toyota

The Toyota Avensis has aged better than most Nineties institutions

No matter which generation you go for the Avensis offers dependable - if not terribly exciting - motoring.jpg

WHAT were you doing back in 1998? Chances are if you weren’t listening to Aqua CDs or scrawling on the France ’98 wall chart you got free with The Champion then you’d have been busy fiddling with your Nokia 3210. For such a recent bit of our illustrious history it’s beginning to feel like a very long time ago.

So you’d expect a car from that era to feel positively Palaeolithic by today’s exacting standards of Bluetooth, infotainment consoles and adaptive cruise control, but the S-registered Toyota Avensis I’ve been running around in for the last few months doesn’t. Unlike the flyweight two-seaters I normally run around in this four-door slab of Japanese (albeit Derbyshire-built) anonymity does absolutely nothing to raise the pulse, but on a cold, rainy day there’s a lot to be said for a quiet, repmobile that just starts up and does everything in a discreetly and free of drama. Not bad for something that you can pick up these days for well under a grand.

It is so quietly accomplished that I’ve let it crack on with all the dull jobs without barely warranting a mention here before – but when I ended up being chucked the keys to its 2017 equivalent last weekend I couldn’t help comparing the two. The winner in this case is definitely the Avensis – but I just wasn’t sure which one.

To join the class of 2017 – in this case the mid-range Business Edition, equipped with Toyota’s torque-rich 1.6-litre turbodiesel – you need £22,855, and in return you get plenty of gadgets and safety features that my Mk1 model can only dream of. It’s still very much an Avensis in that does everything in a quiet and not terribly exciting way, but the clearest indication of two decades’ worth of progress is just how much quieter it is. The older car’s not exactly raucous by any means, but the latest Avensis makes you feel like you’ve pressed the ‘mute’ button on entire motorways. As long as you don’t put your foot down it is eerily silent.

It’s also smoother, sharper through the bends and far roomier on the inside. The latest Avensis comes out on top in just about every aspect but you’d be surprised at how well the Nineties original copes with the competition – not bad for a car that costs just a grand, remember. It’s the same with all the big family cars from the turn of the century. Find a good one that’s been looked after and it’ll be just as good a companion as a brand new one.

Certainly it’s a better slice of 1998 nostalgia than digging out that dusty Nokia out from its cupboard. And we’ll give the Aqua CDs a miss…

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Toyota, thank you for making the Century so bonkers

The Toyota Century is brilliant - but unlikely to make it to the UK

THE GREATEST car you’ve never heard of has just been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. But you wouldn’t know it just by looking at it.

The Toyota Century is that awkward relative who cracks awful jokes, dances badly at weddings and dresses like Alan Partridge. It is, with its ridiculous V12 engine and gaudy ‘70s Lincoln looks, the Monkey Tennis of motoring. Which is precisely why I’ve always found Japan’s most extravagant bit of automotive engineering so weirdly endearing.

But now the awkwardly outdated wedding guest has been given some snappy new clothes and been informed that Taylor Swift is a pop starlet, not a brand of caravan. Well sort of, because while the new model’s been given an eco-conscious hybrid powerplant in favour of the old V12, Toyota’s also insisting that it has “a simple and modern aesthetic”. Which it doesn’t.

Not that I (or any of the Century’s customers, for that matter) care remotely. In a world full of me-too sports activity vehicles and drearily understated executive saloons there is something wonderfully refreshing about a brand new saloon that looks exactly like a car that Huggy Bear would drive.

It’s aimed at the sort of people who’d normally go for an S-Class or an Audi A8 but it’s also the only luxury offering that eschews leather seats (although you can still order them) in favour of wool-trimmed thrones. There’s also an LCD panel that allows the managing director to control all the interior settings – including those for the driver’s seat – while slouching in the rear seat. That’s exactly the sort of unapologetic luxury that you just wouldn’t get in a 7-Series.

Toyota has absolutely no plans to bring it to the UK, partly because it’d trod of the toes of the Lexus LS, an equally lavish saloon developed by the same manufacturer that just happens to look like it belongs in 2017. But it’s good to know that when it isn’t churning out Prius hybrids the world’s biggest car manufacturer has something genuinely a bit bonkers up its sleeve.

I really hope the new Century’s a raging success because it’ll prove that there’s a market for luxury waftmobiles that look they belong in the late 1970s. Hopefully it’ll encourage Jaguar to get on with making a new version of its Daimler Double Six Vanden Plas. Just a thought…

MoT exemption for classic cars is madness – here’s why

Classics like this MGB GT V8 will no longer need an MoT

“IT’S ABOUT the Toyota,” the voice on the other end of the line crackled. “I’m afraid it’s going to need a bit of work.”

The news from the garage came as a bit of a shock. The 1998 Avensis that I’ve been running around in for the past few months isn’t particularly renowned for its country lane prowess, and it’s so dull that I can’t even recall what it looks like, but it is the single most reliable thing I’ve ever owned. I’d also checked it fastidiously before it visited the MoT station, so I wasn’t expecting it to fail.

In the end I coughed up to have a sticky rear brake sorted and I was back on the road an hour later, but if the same problem pops up on my 1972 MGB GT next summer I needn’t bother. As of next May if my 19-year-old Japanese repmobile develops a glitch I’ll have to fix it before it can earn its annual ticket, but my 45-year-old piece of British Leyland heritage won’t legally be required to go into the garage at all.

