Bringing Up The Front - 2007 TRD Aurion
Toyota has been Australia's most popular car brand since 2003. But there was always one market segment where they lagged behind Ford and Holden, large cars. Toyota knew they weren't doing well enough, and they knew that part of the problem is that they were seen as bland. The TRD Aurion (along with the TRD Hilux) was Toyota’s attempt to resolve this and bring in new customers who would otherwise never buy a Toyota.
Prior to the Aurion, Toyota’s large car history in Australia was fairly unremarkable. First came the Lexcen, a badge-engineered Holden Commodore. This was followed by the Camry V6 and Avalon. The Camry V6 couldn't be taken seriously as a large car, but the Avalon was worse. Toyota bought the tooling for the US market 1994 Avalon and aside from right hand drive conversion, built it exactly as it was in 1994. The Avalon was known for being comfortable and spacious, but ugly, slow and deathly dull. The Dame Edna endorsement and 2003 facelift did it no favours. It was dropped in 2005 and Toyota made do with the Camry V6 as its large car for the next year.
The Aurion was a better car than its predecessors, but it wasn't selling. The Aurion was by no means sporty, but it was significantly more appealing than an the Avalon or a Camry. If was quiet, well made and refined, but even the Sportivo couldn't quite deliver what buyers wanted in a market segment becoming increasingly dependent on the enthusiast market. The Avalon’s bland image lingered and the Aurion was not nearly exciting enough to overcome that. As a driver's car it sat last behind the Falcon XR6, Commodore SV6 and Mitsubishi 380 VRX. It was nice, but not the sports sedan it was trying to be. But it was widely known among enthusiasts that the Sportivo was not going to be the hottest Aurion. Toyota had hinted at a supercharged AWD model at the 2006 Melbourne Motorshow prior to the Aurion’s release. The production car was revealed in early 2007, along with vague details about pricing. They said it would be more expensive than a Ford Falcon XR Turbo and Holden Commodore SV8, but cheaper than an FPV or HSV. Toyota said that they were not competing with the XR6 Turbo, they were targeting a more sophisticated market. They said it would compete with the Subaru Liberty GT, Mazda 6 MPS and Volkswagen Golf R32. This was speculated to be more about fear that a FWD car would not be taken seriously against RWD offerings from FPV and HSV, let alone Ford and Holden, than the car being particularly sophisticated. Toyota was trying to avoid comparisons it couldn't win by claiming to be targeting tamer Japanese sports sedans. .
The TRD Aurion was released in late 2007, twelve months after the rest of the Aurion range. To increase the power over the standard Aurion, Toyota engaged Ron Harrop's Harrop Engineering to install an Eaton Supercharger. Supercharging was chosen over turbochaging for it's relative simplicity., making a supercharger easier to install. As well as supplying the supercharger, Harrop also cast and machine the components required to install it on the 3.5L 2GR-FE V6 engine. All the Harrop-designed components worked perfectlyh well together, but the Eaton M90 supercharger was forcing hot air into the engine, reducing the power output, An intercooler had to be installed, but there wasn't much space available under the bonnet. An intercooled version was developed but later abandoned after Eaton and Harrop proposed using the new Twin Vertice Supercharger (TVS) instead. The TVS was quiter and more compact, but most importantly, it delivered a reduction in output air temperature that negated the need for an intercooler. The TRD Aurion was the first car to use the Eaton TVS Supercharger. They had a target output of 240kW, and achieved it with 241kW and 400Nm. In 2007 it was the most powerful FWD car in the world.
All of this power and torque was sent through the front wheels via the standard six speed automatic. At the time it was the world's most powerful front wheel drive production car. It torque-steered, but not as much as you’d expect for a FWD car with 241kW. Toyota’s reason for not going with AWD was that it was too difficult and expensive. That AWD was too expensive is surprising given the availability of an AWD Camry in Japan and the AWD Kluger that share's the Camry/Aurion's platform.
