I never know what to expect from Toyota these days.
This feature was originally published in MOTOR’s December 2006 issue
The unloved Avalon was a classic example; homely looks but a reasonably sharp drive given its position in the marketplace. In contrast, generations of Camrys have taught me that Toyota really knows how to incorporate conservatism, both visually and dynamically.
Then there’s the Aurion. On paper, it has to replace the Avalon, but it’s a much more important vehicle than that. With Camry now exclusively a four, the Aurion carries Toyota’s hopes of truly breaking into the Aussie big-car market (not to mention its export aspirations) so it better be more than an incremental improvement on its predecessors.
For starters, the Aurion looks nothing like an Avalon, although there's more than a hint of Camry in its design. But it’s different enough to be accepted as its own entity, and more importantly, looks damn good in a don’t-frighten-the-horses kind of way. Exterior stylist Nick Hogios might still get his lunch money tied in the corner of his hankie, but he’s done a great job of making a mainstream car look pretty muscular – and balanced.
Inside, the electronic instruments are classy but the speedo markings sit half-way along the needle instead of beside the numerals, different to what most cars in this age of roadside Kodaks do.
Starting the Aurion makes anyone who’s ever driven a modern V6 feel at home. The 3.5-litre is smooth and quiet, with the kind of soothing soundtrack that suggests high-tech on board.
The crooked-gate shifter is easy enough to get comfortable with, yet in manual mode (more of which later), my personal preference is to push the shifter away from me for downshifts. The Aurion is the opposite, but my own barbeque research suggests the planet is split about 50-50 on this one.
While the old three-litre V6 was known for its mid-range, the new engine ups the ante, offering a pretty impressive top-end rush into the bargain. Mid-range thrust is still there, but get stuck into it and the variable valve timing enables the V6 to really come alive at about 4000rpm.
Some of the engine's composure is lost when you do, and there’s a bit more thrashing than I expected, but there’s no doubt you’re really under way. I’m also being picky. Stay below 4000 (as most owners undoubtedly will) and there’s plenty of refinement and mechanical silence, allowing you to concentrate on what a bloody good gearbox this new six-speeder is.
With fuzzy logic, the box can ‘learn’ what you’re up to and tailors its shift patterns to suit. Doing so smoothly and seamlessly, it makes a good fist of full-throttle kickdowns – a skill not all autos manage in such a no-fuss manner. Full marks for the gearbox.
MOTOR Top 5: Automatic transmissions
Well, full marks except for the pointless manual mode. For reasons still not fully explained to me, Toyota has set the manual mode so the gearbox does whatever the hell it wants to. Flick the shifter to the manual plane, stab it to select, say, fifth gear and put your foot down.
Does it hold fifth like it should? Does it my arse. And depending on the speed, it’ll kick down two or even three gears. Dammit, if I wanted it to choose its own gears, I’d have left the bugger in D for Drag.
Even more unfathomable is there’s no manual-gearbox Aurion, and as it stands, Toyota is pretty much saying to me “listen Bucko, we know what’s best for you”. Bollocks to that.
Torque steer is impressively absent for the most part and only full-throttle launches allow it to rear its ugly little head. Even then, there’s not much of it and it really amounts to the tiller going dead, rather than the car wanting to change lanes. Steering feel is par for course for a big front-driver, but it’s accurate and turn-in is sharp without ever making the Aurion feel twitchy.
The two suspension tunes seem fairly similar at first, but a back-to-back on a bumpy road brings the difference into focus. The softer, luxury setting is more likely to axle tramp over stutter bumps with the power applied and there’s a touch more body roll. The pay-off is in ride quality, although I’d take the slightly firmer sport setting every time for the extra feeling of security.
Let’s be honest, neither set-up is a bone-shaker, yet both manage to give the sensation of being planted on the road. It may not be in the Aurion’s brief, but the thing can be hustled along pretty hard until the ESP calls it quits.
Then again, maybe it’s not in the Aussie version’s brief. You can thank the Middle East markets’ penchant for blasting away at 200km/h all day for the fact that the Aurion is so dynamically adept. Bless those lawless Arabs.
Toyota has turned out plenty of boring, locally made sedans in the past, but the Aurion has moved well beyond that. It's Toyota's most convincing effort yet. The revvy V6 and slick auto give a sportier-than-expected feel and the suspension is all class.
However, there are a couple of little pointers to Toyota’s conservative psyche. The unswitchable ESP is one (though we hear there's a way to turn it off), the lack of a clutch-pedal option is another, and the dopey manual-mode in the otherwise excellent gearbox is the third.
Beyond that, there’s a hell of a lot to like.
