Coffs Harbour (NSW)
What we liked
>> Comfortable ride and decent handling
>> Quiet and refined interior
>> High level of standard kit
Not so much
>> Auto transmission a bit slow to respond
>> Engine needs to be revved hard to get the most out of it
>> Lack of split-fold rear seat
Whether you consider Toyota's new Aurion sedan, its second, third or fourth bite at the large car cherry, there is no doubt that it is the company's most serious effort yet. Quietly, Toyota admits that Aurion's predecessors -- starting right back with the Commodore-based Toyota Lexcen through the Camry V6/Vienta years and the Avalon experiment of the early noughties -- have all been part of a learning curve. This time, in the form of Aurion, it has what it believes the public will want to buy.
The reason behind the lack of success of the other 'big' Toyotas varies. Looking at the most recent efforts, Avalon was a bland, underpowered car while Camry was still a Camry, which in many buyers' eyes is still a medium-sized car.
This time around Aurion addresses both those issues head-on. The car may to all intents and purposes be a V6 Camry -- it still shares wheelbase, plenty of components, roof and doors -- but it has its own name that in no way references Camry. It is also significantly more stylish and powerful than before with its 200kW 3.5-litre V6 being a class leader.
And Toyota has biggish plans for it. While the company won't actually talk projected volumes and says it won't better Ford and Holden numbers, it does expect to be selling somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 Aurions a year.
It's an ambitious target -- in 2005, combined Avalon and Camry V6 sales totaled just 15,000. At no time did the two models regularly top the 20,000 mark.
All up the new Aurion model range comprises five different spec levels with all sharing the same V6/six-speed auto driveline.
The entry level is the curiously named AT-X that hits the showrooms with a sticker of $34,990. Apart from its standard six-speed auto and V6, the car is pretty well specced with standard kit including air conditioning, power windows, mirrors and eight-way driver's seat, stabilty control, remote locking, cruise control, and a CD audio system.
Next up is the $38,500 Sportivo SX6 -- the first of two 'sports' models -- with the main features over the AT-X being sports suspension, sports seats, 17-inch alloys shod with Michelin rubber (vs 16-inch steel wheels on the AT-X), a six-stack CD audio system, a body kit and various cosmetic treatments.
The midrange Prodigy carries a RRP of $39,500 and uses the standard suspension but gets a substantially longer kit list than the AT-X that includes leather trim, dual-zone climate control, a six-stack CD sound system, and power front passenger seat.
The upper sports model, the $42,500 ZR6 shares the Prodigy's trim level with the sports elements of the SX6 while the top of the range $49,990 Presara gets the full fruit including satnav, sunroof, automatic wipers and adaptive automatic Xenon headlights, reversing camera, power rear sunshade, keyless entry and pushbutton start and bluetooth phone connectivity.
Despite sharing its dimensions with the Camry, the Aurion is not a small car and inside it would appear, on first impressions, to certainly offer a similar level of space as its Commodore/Falcon rivals.
Up front there is plenty of room to get the wide comfortable and supportive seat into the right position with plenty of adjustments and a steering column that also adjusts in both directions. Likewise the front passenger is not lacking for space and in the rear there is plenty of head and legroom for a couple of big blokes. There is also a decent amount of width across the rear seat meaning that short trips are possible with three adults across the back.
There is a decent centre console storage area but the door bins are fairly small and narrow.
The boot is big, despite carrying a full size spare under the floor, but the 60/40 split offered in the Camry has disappeared thanks to additional bracing. Toyota has retailed a ski-hatch to increase the load versatility, however. All up Toyota claims a boot capacity of 504 litres -- this compares to 496 litres for the VE Commodore.
With 65 per cent of its intended sales going to fleets, Toyota has ensured that the Aurion is well specced with safety equipment to meet any OH&S (occupational health and safety) concerns.
All models share the same equipment level in terms of safety kit including driver and passenger front and seat-mounted side airbags and side curtain airbags. All five seats have three-point seatbelts with pretensioners and load limiters on the front two.
Active safety features include anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution and brake assist on ventilated front and solid rear discs.
Traction control and Toyota's VSC stability control system are standard across the range. VSC is not switchable on any Aurion variants.
As mentioned, the Aurion shares much of its underpinnings with the Camry with the biggest difference being the drivetrain.