Which – and I choose my words carefully, lest I be whisked away in a mysterious car belonging to the Department for Transport – is complete madness.

The aforementioned Avensis has never broken down, shed any of its components or so much as hiccupped over 12 months, but the fact that the MoT testers picked up the sticky brake on one of their machines means they were able to spot something I’d have missed otherwise. If a bombproof motorway cruiser (with a fresh set of tyres, belts and barely 30,000 miles on the clock, before you ask) can fail, then what horrors is my MGB or any other forty-something classic car harbouring?

Nor do I buy the Government’s argument that we’ll still be able to take classic cars in for inspection voluntarily; owners of pre-1960 cars, which have already been exempted for the last five years, simply don’t bother. The Department for Transport’s own figures show that only 6% of them take their old cars in for an MoT, given the choice.

The upshot is that this time next year there’ll be quite a few Ford Cortinas, Austin 1100s and MG Midgets rattling along Britain’s roads with no MoT whatsoever – and the thought of one of them suffering some critical component failure at the wrong moment troubles me. The Government reckons the risk involved is very, very small, but I’d rather there’d be no risk at all.

My MGB won’t be among that number, and if you own a tax-exempt classic car I’d urge you in the strongest possible terms to carry on getting it checked. Even if that means getting a few unexpectedly expensive phone calls…

Why drive-in cinemas are more relevant than you think

Why drive-in cinemas are more relevant than you think.jpg

ELECTRICALLY adjustable leather seats, massive cupholders, automatic air con and speakers so powerful they can wake the dead. It’s amazing how much cinemas have come on these days.

Going out to catch a movie increasingly involves levels of luxury you’d normally find in a Mercedes or Jaguar showroom – but then you also need a Jaguar-sized budget to pay for it.

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that I can remember putting up with nasty fold-out chairs and sticky floors to catch Jumanji in Southport’s old ABC cinema, but then the entire experience came in at under a fiver. Fast forward to today’s multiplexes and stocking up on two adult tickets and snacks can cost four or five times that.

Which is why I was intrigued to try an alternative last weekend. The future of watching films isn’t Netflix – it involves going back to the 1950s. Drive-in cinemas, to be exact.

The one I tried out costs £25 per car. Expensive if you’re travelling alone, but rock up in an MPV rammed with youngsters and it’s a bargain night out. Comfort depends entirely on your choice of wheels, and while I can now confirm that an S-registered Toyota Avensis is not as comfy as the premium seats at your nearest multiplex you can talk as loudly as you like without annoying anyone else watching the movie.

The only downside is the sound. Anyone old enough to remember proper drive-in cinemas will know that you pulled up next to pre-installed speakers and wound down the windows, but the class of 2017 involves flicking your radio in to the right frequency. Great for a crisp, clear sound, but not when you miss a crucial bit of plot because there’s interference or you’re suddenly redirected to the traffic news.

Nor am I convinced I’d want to sit in a medium-sized hatchback for two hours in the depths of winter, trying to listen to bits of movie dialogue over the sound of hailstones bouncing off the windscreen, but at this time of year drive-ins are a right giggle. Buy your popcorn at the supermarket earlier on, load your car up with mates and park up the film, which given the audiences being targeted means it’ll likely be something nostalgic and catchy. I ended up watching Grease, and the following night a mate spent two hours watching Top Gun from a Saab 900.

I’ve long maintained cars solve all sorts of problems. I just wasn’t expecting the rocketing cost of going to the cinema to be one of them.

The Volkswagen Scirocco is part of a dying breed

The VW Scirocco is now part of a dying breed of car

I DON’T know if the car world has a Grim Reaper – I imagine he’d look a bit like The Stig in some black robes – but he must be rubbing his hands with glee at the moment.

Not long ago I wrote about the death knell being sounded for Skoda’s Yeti, but now an entire automotive species is facing extinction; the fun, affordable coupé. Rumour has it that once Volkswagen’s Scirocco is put out to pasture, it won’t be replaced. Which for a fan of small two-doors is a big deal, because it’s pretty much the only one left.

Cast your mind back to the days when Tony Blair was eyeing up Number Ten and you were spoilt for choice if you had roughly £20,000 and a generous fleet manager prepared to offer you something sleeker than a Mondeo. Ford had the trendy Puma, and was in the process of replacing the Probe with the Cougar. Smile at a Vauxhall salesman and he’d rustle up a Tigra or Calibra, and that’s before we get to all the sleek two-doors Peugeot, Fiat, Honda, Toyota and just about everyone else had to offer. There were 20 different coupés on offer, and they were all exciting in their own way.

But now there’s the Scirocco, and that’s about it. Sure, there are a couple of three-door hatchbacks flaunting the c-word on their bootlids – and they’re coupés in name only, really – but nowadays you have to venture more upmarket before you arrive at the Toyota GT86, Ford Mustang and BMW 4-series. Hardly the sort of affordable offerings that give Mr Family Man hope.

The world needs coupés as much now as it did when the Ford Capri and the Opel Manta were the top dogs. They offer a welcome injection of panache into a motoring landscape dominated by boring family hatchbacks and me-too off-roaders, but because their underpinnings are ordinary they’re affordable, reliable and easy to service. So what if they’re a bit cramped in the back?

Perhaps we should persuade Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn that as part of their election pledges there should be state-funded grants for people prepared to brighten up the landscape with two-door coupés.

Alternatively, just buy a Volkswagen Scirocco while you still can.