FOR YEARS the large family car sector was packed with cars that sold in their droves, mainly to business users, but which were as dull and boring as they were reliable, practical and efficient.
Things have changed dramatically. Customers, both private and corporate, no longer just want cars that are spacious and durable. They realise they can get all the practicality they need in a more desirable SUV or compact executive car and have forced makers of D-segment models to up their game.
To try keep ahead of the pack, Toyota engineers have given the British-built Avensis a major facelift.
The third generation Avensis isn''t a car you are going to fall in love win. It does what it says on the tin but it isn''t going to make you look forward to the daily commute or shove you back into your seat when you put your foot to the floor.
However, it does have sharper looks, extra equipment, better ride comfort and, importantly, lower running costs with reduced C02 emissions which means less taxes and improved fuel economy.
The 2.0-litre D-4D 124bhp turbodiesel engine, as in the test car, gives the best fuel and tax saving figures with an official combined fuel consumption figure of 62.8mpg with just 119g/km of C02 emissions. This means zero road tax in the first year and just pounds 30 a year from the second year onwards.
Equally important for business users, benefit-in-kind is rated at the lowest 13% for a diesel car.
Improvements to the engine have made it 3kgs lighter, quieter and gives 229lb/ft of torque from 1,600rpm. Even with the C02 and fuel saving, high ratio fifth and sixth gears, the engine remains responsive at low revs, making it flexible at crawling speeds and in stop-start traffic.
A week-long test drive returned just over 52mpg, a long way off the official figure. Top speed is 124mph with zero to 62mph taking 9.7 seconds. The engine gobbles up motorway miles without fuss in a relaxed manner . Engine refinement was generally good. It sounded slightly harsh under acceleration but probably the only reason it could be heard at all was because road and wind noise intrusion was almost non-existent.
Making the Avensis a more rewarding drive was achieved by giving the car a more rigid body and by changes to the front and rear suspension. Extra insulation has reduced noise levels in the cabin while changes to the electric power steering has made the Avensis more agile.
Ride comfort is good thanks to changes to the suspension and the 17-inch wheels which feel right for the car. The front seats now give better lateral support, a bonus for company drivers covering high mileage. The cabin is a bit bland, but it is well laid out.
THE THIRD generation Toyota Avensis has been greened up to help keep pace with rivals in the D-segment. And the one likely to be the best seller in the Avensis line-up is the 2.0-litre D-4D saloon, as tested here.
It boasts easy cruising, tax-beating emissions and average fuel returns of 63mpg - a fleet manager''s dream.
Add to that solid build and quality furnishings and a reputation for reliability and its an attractive proposition for the business user chooser and domestic customer alike.
Built in the UK at Toyota''s Burnaston plant for the European market, the latest Avensis has been re-styled and re-engineered.
The car had to look the part too, though some will still regard its architecture as somewhat conservative. But the updated version of the Avensis does look more edgy, more modern, though it is probably not bold enough to make a major kerbside statement.
The turbodiesel D-4D test car, here in upmarket T4 trim, is a sensible, safe car that won''t excite those wanting inspiration from engine or steering wheel. Nevertheless, it provides decent pull power and achieves the 0-62mph in an adequate 9.7 seconds.
Quality build and tight shut lines give the saloon a solid, premium feel, particularly in this near top trim model which offers very good value for the money. Just wade through the spec list and you can see what it is on offer.
The engine is well muted in cruise mode, though it can get verbal under pressure in the urban jungle, but mostly it remained a relatively quiet operator. The six-speed manual gearbox was well matched to the power unit and transfer through the gate was smooth.
Ride is quite acceptable, though it can get fidgety on rough surfaces and the saloon didn''t fair too badly on demanding, twisty B-roads - as long as you didn''t push the Avensis too hard. As a sensible, all-rounder, the saloon provides easy and relaxing - if uninspiring driving.
Inside, again, the car feels well put-together and solid, with good use of soft materials and a well-laid out dashboard with deserves extra points for its logical approach.
It has a very spacious saloon, affording good head, leg and girth room and it provides a generous-sized boot.
I wasn''t particularly impressed with the push-button handbrake, which seemed a little fiddly but it became less so with familiarity.
I hate to use that word again, but the Avensis is a very sensible choice, particularly when you appreciate that it does tend to attract good resale prices. And, there is the added attraction of a five-year warranty!
Toyota Avensis 2.0D-4D ENGINE: 1998cc 4cyl 16v turbodiesel 124bhp@3600rpm 229 lb/ft@1600rpm PERFORMANCE: Top speed: 124 mph ) 0-62mph: 9.7secs ECONOMY: Combined: 62.8mpg CO EMISSIONS: 119g/km INSURANCE: Group20E PRICE: pounds 24,035