To make the TRD handle, it was lowered 10mm and received stiffer springs and dampers. Larger 325mm front and 310mm rear brake discs and uprated calipers from PBR were also fitted. At a test day at Winton Raceway, ex-Ford engineer Marcus Umlauff, the senior chassis engineer, wasn't satisfied. The car didn't feel agile enough. The standard Aurion runs some rear toe-in to improve straight line stability, and a solution was found by cutting the amount of toe-in by half..That change made a massive difference to the TRD's handling characteristics.
In a 2008 comparison with, BFII XR6 Turbo and Subaru Liberty GT conducted by Wheels Magazine prior to the launch of the FG Falcon, the TRD received a positive review. The transformation from standard Aurion to TRD was considered remarkable. The soggy repmobile had been turned into a proper sports sedan with handling deemed better than the Subaru’s, powerful engine and safety. However it also had rubbery and vague steering, torque steer, mildly intrusive non-switchable stability control and a disappointing engine note. The Falcon was declared the winner, with RWD handling dynamics, steering feel, and superior straight line speed that made it the driver’s choice.
Other reviews described the TRD Aurion as quiet and fast, with strong brakes and agile handling, but also criticised it for a firm ride, torque steer and axle tramp. In one review, full throttle was described as unusable below 60km/h, even in the dry. A lack of traction was also regularly reported. The 235mm Dunlops were the same width as those found on the back of a BFII XR6 Turbo, but rearward weight transfer under heavy acceleration means that high powered FWD cars struggle for traction.Toyota couldn’t fit wider front tyres because the transverse engine meant there wasn’t enough room. The lack of traction squandered its power to weight advantage.
Not being as good as the competition was only part of the problem. Its price and market positioning also held it back. Toyota was charging $56,990 for the base 3500S. A Falcon XR6 Turbo, similar is specification to the S, cost $44,490. The SL was $61,990, more expensive than an FPV F6 Typhoon or V8 Holden Calais V. A HSV Clubsport R8 was just $3,000 more at $64,890, and it had an extra 66kW. It would have taken a massive corporate discount for buying a Toyota to make prospective leasees choose a TRD over an XR6 Toyota however, preferred to compare the TRD Aurion with the Subaru Liberty GT. It was more powerful than the Liberty GT and competitively priced against it, particularly if you got a discount for choosing a Toyota. The above mentioned Wheels comparison placed the Aurion above the Liberty. There was still a problem, however. The TRD Aurion was not an AWD Japanese performance sedan, it was a FWD Australian performance sedan. Try explaining that to your Liberty GT or Mazda 6 MPS owning mates. If you haven't lost them at Aurion, when you tell them it's not AWD but FWD you will. It didn't pass barbecue test that's important for the middle aged dads who made up its target audience. Had it been AWD things could have been different.
It could have been successful if it were priced below an XR6 Turbo, ideally only slightly above an XR6. The XR6 Turbo was a better performance car and it had a massive price advantage. It the Toyota had the price advantage, it would have been a very appealing proposition for some buyers, with whom FWD would not have been such an issue. The buyers that it would have appealed to the in the low $40,000 range were non-car guys who buy XR6s and SV6s. Middle aged men with a salary-sacrificed car and a discount for buying a particular brand.
In a production run that lasted less than a year, Toyota sold just 537 TRD Aurions and 351 TRD Hiluxes. The entire TRD operation was cancelled in late 2008. Prices of used Aurions vary heavily according to condition from $12,000 for a 3500S with over 200,000km to over $26,000 for a low-mileage 3500SL. Most will set you back $15-20,000. You won't find a stock 2008 XR6 Turbo as expensive as the most expensive TRD Aurion, but the average examples of both cars are worth about the same now.
Despite being FWD, the TRD Aurion was a reasonably good car. Toyota Australia tried very hard to build a sports sedan from the Aurion, and the result was remarkable considering what they had to work with. But it was simply too expensive for what it was. By not offering AWD and charging $52,990, Toyota found themselves with a car that didn’t really appeal to anyone.