For years, the large, family car market in Australia has been divided between the Aussie built GM Holden Commodore and the Ford Falcon, both on the road and on the track. The large car market has been characterised not only by their size, but also by V6 or V8 powerplants running on rear-wheel drive platforms. For years, other competitors, including Mitsubishi with their Magna and more recently their 380 models, have tried to chip away at this virtual duopoly, with limited success.
The game is changing though. As the price of fuel has risen, the Australian car market has seen a massive shift away from large cars and towards more fuel efficient, medium sized models. The market is currently dominated by vehicles like the Mazda6, the Honda Accord, the Hyundai Sonata and in particular, the Toyota Camry. As Australia's largest passenger vehicle brand, Toyota has long enjoyed segment-leading sales with the Camry, and although it's not a sexy choice, Toyota's mid-sized sedan represents a smart purchase, with high re-sale value, good fuel economy and Toyota's reputation for outstanding reliability.
Continue reading the Toyota Aurion Sportivo review after the jump.
But leading the medium sized car market isn't enough for Toyota. For years, they've had ambitions to take the Falcon and Commodore down a peg or two in the large car market by offering a variety of V6 Camry models, as well as introducing the Avalon in 2000. But thus far, any attempts at Toyota breaking into the large car market have ranged from limited to laughable. Enter the all new Toyota Aurion -- an Australian built, V6 powered, front-wheel drive sedan that can be considered either a largish medium-sized car or a smallish large-sized car. Toyota sees the Aurion as a game-changing, fuel efficient, V6 family car that has what it takes to knock the Falcon and Commodore of their high horses.
Putting the cool-aid aside for a moment though, the most pertinent question might be: isn't the Aurion really just a new V6 Camry? And perhaps even more fundamentally, is the Aurion even a large car by the classic Australian standards?
When we hopped into the Aurion, we immediately realised that it isn't as big as a Commodore, an impression which is backed up by the numbers. The VE Commodore is 69 mm / 2.7" longer (4894 mm versus 4825 mm), has a 140 mm / 5.5" longer wheelbase (2915 mm versus 2775 mm) and, perhaps most importantly is 79 mm / 3.1" wider (1899 mm versus 1820 mm). That said, the Aurion is comfortable at the helm with back seat passengers receiving ample leg room, even if getting three across would be a chore. Let's put it another way, its size didn't stop the Aurion from winning the 2006 Best Large Car honor in the prestigious Australia's Best Cars awards. As for comparisons to the classic rear-wheel drive character of the big Aussie family cars, the Aurion's handling is competent and compliant until pushed. At least enough for the average punter.
Toyota is smart though. They learned a few lessons from their last go around with the Avalon and they're not focusing on the size of the car or its lack of rear wheel drive. No, the Japanese auto giant has pulled out the big guns and is aiming squarely at the soft underbelly of the Falcon and the Commodore: fuel-economy. The Aurion's V6 is not only more powerful than the sixes found in either of its big competitors, but it is more fuel efficient as well. And while the difference might not be that large, it makes for a great advertising campaign.
Appearance wise, the Aurion is so similar to the current Camry that you have to look really hard to pick out the differences even when the vehicles are parked side-by-side. Both are styled under Toyota's "Vibrant Clarity" design language, which is supposed to combine the two elements of "Vibrant" form -- encompassing dynamism and energy -- and "Clarity" of function, which calls for more rational values such as simplicity and logic. Both cars share a strong face with angular lights, spearing in towards strong lines carving down from the bonnet right to the base of the F1-like lower spoiler, flaring out at the edges. Most of the front is body-coloured except for the grill, the lower spoiler's middle vent and the fog lamp bays that take on a dark, matte plastic look to help visually draw the spoiler down closer to the road surface.