Get more blasts from the past with classic MOTOR
2006 Toyota Aurion
BODY: 4-door, 5-seat sedan
DRIVE: front wheels
ENGINE: 3456cc V6, DOHC, 24-valve
POWER: 204kW @ 6200rpm
TORQUE: 336Nm @ 4700rpm
BORE/STROKE: 94.0mm x 83.0mm
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic
0-100KM/H: 7.4sec (claimed)
TOP SPEED: 228km/h (limited)
SUSPENSION: struts, L-arms, anti-roll bar (f), struts, dual lower links, trailing arm, anti-roll bar (r)
BRAKES: ventilated discs (f), solid discs (r), ABS, EBD, BA, VSC, TC
WHEELS: 16- or 17-inch alloys
TYRES: 215/60R16 or 215/55R17
FUEL: 70-litre tank/91-95 octane
PRICE: $38,500 (Sportivo SX6), $42,500 (Sportivo ZR6)
Creating Toyota Oz's first saleable big-six contender
In 2001, Toyota Australia asked itself the hard questions. Top priority was: What is needed for it to remain on top in this country?
According to Max Gillard, vice-president of Toyota’s local technical centre, the company needed a large car to enable it to participate in the one market sector it didn’t have stitched up.
“The problem was,” says Gillard, “there was nothing in the Toyota catalogue that would do the job”. There was also the small issue of the flop that was the Avalon, a car even Toyota Australia’s John Conomos admits “we learned a lot from”.
Around the same time, freelance designer Paul Beranger was putting the finishing touches to a large concept sedan called 380L. While never intended for production, it was designed with production in mind, so it was no pie-in-the-sky deal.
Nick Hogios, Toyota Oz’s young styling team leader for the Aurion, remembers the 380L being presented as the premium-six design to Toyota management both here and in Japan in 2002.
“Australia was invited to contribute to the design task in Japan under Mr Sugawara (the bloke responsible for the second-generation MR2, among others),” says Hogios. “And eventually, the Australian team was chosen to go forward.”
Gillard recalls: “We had 50 Australian engineers head for Japan to start development work and TMCA [Toyota Oz] was completely integrated into the process. That’s the first time that has happened.”
Don’t underestimate the gravity of that move, either. Toyota head office is, like any big, ultra-conservative company, very careful about where and to whom it hands design (or any other) responsibility.
So, it was game on for Nick and his crew. He says there are a few key elements to Aurion’s exterior styling – namely a long wheelbase and short overhangs. If you can see a bit of Camry in the finished product, that’s not surprising. From underneath, the pair is indistinguishable and they share a common roof, door skins, rear quarters and glass.
But the bits that matter to a stylist, including everything forward of the A-pillar, boot lid and bumpers, are all Aurion-specific. Design highlights include swivelling headlights, LED tail-lights, and even mirror-mounted indicators.
Under the bonnet is an all-new Toyota V6 – unrelated to the old three-litre that served the company well for over a decade. It’s a quad-cam unit with variable valve-timing on both inlet and exhaust cams, but most significantly, it’s a 3.5-litre engine with the ability to be bored out to more than four litres. The engine will also be used in future Lexus SUVs, among others.
There’s no manual gearbox option, and while Max Gillard reckons he’d love to have one, the volumes just don’t compare to development costs. Don’t worry, the standard auto is a quality six-speeder with tiptronic.
Suspension is significant for being a global setting (making the Aurion a truly world car), and according to evaluation engineer Paul Diamandis, has built-in anti-dive and anti-squat properties. There are two suspension tunes, one for the luxury range and one for the sportier cars. Changes to springs, dampers and sway-bars give each version its own flavour.
Aurion also gets Toyota’s Viscolastic dampers (that use a combination of hydraulic and friction damping), and bigger-than-ever brakes. A full aero package also incorporates a rear diffuser and aero-spats under the car.
On the safety front, you’re talking six airbags (front, side-front and side-curtain), anti-whiplash head restraints, brakes with ABS, EBD and BA, plus stability control and traction control (neither of which are switchable).
All up, Aurion consumed two-and-a-half years and $450m, with exports to the Middle East and New Zealand helping Toyota Australia to meet its volume targets. At the moment, Aurion and Camry production at Toyota's Altona plant in Melbourne is around 110,000 a year, but that will reach 140,000 once both cars are built in left- and right-hand-drive forms.
In an attempt to appeal to all parties, Aurion comes in two distinct flavours
The base dunger, the AT-X, falls into the luxury camp. Like all Aurions, it gets standard ABS, ESP, traction control, air-con, cruise, eight-way power driver’s seat (with electric lumbar), six airbags and a full-size spare. It also gets 16-inch steelies, and will set you back $34,990.
Next rung on the luxury ladder is (believe it or not) the Prodigy. Over and above AT-X spec, the Prodigy has dual-zone air-con, leather interior, fog lights, 16-inch alloys, a six-stacker, power adjust for the passenger’s chair, a trip computer and plenty of woodgrain trim. Sticker says $39,500.
Top of the luxo heap is the Presara which adds a proximity key, reversing camera, 17-inch alloys, self-levelling bi-xenon headlights, rain-sensing wipers, front and rear sonar, sat-nav, sunroof, a powered rear sunshade and telematics tracking. Yours for $49,990.
In the sport corner, the range kicks off with the Sportivo SX6. As well as a sportier suspension tune, it gets 17-inch alloys, sports seats, bodykit, fog lights and a six-stacker CD player. All for $38,500.
The top-shelf Sportivo is labelled ZR6 and adds dual-zone air, Presara's proximity key, sonar at both ends and leather. And it’s a $42,500 proposition.