Antiques Roadshow - 2000-05 Toyota Avalon

 
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For over 60 years, large family sedans were the most popular cars in Australia. From 1948 to 59, Holden had the market all to itself. Then Ford and Chrysler waded in with the Falcon and Valiant in 1960 and 62 and took a significant slice of Holden sales. This encouraged Leyland, who, after numerous half-arsed adaptations of smaller British models went all-in with the P76 and lost. When Chrysler became Mitsubishi, the ageing Valiant made way for the innovative wide-body medium Magna. It seemed like no one would try to mount a direct assault on the Falcon/Commodore duopoly again.

Then along came Toyota. Toyota’s first attempt was the 1989 Lexcen.The badge engineered Holden Commodore was received by Toyota under the United Australian Auto industries Toyota-Holden joint venture. It seemed to exist purely as a placeholder, bridging the gap between midsize Camry and luxury Cressida. The Lexcen died with the dissolution of UAAI in 1997, and a Toyota version of the VT Commodore was never sold. Toyota had moved on.

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It was obvious that what Toyota needed was a large car of its own. A rebadged Commodore wasn't going to fool anyone. Toyota’s Japanese parent company wouldn't give them the resources to develop a totally unique car for Australia like Ford had with the Falcon. They instead had to follow Holden’s and adapt an overseas model. The RWD MkII/Cresta/Chaser was considered, but it was designed as a Japan-only four door coupe that lacked the head and shoulder room that Australians wanted. A widened and lengthened Camry was also considered but would have been too expensive.

The only car that remained was the Avalon. Americans will be familiar with the Avalon. The first generation was sold in North America from 1994 to 2000. Toyota Australia’s proposal was to transfer Avalon tooling from Kentucky to Melbourne when US production wound up. The Avalon would replace production the smaller and therefore lower price and profit margin Corolla at the Altona plant.

Toyota was entering the most competitive market segment in Australia with an outdated car designed for American tastes. Holden and Ford had released all new large cars in 1997 and 1998 respectively and the BA Falcon was only two years away in 2002.

To make the car they called Frankie more appealing to Australians, Toyota’s local engineers subjected it to a significant amount of local modifications. Changes were made to the US original to incorporate a modified Camry floorpan and as many Camry suspension components as possible to reduce manufacturing costs. A new steering rack was designed and later incorporated into the Camry.

Toyota Australia also requested a larger engine than the 3.0 litre V6 in the US model. The Commodore, Falcon and Magna offered 3.8, 4.0, and 3.5 litre six cylinder engines, respectively. Unable to source a suitable larger engine, Toyota used the same 3.0 litre V6 and four-speed auto as the Camry.

For three years Toyota made do with the Camry V6 as its large car offering while it waited for the Avalon. The final hurdle was negotiating with Japan over pricing in relation to the Camry. Toyota Japan wanted to price the Avalon higher to protect Camry sale. Toyota Australia's preference for the Avalon to replace more expensive Camry variants. The Australians eventually got their way, and the Avalon closely matched Falcon and Commodore prices.

It received favourable reviews at launch. Wheels magazine actually rated it better than the Falcon and Commodore. Although slower with weaker brakes, the Avalon offered better handling and refinement. But that was against the old AU and VX in a comparison of second from base models. A year later the more expensive Avalon VXi finished fourth in a 10 car entry level luxury comparison, behind the Ford Fairmont, Mitsubishi Verada Ei and Subaru Liberty Heritage.  

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Toyota’s aim was to sell 2000 a month, about 30 percent of the number of Commodores Holden was selling at the time. Despite being the best on paper, buyers avoided it like the plague. The bland image was to blame. The Avalon only met that sales target once, in its first month on sale, with 2,419 units sold. This success was partly due to Avis buying 500 Avalons for its rental fleet. In 2001, its first full year on sale, Toyota shifted 11,760 Avalons. Holden, meanwhile, sold 86,249 Commodores. Ford sold 53,534 Falcons. Dull styling, and a dated, beige, interior scared most private buyers away. It was seen as a car for retirees. An advertising campaign featuring Dame Edna and Sir Les Patterson compounded this view. In Australia, probably most places, the only thing more uncool than a family car is an old person’s car. This is especially true of family car buyers, who are desperately trying to look cool and not like their grandparents. In 2003, the most popular family car was the Falcon XR6. It was fast, loud, fun and often brightly-coloured. The Avalon was none of those things. Australian families wanted sporty cars, and it had caught Toyota by surprise.

The Avalon was facelifted in 2004 and went from bland to ugly. The previously nondescript front end replaced with a droopy grille and oddly shaped headlights. In 2004, Wheels conducted another large car comparison, pitching the mid-range Avalon VXi with the Falcon Futura, Commodore Acclaim, Magna LS and Camry Ateva V6. Both Toyotas were considered incredibly dreary, but despite being essentially seven years older, the Avalon was more comfortable and, surprisingly, nicer to drive than the Camry. That was enough to secure a three-star rating and second last place over the two-star Camry. The only car it beat was one that couldn’t achieve a pass mark. Mechanically the Avalon, with its front and rear strut suspension and the thirstiest and least powerful engine was showing its age. That the Magna, fundamentally unchanged since 1996, was rated better than the Avalon implies that the Avalon never was the best. A review from News Limited in 2004 was was kinder to the Avalon, but described its performance as slow.

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Buyers still weren't interested in the Avalon, still describing it as boring and ugly. Already slow sales slowed further. In 2004, the Avalon’s last full year, they sold just 5,564. In the same year Ford sold 65,384 Falcons and Holden 79,170 Commodores. The Avalon made up just 3.1 percent of large car sales. It was in 2004 that Toyota started admitting that they'd got the Avalon wrong. They understood that more Australian input was needed, and began working accordingly. The 380L project was due in 2006 and rumoured to have a larger 3.5L V6. All wheel drive was under consideration.

In the meantime, Toyota would sidestep the lack of private buyer interest by pitching the Avalon at the taxi industry. A dual fuel LPG option was introduced in an effort to tempt taxi drivers away from their Falcons. Despite the packaging advantages of front wheel drive, taxi companies weren't much more interested than private buyers. Risk-averse taxi buyers preferred to stick with the Falcon they knew, even if Ford didn't want the business, believing it was bad for the Falcon's image. Not having a wagon option didn't do the Avalon any favours here either.

With nothing able to save it, Toyota pulled the plug on the Avalon in June 2005. It wasn’t worth keeping around as a placeholder until its replacement, the much-improved Aurion, arrived more than a year later. Toyota wanted to give Australians time to forget about the Avalon before the Aurion arrived.

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Today the Avalon is a large, cheap, reliable car for people who don’t care about cars, or what other people think of them. Typical Toyota build quality means that they have survived well. No 17 year old, or 18 year old in Victoria, is going to choose an Avalon as their first car. It’s probably a smarter choice than the sort of XR6 you would get for the same money, but the Avalon isn't the one you want.

Toyota did a good job adapting the very American Avalon for Australia, but it was the wrong car for the time, marketed at the wrong people. Toyota misread the market, the Avalon was never going to be a sales success.