In the Aurion, the lowest, inner corners of the front light assemblies hide the indicators, looking like flashing tears when engaged. They'd be too far from the corners of the car if isolated, but combined with the wing mirror indicators, style doesn't trump safety. One of the few distinguishing visual features between the Aurion and the Camry is the location of the Toyota badge. Where the Camry's emblem is oddly affixed to the snout of the bonnet, the Aurion's badge floats in the center of the grille and looks decidedly more grown up for it. Purposeful lines back up the hood from the top corners of the grille and complete the front which curves around into fairly low-key flanks. Only a hint of flare bulges out from the upper edges of the wheel arches, with the firm lower sill, a low-set crease in the door and a prominent body-coloured door protector forming three horizontal lines that draw the eye straight down the side. Standing out just above the front door protector, in a super-cool capitalised font, is the "AURION" badge which looks fantastic. We kept coming back to this simple, yet somehow futuristic styling detail, and were left wondering if Toyota had the font specially commissioned for the car. The colour of our vehicle was quite unique too -- called Aurora Gold, it seemingly shifted color between a golden yellow, orange, fawn and even a light green under different lighting. Doing the color justice in the photos kept us on our toes, as we had to wait for the golden light of late afternoon and then madly run around taking as many photos as possible in that five minute window before the deepening shadows turned the car into a gloomy brown.
Continuing down the sides toward the back of the car, a snazzy Z shaped panel seam connects the rear wheel in a flourish with the rear lights, which are split fifty-fifty in their mountings between body and boot. Again the lights spear into a strong, angular style line, this time one forming the sides of the license plate mounting. Snuggled in between the lower edge of the tail lights and the bottom of the boot lid are two more insignias, another "AURION" on the left and a "Sportivo sx6" on the right. The Sportivo badge doesn't share the AURION's funky font, but does convey a sense of speed and sportiness. This impression is clearly enhanced by the prominent wing sheltering the rear Toyota logo along with the full, lower rump and twin exhaust pipes. Via a styling cue carried over from the front spoiler, a horizontal, dark plastic band, placed down low across the rear, helps the car look like it's hugging the road and also helps to tie the pipes together. Overall, the rear has a little less going on than the front and that certainly isn't a bad thing. For an improved version of the front of the Aurion, look no further than its luxury relative, the new Lexus IS 250, which has the vibrance of its clarity turned down a few points. The Camry, by comparison, has its vibrant clarity quotient turned up further than the Aurion and suffers for it visually in comparison to its V6 sibling.
Despite the long-term, continuous success of the Camry, and its great importance to Toyota, there are actually more variants of the Aurion on offer than the Camry -- five versus four. But this is mostly because the Aurion has two different Sportivo versions, whereas the Camry just has the one Sportivo model. Obviously, the surfeit of Sportivos doesn't do Toyota any favors in differentiating the Aurion from the Camry, and makes you wonder if there is any kind of master plan floating around the Toyota naming department offices. When Toyota told us that we would be driving one of their Aurion Sportivos for a week, our thoughts were, "fantastic, a sporty Aurion which we'll really be able to compare to the Commodore SS we just reviewed." How naive. Now that we're older and wiser, we know that the Sportivo SX6 stands only above the entry level AT-X in the Aurion pantheon whereas it is the Sportivo ZR6 which resides just below the range-topping Presara model. But more significantly, we also now know that all five Aurions share the same engine and transmission anyway -- a naturally aspirated 3.5-litre V6 putting out 200 kW / 268 hp @ 6200 rpm running through a 6-speed sequential shift automatic. At the end of the day, the Sportivo moniker is really about the look, not the performance.
However, it is this under the bonnet action that signals the biggest difference between the four-cylinder Camry and the V6 Aurion, and it's not just those extra two cylinders. The major differentiator to our minds was the fact that even though the V6 enjoys a massive 170-percent higher power output and 154-percent higher torque than the four-cylinder, the fuel economy of each is exactly the same at 9.9 L/100km / 23.8 mpg (Camry with automatic transmission). Suddenly that Camry Sportivo is starting to look a little under done.
