FOR 50 years Aussie families have stuck with Holden and Ford. Can this new Toyota finally change their minds?
Toyota is nothing if not determined. On more occasions than it cares to remember, Toyota has been told by large-family-six buyers just where it could park its various offerings in the key Australian segment.
With Aurion finally in showrooms, not even the prospect of competing against a pair of Aussie icons in a segment that has contracted about 20 per cent in the past two years, can dull the Australian market leader's enthusiasm.
"I have waited 20 years for this dream to come true," Toyota chairman emeritus John Conomos enthuses. "We now have a legitimate entry into this market."
Conomos, who helped introduce the ill-conceived Avalon in 2000 — "Of course we would have liked to have sold more of them but we learned from the experience" — is adamant that to remain a manufacturing force in Australia, Toyota has to compete head-to-head with Commodore and Falcon.
"Yes, the segment is losing market share — has been for some time and most likely will continue to — but it is still a very significant segment and moreso to a manufacturer," Conomos says. "If you are going to be a serious manufacturer in Australia, you have to be competing in the large-family-six market. If you don't you are dead."
The Aurion, derived from the 3.5-litre Camry V6 sold in most international markets, will take on Holden's billion-dollar VE Commodore, Ford's refreshed BFII Falcon and the Mitsubishi 380.
The Aurion base AT-X starts at $34,990, $500 dearer than Commodore's entry Omega, but comes standard with a six-speed automatic, airconditioning and side curtain airbags — all of which are optional on the Omega.
It is $110 dearer than the base model Falcon but again enjoys a specification-level advantage. Mitsubishi's 380 is the cheapest priced family sedan starting at $27,990.
The mid-range Prodigy is $35,900 and the luxury Presara is $49,990. The Sportivo SX6 starts at $38,500 while the ZR6 is $42,500.
Toyota Australia's senior executive director for sales and marketing, David Buttner, says Toyota has no illusion of sweeping Holden and Ford aside on their traditional home ground.
"Our aim is not to smash Falcon and Commodore ... our aim is to be competitive in a very competitive segment," Buttner says.
"Aurion will stimulate the large-car sector because it will attract new buyers ... (Aurion) provides compelling reasons for existing large-six customers to stay in the segment and for former large-six customers to return."
Product planning manager Doug Soden says the notion that large family sedan buyers will only consider Falcons or Commodores is a myth perpetuated by the lack of a viable alternative.
"We have researched the segment to death, and while about 20 per cent of potential buyers would not even consider anything but a Holden or a Falcon, that leaves a very large number of buyers who don't care about rear-wheel drive versus front-wheel drive ... they just want the best car for them," Soden says.
Toyota has opted for a high-specification strategy with Aurion with its six-speed gearbox, six airbags, non-switchable stability control, traction control, ABS, brake assist and EBD standard across the full range.
Airconditioning, powered driver's seat, reach and rake steering adjustment, multi-function steering wheel, cruise control, full power windows and mirrors, remote central locking, MP3/WMA CD audio capability and a lockable centre access hatch from the rear seat to the boot are also standard across the full range.
The Prodigy gains dual-zone auto airconditioning, premium Optitron instruments, 16-inch alloy wheels in place of the AT-X's steel rims, front foglamps, leather interior, six-CD in-dash multi-changer, multi-function trip computer and rear reversing sensors.
On the sports line, the Sportivo SX6 gets a sports suspension and 17-inch alloys shod with Michelin rubber, sports headlamps, sports grille treatment, rear spoiler and aero kit, sports front seats and a three-spoke leather wheel.
Stepping up to the ZR6 adds full leather trim, two front and four rear sensors, smart entry and keyless start and metallic/mica paint.
At the top-of-the-range the Presara comes fully-kitted with the 17-inch alloys and Michelin tyres, spare alloy wheel, Bluetooth controls on the steering wheel, electro chromatic interior rear-view mirror, rain-sensing wipers, reversing camera, satellite navigation, auto-levelling HID headlamps with washers and adaptive lights.
On the road, the Aurion makes a surprisingly compelling case to support all but the most fanciful of Toyota's claims for the car.
First and foremost the Sportivo models are not performance derivatives in the way Holden's SV6 or Ford's XR6 are.
A body kit of wing, skirts, air dam and grille treatment does not an excitement machine make. The engine output and character is exactly the same as the base car — even the exhaust note is identical, something those at Toyota admit they would like to have changed.
The difference is a tighter suspension which, even with the same profile rubber and 17-inch rim as the Prodigy and Presara comfort-line cars, does provide a firmer feel to the drive without being uncomfortable.
Anyone wanting to give those pesky Ford and Holden performance boys a tickle-up is going to have to wait for the TRD-tweaked and supercharged Aurion early next year.
As a style exercise, the Aurion is another giant step forward for Toyota. It has impressive stance and presence, looks well proportioned from most angles, while on the move it draws the eye and the odd complimentary nod.
The decision to go with a standard six-speed automatic and stability control gives the Aurion an immediate advantage over its two main rivals which have either one or the other as a full model-range, standard-fit.
Interior styling is little more than a variation on a theme from the four-cylinder Camry. The look and the feel of the interior is similar, though that is not by any means a bad thing.
Rear seat space is particularly generous with designers avoiding the popular "stadium seating" theme in favour of a lower-set rear seat giving a more stable ride for passengers.
Dynamically, the Aurion is a great example of what a smooth engine with linear power delivery, coupled to a competent and not overly-aggressive stability control program, can do for a large front-wheel-drive car.
Chassis balance is good and steering feel is nicely weighted with impressive feedback. There is moderate kickback over broken surfaces when loaded-up, but torque steer is virtually eliminated. The six-speed Aisin gearbox — a late inclusion in the build plans — is well sorted with adequate launch feel but a strong mid-range where third to fifth happily swap to keep the 365Nm of torque fully utilised.
Fuel economy from the 200kW dual VVT-i 3.5-litre V6 is a claimed 9.9 litres per 100km, better than Commodore (10.9), Falcon (10.2) or Mitsubishi 380 (10.8).
Price: AT-X $34,990; Prodigy $39,500; Presara $49,990; Sportiva SX6 $38,500; Sportivo ZR6 $42,500
Engine: 3.5-litre V6 DOHC dual VVT-i; 200kW@6200rpm, 336Nm@4700rpm.
Transmission: 6-speed automatic with manual mode; front-wheel drive
Performance: 0-100km/h 7.4sec; top speed 228km/h
Fuel: tank 70-litre; 9.9L/100km combined cycle (supplied)
Steering: power-assisted rack and pinion 3.2 turns lock-to-lock
Brakes: 4-wheel, single caliper, ventilated front, solid rear; VSC, ABS, TC, BA, EBD
Verdict: Qantum leap forward over Avalon. Looks good, drives well and offers plenty to like.