Back From the Dread
One of 2006's most fascinating automotive debates begins here: is Toyota's new Aurion a true rival for the commodore and Falcon as a traditional Australian large car, or is the much anticipated, high-tech sedan merely a six-cylinder, nose-and tail-lifted version of the new Camry?
Clearly, Toyota wants buyers to believe Aurion is a stand-alone model, locally conceived and designed, and, as such, a far more compelling attempt to break into the large-car segment than the bland Avalon and Camry Vienta V6 that mark Toyota's two previous tries.
Conversely, Holden and Ford dealers will be quick to point out that Aurion shares the same major dimensions (most importantly, its 2775mm wheelbase), glass-house/cabin architecture, basic suspension layout and structure with the Camry. No doubt, their salesfolk will delight in explaining that Aurion and Camry share common doors, and arguing that Aurion is a rival for the FWD Honda Accord V6 and Mitsubishi 380.
Either way, to transcend perhaps any argument, the Aurion is easily the best-ever locally manufactured Toyota, and is a model that makes a (mostly) convincing case to be taken seriously by large-car buyers.
Yes, despite total reworking of the body panels forward of the windscreen and behind the rear window, Aurion is essentially a V6 version of the new Camry. However, to add credence to the rationale of their two-pronged attack, Toyota no longer bothers with V6 versions of the Camry, an obvious admission that the previous policy of offering Camry 4, Camry 6 and Avalon was not successful, and simply left many buyers bewildered.
Aurion brings aggressive pricing -- the entry AT-X model starts at $34,990 -- high equipment levels, a superb 200kW V6 mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, standard stability control, and, matching the Camry, a class-leading 9.9 litres per 100km combined-cycle fuel consumption.
On the other hand, Aurion does not have the VE's commodious interior (not even its more space-efficient front-drive layout can make up for a 140mm shortfall in its wheelbase); its sports versions lack a manual transmission, and can't hope to compete against the V8 Aussie muscle cars; and, in spite of obvious chassis enhancements, Aurion doesn't quite offer the same level of dynamic ability as either the Falcon or Commodore.
Only the inevitable comparison will reveal the consequences of these conflicting elements. What we do know is that Aurion -- the word derives from the ancient Greek for tomorrow' or 'first light' -- addresses our major criticism of the new Camry.
Here, the new V6, in combination with Toyota's equally new U660E transaxle six-speed gearbox, becomes a key virtue of the Aurion. Its quad-cam 3.5-litre V6 -- currently shared with the Lexus RX350 -- transforms the car. The all-alloy engine brings variable inlet and exhaust valve timing and variable length induction -- all electronically controlled -- that renders a deceptive maximum torque of 336Nm at a seemingly high 4700rpm.
The V6, far too smooth and fluent ever to seem peaky, makes 200kW at 6200rpm on 91-octane ULP, and delivers a lovely rising intake howl that encourages the driver to stretch the tacho needle towards the 6250rpm redline. Fed 95 octane, and it produces another 4kW, and, in both forms, meets Euro 4 emission standards.
Aurion is shorter, narrower and lower than Commodore, and is also lighter, with a base weight of 1590kg -- 100kg below the Omega (but 90kg heavier than Camry). No surprises, then, that Toyota's 20kW-more-powerful V6 means the Aurion -- front-drive, remember -- is also quicker than the Holden, but not the Falcon.
We couldn't quite match the claimed 7.3sec to 100km/h, but did, in windy conditions, record 7.5sec, with a standing 400-metre time of 15.5sec.
If you go looking for torque steer on a loose or wet surface, it is possible to induce mild tugging at the wheel, but so good has been Toyota's scrupulous development of the Aurion's front-suspension geometry, that, on a dry surface, the question of which axles drive the power to the ground is never an issue.
Coupled with a modern adaptive automatic, the Aurion is a graceful, refined performer overlaid with a hard edge of eagerness, changing up fast and smoothly, even at full throttle, if required.
Pushing the gated selector towards the driver enables manual shifts and a sports mode that allows the engine to run out to the 6500rpm cutout without automatically upshifting. You press forward for upshifts, back to drop a ratio, in a counter-intuitive action that is the opposite of the Ford, Holden and BMW layout. Still, the selector is so close, and the shifts so instantaneous and involving, that manual changing is a surprisingly effective and natural substitute for a conventional manual gearbox. In 'Drive', the auto downshifts on inclines and cleverly holds gears when the driver is pushing.
Toyota splits the Aurion range into two philosophies: comfort and sport. The comfort side of the range comprises AT-X, Prodigy and Presara, while sport delivers Sportivo SX6 (derived from the AT-X) and Sportivo ZR6 (from Prodigy).
Strangely, there has been no attempt to extract more performance for the Sportivo versions that are expected to make up around 20 percent of Aurion volumes.
Instead, Toyota Australia has engineered a chassis package, since adopted (as the 'SE') for American V6 Camrys, that provides clear dynamic differentiation. The changes mirror those of the Camry Sportivo: 20 percent firmer springs front and 18 percent rear; 10 percent firmer dampers; stiffer anti-roll bars and a V-brace behind that back seat that precludes folddown rear seats, but increases torsional rigidity by five percent.
Cosmetically, too, the Sportivos are easily recognised with their unique black grille and an aero kit that includes a rear underbody diffuser and carefully crafted rear wing that apparently helps reduce the drag co-efficient from an already good 0.301 to 0.292.
These are handsome cars, clearly design evolutions of the previous Camry, but with a far superior track-to-body ratio, and better proportions.
Over the course of the launch, we tried four different Aurion variants, missing out only on the base AT-X. Since the Prodigy runs the same chassis tune and 215/60 R16 rubber, we covered all chassis bases. Most effective, in Wheels' terms, are the two Sportivos, but the Presara, too, is a credible contender, and the AT-X and Prodigy better than competent.
Inside, the driver enjoys supportive comfortable seats, a terrific driving position, and smooth, soft shapes and surfaces. Big knobs and controls confirm the meticulously developed ergonomics and make it exceptionally easy to use.
The highlights are Toyota's so-called Optitron instruments -- the technology borrowed from Lexus -- that begin blacked out on ignition. First the orange needles light up, then the intensity of the instruments radually increases -- a class act.
We'd call the comfort models agile, but hardly athletic. This is the job of the Sportivos. The Prodigy is sure-footed, with its emphasis on refinement and safety, rather than maximum grip or handling precision. Road and tyre noise are dramatically improved, its ride isn't Avalon-marshmallow, but neither is it as supple or absorbent as you might expect, especially at low speeds. It's never harsh, of course, but nor does its ride ever really settle.
Compared to the Falcon and Commodore, the Prodigy is slower to turn in, its steering is less responsive, and its body movements more obvious.
The Presara shares its 215/55 R17 Michelin Energy tyres with the Sportivo, and they bring improved accuracy, without detracting from a ride that is occasionally jiggly.
Predictably, the Sportivo's more nimble manners appeal to enthusiasts. It immediately feels firmer-sprung and more stable, with a terrific chassis poise and body control that confirm Toyota's enormous strides in front-wheel-drive chassis development.
Both Sportivos love to be hustled and respond to an attacking driving style. These Toyotas really do point, and it's only in the most extreme conditions, when a loaded front wheel hits a surface irregularity, that there's any hint of steering kickback. Although there have been no changes to the steering rack or power-steering system, it seems quicker than Prodigy or Presara, although without the accuracy or notably faster responses of the two rear-drive rivals. The firmer ride is more heard than felt.
Toyota takes a conservative view in setting stability- (VSC) and traction control. On gravel roads, intervention is quick, too quick for any enthusiastic driver, and progress can become a series of short, sharp power interruptions. In true Toyota style, VSC can't be turned off. On the other hand, the brakes inspire confidence.
Disappointments include: the boot's oldfashioned goose-neck hinges and the lack of a pull on the bootlid, and, more significantly, a rear-seat cushion that is way too low to provide adequate thigh support for adults.
It is a handsome car, the Aurion, more formal Chassis and conservative than the Camry when viewed from front or rear. See them in profile and the differences are minimal, so much so that Toyota was sensitive about our request to photograph them positioned together in this configuration.
Toyota chairman emeritus John Conomos always swore he would never again predict sales volumes after the Avalon bombed spectacularly. Perhaps it's an indication of Toyota's renewed confidence that Conomos was prepared to predict annual sales of 25,000 Aurions -- the same as the new Camry -- and effectively the break-even point, if Toyota achieves the anticipated annual exports of 80,000.
But will Aurion and VE Commodore halt the slide in large-car sales?
In our view, Aurion is not a traditional Australian large car, but a subtle variation on that theme. This is not a criticism. With the market coming towards Toyota, Aurion undoubtedly provides the best-yet chance of success.
AT-X - $34,990
Base model standard with full safety kit, 200kW V6, six-speed utomatic, airconditioning, power driver’s seat, steering wheel audio controls, cruise control, auto headlights-on, MP3/WMA CD, projector headlights, 16-inch (steel) wheels, four-spoke rubberised steering wheel
SPORTIVO SX6 - $38,500
Sports suspension, 17-inch alloy wheels, sports body kit and sports seats, rear wing spoiler, six-CD changer, metal look on dashboard and doors, multi-function trip computer, black sports interior trim, three-spoke steering wheel
PRODIGY - $39,500
Dual-zone auto airconditioning with pushbutton controls and HVAC display, premium Optitron instruments, 16-inch alloy wheels, wood grain inserts on dashboard and centre console, leather bound fourspoke steering wheel, six-CD changer, clearance and rear reversing sonar park-assist