Gavin Green on Toyota's lack of design DNA

Published: 21 October 2016

► Gavin Green on why Toyota has no design DNA
► The Avensis is the king of the average
► Toyota no longer make pretty cars, like the Mk1 Celica 

The month began driving an old Blower Bentley and finished in a new Toyota Avensis. So if variety is the spice of life, that month was a full-blown vindaloo experience with extra chillies and a double dash of ginger, cardamom and saffron thrown in. 

The 1929 Blower is one of the most exciting cars I’ve driven, up there with the F40 and McLaren F1. Tall, imposing, loud, gutsy, absurdly valuable (£15 million said the nice man from Bentley – it was Tim Birkin’s very car); plus complicated to use, arse-kickingly uncomfortable, wind-blown, gruff and Spartan. It needed a deft touch to drive (not least precise double-declutch gear shifts) and a heavy hand to steer. 

The Avensis is none of these things. In fact, I’m not sure I can remember a single thing about it. As innocuous as magnolia paint, as memorable as last week’s weather forecast, and as distinctive as a British High Street, it is one of those averagely good cars at which Toyota specialises: averagely good steering, ride, handling, seat comfort, performance, fuel economy, styling, spaciousness, refinement etc, and will no doubt give years of loyal service before ending its life on the minicab circuit, pine air-freshener dangling from (cracked) rear-view mirror.  

It’s the Daily Mail or the M&S underwear of cars, aimed at Mr and Mrs Average. Thus the UK target is men 5ft 9in tall who support Manchester United, weigh 12 stone 8lb, watch more than 40,000 hours of television in their lives, live in Swindon, holiday in Spain, have 1.8 children, have a 50% chance of getting divorced, watch Coronation Street and EastEnders, don’t exercise, believe in God but don’t go to church and have sex just once a month if over 40 – but 200 times a year during their early years of marriage. (Information kindly supplied by the Department of Trade’s Adultdata survey and the Office of National Statistics).

The Blower, on the other hand, was a favoured tool of the Bentley Boys who lived in Belgravia or in stately piles in Surrey, drank Veuve Clicquot, never visited Swindon, died young (and often spectacularly) and, although there are no statistics to support this, were playboys and probably enjoyed active sex lives.

Excitement, however, is not a universally loved quality, as Toyota’s engineering department – who must studiously research the law of averages – clearly realise. I don’t know about you, but I don’t always want excitement when driving: palms sweating, heart racing, adrenaline pumping, blood curdling and fingers twitching. For those happy to put on Planet Rock – or more likely Radio 2 – as they drive from Swindon ferrying their 1.8 children to the airport to catch the EasyJet to Alicante, an Avensis is just fine, thank you. 

I’ve always liked Toyota. My first car was a ’70s Celica – ‘the Japanese Mustang’ – bought (in Australia) because it was pretty, cheap and had two doors. Earlier, I towed my first single-seat racing car with my dad’s FJ40 Land Cruiser. That early Cruiser remains one of the world’s best go-anywhere vehicles, and almost certainly the toughest. 

Sadly, Toyota no longer makes a car as pretty as the Mk1 Celica or as characterful as the old FJ Cruiser. The Avensis, ironically, looks like every other car on the road yet – when you examine it closely – like no other Toyota. This is because Toyota has no ‘design DNA’. Its designs are as ever-changing as David Beckham’s hairdo, but without the style. Its design language floats, without direction, like a cherry blossom in a spring breeze, and is frequently as ephemeral.

Though anonymous of style, they are often innovative in substance. The Prius pioneered hybrids. The Lexus LS400 instantly leapfrogged ‘the best car in the world’ (Merc S-class) in refinement and quality, an extraordinary achievement. The RAV4 was the first compact crossover SUV, delightfully small in its original guise, sadly boated in subsequent iterations. Or take the first highly entertaining MR2, also debased as it evolved, gaining heft and losing agility. 

My month also included driving the new Mazda MX-5. Here, happily, is one car that carries forward its original Mk1 charm, uncorrupted by modern day obesity and some regrettable engineering trends. Light, small and rear-drive – so that’s the three key ‘fun to drive’ engineering qualities ticked – it is also naturally aspirated, so no turbo lag to deaden the driving joy. It’s a car that mingles excitement and usability, although in no way is it aimed at Mr Average or at a Bentley Boy who’d no doubt be a bit sniffy at the low price and the effortless way it drives.

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By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience