At first it was hoped that Toyota was going to have a real crack at the big Aussie car market when it dropped the Avalon into its showrooms in 2000, but it’s now hard to believe that the company was serious about taking on the big two at their own game.
That’s not to say there’s much wrong with the Avalon, but there’s not a lot that would convince a traditional Falcon or Commodore buyer to switch brands. You’d have to think the Avalon was really aimed at the committed Toyota buyer who valued the build quality and reliability that are the hallmarks of the Toyota brand, but wanted a bigger car than the Camry.
It should have been obvious from the start when it was realised that the Avalon was already an outdated model from the US, was front-wheel drive in a rear-wheel drive market, had a 3.0-litre V6 motor when the market leaders had V6 motors a litre larger, there wasn’t a V8 option, and there wasn’t a wagon. On top of that Toyota said it hoped to sell around 25,000 Avalons a year when Holden and Ford were selling three times that many.
All of that aside there were plenty of people who appreciated the Camry with its reliable mechanical package, refined road manners and clearly superior build quality. They are the things that mark Toyotas out, so when the company offered a full sized family four-door there was a ready made market among those Camry buyers who wanted a bigger car, even though that market might have been relatively small. The Avalon was, at the very least, able to keep those owners driving the Toyota brand.
The Avalon was notable for being the first real challenger to Ford and Holden since the ill-fated Leyland P76 back in the 1970s. Thankfully that’s about the only thing the Avalon had in common with the P76, which was a brave but flawed attempt to break the stranglehold of the big two car makers on the big six-cylinder market back in the 1970s.
If there was something familiar about the Avalon it was probably that it was essentially the same car that Toyota had built and sold in the US from the mid-1990s. That model had already been replaced in the US when it was picked up by Toyota for local production here.
It wasn’t a straight transplant of the US model, however, as Toyota’s local engineers made lots of changes that made it more suitable to the local conditions than the US model would have been.
The Avalon was to be the Camry’s big brother, built alongside the Camry at Toyota’s Altona plant in Melbourne, and there were lots of detail changes made to make use of parts that were readily available from the Camry.
Apart from a new grille the styling remained pretty much the same as the US model, and being five years or so old when it was launched it was very dated. Add to that Toyota’s penchant for bland designs, at least on its mainstream family cars, and you have the recipe for a car that blends beautifully into the background. Stand-out styling was definitely something the Avalon didn’t have in common with the P76.
Sizewise the Avalon was wider and longer than the Camry, and had considerably more leg room front and rear, as well as a generous boot. Lined up alongside the Commodore of the time it was only a few millimetres shorter than the Holden. From a size perspective there was no doubt that the Avalon fell into the big six class.
There was just one engine made available, but that was the refined 3.0-litre overhead cam fuel-injected V6 that also powered the Camry. Peak power was 145 kW at 5200 rpm and 284 Nm at 4400 rpm.
The only trans of choice was a four-speed auto; Toyota couldn’t see any justification in making a manual available when the vast majority of cars in the class were autos anyway.
When asked for an effort the Avalon would accelerate to 100 km/h in 8.9 seconds and cover the standing 400 metre sprint in 16.5 seconds, both times comparable to those posted by the Commodore and Falcon.
One huge difference between the Avalon and the big two was in the drive, the Avalon driving through the front wheels instead of the rear as local tradition dictates. Still that shouldn’t really be a major handicap as we’ve had front-wheel drive cars for long enough now to know that the disadvantages of driving the front wheels are minimal for most people.
On the road the Avalon was smooth and refined with little wind or road noise to disturb the inner peace.
The interior was well laid-out and functional if not terribly attractive, dominated as it was by typically bland Toyota plastics and trim.
Entry model was the Conquest, which had an adjustable column, dual front airbags, trip computer, super sound system, and central locking. Air-conditioning was an option. Moving up the food chain there was the CSX, which had side airbags in the front, air-con, ABS, cruise and CD sound. The VXi boasted even more, and the Grande had the lot.
ON THE LOT
Early Conquests are now dipping into the high teens with later models still holding in the low $20,000 range. At the upper end of the price range, the Grande ranges from $20,000 for an early example to $30,000 for those built in 2002.
IN THE SHOP
With early Avalons getting up to the mileage when they need a major service it’s important to check the service record. If it’s showing around 100,000 km make sure the major service has been done, or you can perhaps negotiate that into the price.
Generally the Avalon performs the way most Toyotas do, very reliably. Front tyre wear can be a problem so look carefully at the tyres, and that means front and rear because heavily worn front tyres may have been switched to the rear.
Brake wear seems reasonable, but be prepared to replace pads, and maybe machine the discs at 50-70,000 km.
Other than those relatively minor issues the Avalon is a rugged and reliable car that remains tight over the years and develops few squeaks or rattles.
David Courtney drives an Avalon as a company car. He likes the interior and boot space, comfort, the performance and fuel economy, and its impeccable reliability. His only criticism is its blandness.
Darren McMurray shares Courtney’s views, but has overcome his reservations about the styling with “a good set of alloy wheels, a rear spoiler and the optional mesh grill, all of which were Toyota options”, which have given the car true street-cred.
Graham Palm is another satisfied Avalon owner, praising its comfort and roominess, as well as its willing engine and low fuel consumption. His only complaint is its turning circle, which makes it awkward to manoeuvre.
Mark Pendlebury flirted with a Commodore before getting into an Avalon and nothing would convince him to go back. His needs were good power and economy, space for his growing children, ability to tow, a sorted suspension, and sound engineering, and he found that and more in the Avalon. That said he would like more mid-range performance from the engine, and more support in the seats.
Jenny and Bill Heggie expressed concerns over the way the front tyres scrub out on their Avalon requiring regular wheel alignments, but are still more than happy.
Unlike other owners Jim Thomson reports less than satisfactory fuel consumption – about 15 plus around town and 10 plus on the open road – and dealers have told him nothing can be done about it. Others report 10 round town and nine on a trip, which suggests Jim’s needs some attention.
Trevor Fry reckons the V6 is extremely smooth and powerful enough. Interior space is extremely generous and back seat passengers always remark on the huge rear seat area. He has no problems towing or launching his five-metre tinnie. While he’s aware it is not the greatest looking car, it is just perfect for him.
• Toyota build quality means tight bodies and even panel gaps with few squeaks and rattles showing up as miles build.
• 3.0-litre V6 is smaller than others in the big six class but it makes up for smaller size with silky smoothness and good fuel consumption without losing much in performance.
• Lots of interior space from front and rear passengers and big boot capable of carrying lots of luggage.
• Handles and tows well despite being front-wheel drive in a rear-wheel drive market.
• Typically bland Toyota styling is a turn-off for some, but look beyond the blandness and find a thoroughly competent car.
• Don’t bother looking for a manual trans or wagon, as Toyota didn’t offer either. There is plenty of choice with the sedan line-up and all are well equipped.
Falcon/Fairmont – 1998-2002 – $12,200-$30,000
Commodore/Calais – 1997-2002 – $13,200-$40,000
Magna/Verada – 1999-2002 – $13,150-$40,000