More contraction. This time it’s Toyota’s unloved and unwanted Avensis. But will its putative replacement fare any better?
Let us not feign shock, or indeed much by way of regret, after all it was signposted as far back as 2015 when DTW reported upon its likelihood, but this week Toyota made it official, announcing the cessation of Avensis production at their UK plant in Derbyshire. Their underwhelming Europe-only D-sector saloon has been in decline for some years now (with pan-European sales slumping to 25,319 last year*), and with the Derbyshire plant now only fulfilling existing orders, the end is only weeks away.
Similarly telegraphed is that it is to be replaced by the larger Camry model, the first breathless sight European customers will get of the storied nameplate in well over a decade. The Camry was withdrawn from sale in 2004, Toyota joining rival mainstream manufacturers’ full-scale retreat, with most contenders fleeing the large saloon sector entirely. Now with a similar state of attrition playing out across the D-segment, is Toyota being naïve, or simply foolish?
Set to be made available in the Spring of 2019, the Camry is currently being gently finessed to European tastes, with Autocar recently reporting that changes are to be made to damper settings, spring rates, anti-roll bars and steering. What European customers can reasonably expect is something eerily similar to the one which tops the sales charts in the United States.
Euro-specification Camrys will be powered exclusively by a 2.5 litre, four cylinder engine, for which Toyota claims 41% thermal efficiency. This power unit drives the front wheels through Toyota’s hybrid synergy drive, linking engine, starter motor and a drive motor with a planetary geartrain, which Toyota allegedly would prefer you didn’t refer to as a continuously variable transmission.
Final specifications and prices are to be announced (Autocar speculate at prices in the region of £30,000 in the UK), but given that it’s a larger, more powerful, theoretically more upmarket car than the Avensis, it’s hardly likely to be marketed as a value proposition. But perhaps it needs to be, because the question Toyota isn’t answering, (if indeed anyone has asked them to their faces) is who exactly the Camry is aimed at?
Toyota say they expect business users to form the bulk of Camry registrations, but that’s a numbers market, and Co2 emissions of a stated 100 g/km sounds a little on the high side. Countries where so-called prestige brands have not entirely gained sway could prove susceptible, but these tend not to be lucrative markets. The private hire trade however, given the near-ubiquity of the Prius in this sector would appear to be the most likely customer base, in the UK at least.
Elsewhere in Europe, its prospects are likely to be constrained by its saloon-only body format, a matter of some significance given the popularity of estates with mainland European drivers. There is also, especially at these kind of prices, the perennial issue of brand. Toyota is not only up against the D-sector leaders of Volkswagen and Skoda, who now lie just south of the upmarket makes in the snob-value stakes, and a revitalised Peugeot who are offering an attractive new 508 in a fastback/hatch format, but also the massed lower ranks of more aspirant nameplates.
Toyota’s Burnaston factory first opened in 1992, producing the Europe-focused Carina E saloon, itself an antecedent of the current Avensis. Since then, the Derbyshire car plant has built more than four million vehicles, and together with their Deeside engine plant in Wales, currently employs over 3,000 people.
Burnaston was recently subject to an investment of £240m to future-proof it for Toyota’s latest Global Architecture (TNGA) platform, which will underpin most of the Japanese carmakers forthcoming car models. Toyota’s European chief, Dr. Johan van Zyl spoke to Autocar at the time of the announcement, telling them, “Our investment demonstrates that, as a company, we are doing all we can to raise the competitiveness of our Derbyshire plant.”
Burnaston will henceforth only produce TNGA-based models, with European production of the new generation Auris getting under way. But while the Camry also sits on TNGA, EU models will be sourced from Japan. With the end of Avensis production at Derbyshire, one must wonder what, if any capacity the Burnaston factory could lose as a result of the Avensis’ departure, especially given the mounting risk of the UK leaving the European Union next year without a trade deal.
It’s highly probable that executives in Toyota City realise that introducing the Camry into Europe will amount to a holding operation, and little more. Toyota are astute enough to realise that in order to hold on to a market, they must first be present within it, so perhaps in that sense the Camry makes sense. What we see here perhaps, is a car business hedging its bets – on the European D-segment, on Britain’s position, post-Brexit and on the wider industry’s mad dash towards crossovers.
As usual, the gentleman is not to be under-estimated.