These cars, the Toyota Avensis and the Volkswagen Passat, are the meat and two veg of Irish motoring. They feature so prominently on our roads that it can be safely presumed that the country would slowly grind to a halt, if they somehow did. When it comes to company reps fleet drivers, young aspiring types, middle-aged professionals and …eh….taxi drivers, these are two of the cars more likely to appear in their parking space or….eh.. favourite rank.
In other words, they are the two main contenders for the title of best family saloon with the Peugeot 407 being the only other car that could really line-up against them. As choices go this is a not a bad one to have to make for buyers. The Toyota Avensis was Ireland’s top selling family saloon last year and the country’s second most popular car. It was voted Irish car of the Year for 2004 and has been widely acknowledged as one of the most upmarket offerings the Japanese company has produced.
The Passat is an all-new model and replaces a popular, much-loved rep-mobile that for many was so good it could rival executive drives such as the BMW 3Series and Mercedes C-Class. It comes ready for a fight too. The last, fifth-generation Passat was top of the heap for some time after it was launched in 1996. Priced a little on the dear side, it was put under pressure, however, when Ford brought out the outstanding Mondeo and then again when the Avensis hit the scene in 2003. With this latest offering, however, Volkswagen claims it’s going back to its competitive roots in order to reclaim the number one spot in the sector. The company says the Passat will beat rivals on a “spec for spec” basis with no compromise on the impressive values of the last one – spaciousness; build quality and executive-type packaging. It’s kind of true too.
The car’s entry-level price for a 1.6 litre, 115 bhp FSI is a very fair ¤25,500.This puts it right in the mix with the Avensis. For around the same money, €25,575, you can get the Strata version of this car, one spec level above entry-level. Opt for the VW and you get a serious amount of car for your money. The last Passat was large, but this one is even bigger. Built on the new Golf’s platform its length has increased by 62mm while its 74 mm wider and 10 cm taller. That makes it longer and wider than the Avensis by some way, but not quite as tall. With such a large body and more radical styling than its predecessor, the Passat oozes presence.
The sides are somewhat bloated and the car itself is overblown, so it’s not going to have you drooling. It does, however, boast strong flowing lines, a bold front with a football-sized VW badge, a wide stance and a powerful rear. VW says the silhouette is “athletic” which is an exaggeration, but it’s certainly rakish and the swooping roofline gives it more of an edge than before. The Avensis, when launched, was supposed to look and feel more European than Japanese. Designed in the company’s ED2 studio in the South of France it boasted a “classic, timeless appearance”. Unfortunately, for Toyota the Tourer version of the car was thought of as pretty, while the saloon seemed old-fashioned and frumpy. This is still the case today. The car, in light colours especially, looks somewhat staid and the presence of large numbers in Ireland, most of them silver, means you will go unnoticed in it. Inside the Avensis is much more elegant than you would expect and the controls and features, such as the stereo system, are better than you will find in other rivals.
The seats too are supportive and nicely grooved. The Passat has the impressive interior you would expect of a VW. Flat and wide seats offer great comfort while the materials used in the dash are first class. The VW blue lighting looks great at night and the ambience is of a car from a class above family saloons. Both cars feature excellent space and can easily carry five adults. The boot in the Avensis is 520 litres while that in the Passat is a cavernous 565 litres. To drive, neither car can match the outstanding Ford Mondeo in the handling stakes. The steering on each is low on feedback with that in the Passat weighted better at high speeds and slightly more direct. In a general sense, they both offer competent, if not sporty performance with good damping and plenty of ability to deal with bumps and dips. The Passat is probably a little sharper being a huge improvement on the previous model which was woolly, to say the least. It’s surefooted and the chassis responds well when worked hard. It’s 57% stiffer without much of an increase in weight.
Push it on and you will notice its large size, but it’s still more of a driver’s car than the Avensis, which has compromised, on driver involvement in favour of reduced vibrations, noise and harshness. If the Passat has a flaw, it’s the 115 bhp, FSI engine which runs on a lean air to fuel ratio to enhance fuel efficiency. A middling unit, it’s fitted to a nifty six speed transmission and returns 37.2 mpg. Most of the time, however, it’s under considerable pressure to move a car that weighs 1960kg.VW claims the Passat can do 0 to 62 mph in 11.4 seconds, but it certainly doesn’t feel this quick.
Ask it to move at a decent pace and the engine whines loudly, while wheezing the car along in a manner that detracts from the entire Passat experience. The engine is so out of its depth that it’s one option we would not recommend. In effect, it means that the Passat is not as cheap as it seems and a prospective buyer should really opt for a bigger engined model. There is no 1.8 litre to choose, so the next alternative is the 105 bhp 1.9 litre diesel, retailing at a starting price of €29,375.This is about the same as a 1.8 litre, petrol Avensis. It has a slower 0 to 62 mph time of 12.1 seconds, but should have more pulling power at low revs, greater midrange speed and a fuel return of 48.7 mpg.
The 110 bhp Avensis has an official 0 to 62 mph time of 12.0 seconds, but feels much livelier. The car too appeared quicker during our test-drive. It was certainly more free revving and much nicer to work in what is a lighter car. It will return 39.1 mpg as part of the deal too. The crunch issue for most buyers, of course, is likely to be equipment and the VW is supposed to be able to challenge strongly here. Buyers will be glad to hear that its price competitiveness hasn’t come at the expense of specification, but it still isn’t quite a match for the Avensis. You don’t get alloy wheels, but you do find driver, passenger and side as well as head curtain airbags.
There’s power steering, air conditioning, front electric windows, remote central locking and a CD player. An electric parking brake is also thrown in. Operated through a button on the dash that frees up space elsewhere, it releases automatically when you move off. The front seats are height-adjustable and the bumpers are body-coloured. As the Avensis is one step up the spec ladder, you get a bit more for your buck. . Standard features include 16-inch alloys, air conditioning, colour bumpers, height adjustment on the driver’s seat, a CD, rear and front electric windows, steering wheel audio controls, remote central locking and plenty of safety spec. Both cars, you should also note, have 5-star NCAP ratings when it comes to occupant safety. On the whole then there is very little between these two The Passat looks more modern and is a step above the Avensis in terms of overall quality. It’s bigger too, more dramatic and sweeter on the road, despite its size. It also offers more prestige and is a much more individual choice given the fact that you can’t spit without hitting an Avensis in Ireland.
The Toyota, however, in 1.6 litre mode is smoother to drive, offers a little more spec and is tried and tested in terms of reliability. But enough humming and hawing. It's time for a verdict and this is it. If it came to these two and we had no extra cash we would probably go with the Avensis mainly because of the Passat’s engine problems. If we could convince a VW dealer to throw in the optional €789 alloys, we may overlook the engine-issue, but how likely is this? If additional money could be found elsewhere for a slightly higher spec and a bigger engine the Passat, however, would come into its own. Pay extra in the case of the Avensis and you will still get a little more spec than the equivalent Passat.
But that isn’t quite enough. The Passat has a more upmarket image and its finish appeals to the part of us that wants to impress the outside world. For that reason, it’s the winner, albeit a controversial one. It’s just a fresher, slicker and more desirable product. Put the two side by side and it’s the one you will want to take home.
PLUS: GOOD 1.6-LITRE ENGINE, SUPERBLY BUILT, GREAT RELIABILITY MINUS: NOT ALL THAT EXCITING, LACK OF STEERING FEEL
PERFORMANCE ★★★★ The 1.6 litre, 110 bhp, VVT-i engine is a free revving unit and it keeps the Avensis buzzing along happily in most conditions.
DRIVING EXPERIENCE ★★★ The steering in this car could be tighter, but it handles solidly and is well behaved and predictable.
LIVING WITH IT ★★★★ You won’t have any problems here. Excellent quality finish and a reliable engine. A recent survey showed the number one choice of car among taxi drivers in Ireland is the Avensis. The car rests its case.
COMFORTS ★★★ This car was built with the purpose of reducing vibrations, harshness and noise and this aim has been more or less met. The car can seem giddy on some roads. It has plenty of space all around.
RUNNING COSTS ★★★★ Extremely fuel efficient, this car is also designed to be as maintenance and hassle free.
Engine 1.6 litre, VVT-i, 1598cc, 4-cylinder, petrol, 150 Nm, 110 bhp.
Boot Capacity 520 L
Acceleration 0 to 100km/h in 12.0 secs
Top Speed 191 km/h Price €25,575
Transmission 5-speed manual, FWD
Economy 39.1 mpg/7.2 l/100km