609 litres when the back seats are folded down.
Ride comfort and driving dynamics have also been upgraded thanks to increased body rigidity, improved aerodynamics and more insulation against noise, vibration and harshness.
The Avensis Tourer continues to be powered by a 2.0-litre four- cylinder petrol engine that offers 112 kW of power at 6200 rpm, and 196 Nm of torque at 4000 rpm. The engine is mated to a continuously variable automatic transmission with a seven-step sequential manual mode.
Safety specification is high, with the Avensis Tourer fitted with ABS brakes with electronic brake- force distribution and brake assist, traction control, and stability control. The vehicle also has driver and passenger front, side, driver's knee, and front/rear curtain airbags, gaining the Avensis five stars in the Euro NCAP testing.
Mr Prangnell said TNZ is targeting 400 Avensis sales this year.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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