The Aurion's V6 is the most sophisticated powerplant Toyota has developed in Australia and its smooth acceleration when cruising is matched by its enthusiasm to rev when given the chance. Like automatics everywhere though, digging down to all that potential power often involves real commitment and at times a significant delay before the transmission, which is clearly tuned for comfort and a life of trips to the local shopping centre, wakes up, wipes the sleep out of its eyes and suddenly puts you very much in touch with the entire 200 kWs hiding under the hood. For the majority of the time, the transmission is super smooth and compliant in day-to-day driving and keeps the car ticking over beautifully. We liked the gated shifter as well, allowing us to gain a measure of manual-like control by easily slipping it to and from neutral at red lights.
But that lag, up to three seconds in those Matrix-like bullet time moments, when we suddenly wondered if we were going to be able to thread the car through that fast closing gap after all, defies the sporty wing on the back and can cause the hair to stand up on the back of your neck for all the wrong reasons. Once the auto has truly grasped your need for speed though... bam! Suddenly the V6 fires up, the transmission amazingly is now holding the revs right to the 6,000 RPM red line, and the cars surges forward. It can come as quite shock when it happens, especially after the interminable delay, and suddenly your attention snaps into focus as you realise that putting down the power through the front wheels plus using them to steer is perhaps asking a bit too much at high speeds. And if cornering is involved, it gets that much more dicey. But despite the somewhat bouncy sports suspension, we lay a lot of our corning criticism squarely at the feet of the Michelin tyres which are seriously jumpy and have a tendency to squeal around bends. Ultimately though, driving the Aurion is a little bit too fuzzy and lacking character for someone who appreciates feedback and making a connection with their ride.
Out on the highway, the Aurion was a mixed bag. The eight-way adjustable driver's seat, after a quick trip to the manual, was very comfortable and combined with a good driving position, helped to reduce fatigue on longer trips. The large wing mirrors offered great visibility behind and the frigid air conditioning could have resulted in frost bite if set to high. Seriously, in a hot country like Australia we're starting to wonder if Toyota's success hasn't been based solely on its arctic air-con. The in-dash, six-stacker CD player sounded pretty good and the leather wrapped steering wheel and transmission shifter was nice under hand. However, the bouncy suspension made the ride feel like it must have been a really windy day, when instead, the grass flashing by revealed that in fact there was nary a zephyr about. The impression of a gale was strengthened by the louder than expected wind noise off of those huge side mirrors and the non-recessed windscreen wipers. It took longer than expected to come to grips with reading the car's velocity off the space-age speedo, which is a distraction no one needs in this speed camera happy country.
The interior of the Aurion goes for a futuristic look and achieves a measure of success on its budget. We weren't a fan of the, at times squeaky, matt-silver centre console plastics, but the the instrument panel really was eye-catching, if a little impractical for a quick speed check. Apparently the Sportivo got the full "Premium Optitron Combi-meter" treatment as well, although we never did work out what that meant. The steering wheel looked good although the volume control buttons seemed so slow to react that we usually just reached for the volume knob on the audio unit instead. A mute button would have been nice on the steering wheel as well. Higher end models get Bluetooth phone integration options and the Presara even features Bluetooth as standard, but our machine missed out on this useful piece of kit, as well as front and rear parking sensors which you do get with the ZR6. Moving to the back seat, handy cup holders hide in the centre fold-down arm rest, but the seats themselves don't fold down to expand the boot, leaving just a small load-through port behind the center arm rest to try and squeeze long luggage items through.
So, just how is the Aurion faring in its stated goal of unseating the big boys in the large car market? The latest statistics available from the Australian Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries are for the month of February, which set the new, all-time monthly sales record in Australia, when the reigning king, the Holden Commodore, easily maintained its best selling model status with 5,544 sales. The Toyota Aurion posted solid sales of 1,817 units, its best result since the launch last October. Looking at these figures, we'd have to say the Aurion is doing very well for a new model, but there is a hidden story here -- it appears that the Aurion seems to be taking most of its sales off its closest competitor: the Camry.
Like most Toyotas, you get a lot for the price with the Aurion, and the fuel economy bonus over the Commodore and the Falcon must really have Holden and Ford taking a closer look at their engine development plans. It's usually pretty smooth, easy to drive and comes with the Toyota stamp of reliability. Overall, as a large V6 family car, the Aurion makes a great Camry.