Under the bonnet is a new dual variable valve timing equipped 3.5-litre V6 that generates maximum outputs of 200kW of power at 6200rpm and a peak torque of 336Nm at a fairly high 4700rpm. Official ADR 81/01 combined fuel consumption is 9.9lt/100km.
The engine drives the front wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission that both adapts shift points according to driving style and environment and also offers a sequential manual shift option operated by tipping the shift lever fore and aft.
With Toyota's Australian operations having a new found exalted status within the TMC world, the Australian engineers had a significant role to play in the development of Aurion from its very early stages.
This included the tuning of the Aurion's suspension. In its standard form it uses a coil-over suspension package with MacPherson struts all round. L-shaped lower arms are used at the front and dual transverse links at the rear.
The Sportivo versions gains additional bracing, and stiffer spring and damper rates with the rear dampers incorporating an additional internal rebound spring.
The steering is a power assisted rack and pinion system with a listed turning circle of 11.6m.
With its two-pronged Camry medium car and Aurion large car strategy, Toyota makes no bones about exactly who the target is for Aurion: Commodore and Falcon.
It is, by its own admission, not likely to topple either of these in the short term despite both cars continuing to decline in popularity, however, Toyota expects Aurion to make a much bigger dent in the Ford and Holden dominance of the large local sector than any product before it.
While the fourth player in this market, Mitsubishi's 380 is actually closer in spec to the Aurion, with a front-drive 3.8-litre V6 driving through a five-speed auto, it barely rated a mention in the press conference... Such is Toyota's focus on the two main players.
Toyota has been overall number one in the local market for the past three years and dominates many sectors including the light, small, medium, LCV, and compact and large SUV markets but it has never been able to get the foothold it wants in the big Aussie six market.
ON THE ROAD
Much has already been written about the new Camry and the substantial improvement in road manners that the car offers over its predecessor so it stands to reason that the Aurion should not be a disappointing drive. It isn't and in many respects the good points of the latest Camry hold true.
With only a 90kg weight penalty over the equivalent base model Camry, the V6 under the bonnet is reasonably solid off the line but despite the figure of 200kW featuring prominently in all you read, it does take some time to get there. With the peak torque not kicking in until 4700rpm, the combination of these numbers and the subsequent curves on paper are well reflected in the way the car drives. In short, don't expect the 'step-off' accelration of the 190kW Falcon delivers.
Indeed, it is not until the tacho is inching above 4000rpm that you really start to feel the potential of the engine. It will keep on pulling right through to the 6500rpm rev limiter and it is in these upper reaches that it really feels strongest. The power delivery is quite smooth right through the rev band but if you really want to keep the 1590kg car shuffling along with enthusiasm then it is in this region that the engine needs to be spinning.
To hold it there, you need to use the manual shift option on the six-speed auto. Although this is a slick and smooth unit, it lacks the fast response that some of its rival manual shifters offer -- having a momentary 'think' about things before responding to the input via the shift lever.
Likewise, in normal drive mode, the transmission also seems a little slow to respond to throttle input from the right boot. That said, over time during the launch loop the adaptive auto started to comprehend our driving style and did improve -- slightly.
The media drive route took us through the hinterland behind Coffs Harbour (NSW) on some tight and twisty roads and with the transmission locked down and engine revving hard, the car delivered a good solid and well-composed driving experience.
There is a discernible difference in the ride quality and handling compromise between the Sportivo and standard car with the former offering a more solid and tied down feeling with just a little more obvious notification of the state of the tarmac. It would never remotely be considered harsh -- a good compromise in our opinion.
The standard suspension tune, while not soft by any standards, delivers a more plush and comfortable ride with just the slightest hint of floatiness over undulating surfaces. It's not anything to be greatly concerned about, but it doesn't feel as solidly planted on the road as the Sportivo and generates just a bit more body roll when pushed through corners.
The steering in both cars is well weighted with good turn-in response and more than usual feel from a Toyota. It's not as lively as some in the market but nevertheless a substantial improvement on past efforts.
Whether cruising on the highway or pushing on through the twisty bits, there is very little in the way or noise, vibration or harshness to intrude upon the quiet calm of the Aurion's cabin making it a very pleasant space to spend time in.
All up, on first impressions, the Aurion is a competent, accomplished package that offers good value in the large car segment. Perhaps being a V6 Camry in all but name, is really not a bad thing after all...