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Toyota puts its best foot forward

Newcomer: Toyota's all-new Aurion (below) goes on sale in November, including a Sportivo variant (above), while an S-Con developed supercharged version will appear in 2007 - possibly with all-wheel drive.

Toyota says its big front-drive sedan will be a hit - but an AWD Aurion is possible

15 Feb 2006

TOYOTA’S forthcoming Avalon replacement, the Aurion, can be adapted to an all-wheel drive configuration, Toyota Australia executive chairman John Conomos revealed to GoAuto last week.

Due on sale in November, the all-new Aussie-built sedan was well received at its Melbourne International Motor Show unveiling, although some questioned whether a front-wheel drive vehicle had a realistic shot of making a dent in a large-car segment dominated by rear-drivers.

Mr Conomos was upbeat about the car’s prospects, arguing the long-established rear-drive fixation was a behavioural pattern that could be modified.

“We don’t see (the fact Aurion is front-wheel drive) as too much of a drawback,” he said. “We do recognize that the traditional rear-wheel drive buyer will find it a bit unusual – until they drive this car.”

Mr Conomos also conceded that the platform was compatible with an all-wheel drive format – using existing hardware from the Toyota parts bin – if the business case for such a variant made sense.

Although Mr Conomos would not comment further on the matter, the most obvious candidate would be the proposed high-performance variant (due in the first half of 2007), which is destined to receive a locally fettled, supercharged version of the Aurion’s 3.5-litre quad-cam V6.

No power and torque figures have been released, but given that the naturally aspirated base engine is said to produce in excess of 190kW and 330Nm, GoAuto estimates the blown S-Con model could potentially crank out around 240kW and 400Nm – clearly a lot of power and torque for a front-driver to cope with.

Be that as it may, Mr Conomos said an AWD Aurion was not on the agenda at this stage. He said the S-Con variant was designed to serve as an image leader that would provide a halo effect for the lesser models, but he denied that it was an attempt to beat Holden Special Vehicles and Ford Performance Vehicles at their own game.

“We won’t take on HSV – that would be a bit ambitious,” he said. “We’re going to come at it from a different point of view. We won’t be able to compete with V8 Supercars, of course.

“But with the performance it’ll have from that (supercharged) engine, we think it will appeal to a limited number of buyers in this market.

“We’re happy with the power we’re getting in early tests of the supercharged 3.5-litre V6. We’re very happy with its performance.

“And with the limited number of (S-Con variants) we’ll produce, we’ll be able to do it on the assembly line. That’s a breakthrough, because we’ve not been able to do that in the past.”

Asked whether Toyota was re-entering the (declining) large-car category too late, Mr Conomos said: “It’s never too late to enter an important market segment.

“I think large-car sales will stay where they are – people will just adjust their buying habits. They may not sell proportionally as many as they used to, but there’s always room for the big Aussie car.

“We’re a large country, we have relatively cheap fuel and we have the desire to pull boats and caravans.

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“We like to lope along country roads in comfort, so these types of cars are very important to the Australian market, so that’s why we’re participating in the segment.”

Mr Conomos said the Avalon, unloved as it was, had proved a valuable learning experience for the company.

“We learned a lot from the Avalon. We learned about customer base, we learned about Aussie taste, we learned about how to market cars differently.

“We learned how tough it is to defeat Holden and Ford – mighty organisations as they are. So this is why we’ve regrouped and had another go.”

Mr Conomos said Toyota would not try and find favour by undercutting Ford and Holden on price with the vehicle.

“We don’t plan to introduce a cheap motor car,” he said. “It’ll be highly competitive, and that’ll be one of the key factors in its success. Our cost planning is right on target and we think we’ll be able to hit our original retail price plans without too much difficulty.”

Mr Conomos said the Aurion would play a key role in growing Toyota’s Australian sales from last year’s 202,817 total to 250,000 by the end of the decade.

Toyota’s Altona plant is being ramped up to produce 140,000 cars annually once the Aurion and new Camry are on stream, and Mr Conomos said up to 80,000 exports a year was achievable. Last year Toyota Australia exported 69,000 cars.

Mr Conomos revealed that the percentage of Australian content in Aurion and the new Camry would decrease compared with their predecessors.

However, he suggested the fact that production at its Altona plant would be ramped up from 110,000 to 140,000 meant that the “value of the buy” from local suppliers would increase.

A third model line for the Altona plant is still under consideration, but Mr Conomos said the need for this was alleviated by the decision to increase production to 140,000 annually with just two models.

Reaction to Aurion:

Holden – Denny Mooney:

“New products will lift the segment. We’ve got the replacement for the Avalon – which is a good-looking car – and I think as new, fresh metal gets out there, you’re going to see people wanting to get back into those cars … The reality is, sure, I’d like less competition ... (but) having the torque at the rear wheels – it (Commodore) is a different-character car.”Ford – Tom Gorman:

“The decline in the large-car market is driven by aged product. So while any competitor is a bad thing, products like the BF Falcon, Mitsubishi 380 and Aurion will only boost the segment as a whole … I fear every competitor. It will be a strong rival and will put pressure on us, but at the same time it will create interest in the market.”Mitsubishi – Rob McEniry:

“It’s another competitor we’ll have to, along with our other fellow local manufacturers, compete with … That’s certainly part of the Toyota tactic – to try and hold off (380 fleet) sales, but it depends on the offer, I guess, and position of the fleet – where they are in their buying cycle.”

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