Curbside Classico: Toyota Avanza–What Is That? A RWD Compact Wagon/MPV? Who Would Have Thought?

Once upon a time visiting another country was exciting, from an automotive point of view. The streetscapes were replete with exotic cars, many not likely to be seen in the U.S., nor even in other countries–a situation most unlikely today. Sure, Mexico has all manner of badge-engineered cars, but they could hardly be considered exotic despite their sometimes unfamiliar names. But within minutes of leaving the Cancun airport I spotted a car on the freeway, just ahead and in the right lane, that totally threw me: It was a compact tall wagon/MPV, but with a clearly visible solid rear axle and center differential. What is that

I could see its prominent Toyota logo, but barely could make out the badging on the left side, which read “Avanza”. Hmm….never heard of one. And that’s odd, as Toyota’s been building MPV Verso versions of its FWD Corolla and Yaris for years (the current Yaris variant is badged “Ractis“). Avanza–I’d have to look it up after we arrive at our rented beach house in Tulum. No such luck: Because the housekeeper had neglected to pay the wireless internet service bill, we were thrown back to the stone age for a week. Quite nice, actually.

During a walk through Tulum Puebla, I ran into a couple more Avenzas (Avenzae?) The differential on this one is just barely visible. Then it occurred to me: Could this be, like the old Honda and Toyota wagons of the eighties, a four-wheel drive wagon with a solid rear axle driven by a 90 degree splitter from the front transaxle? That’s something hard to imagine in the 21st century.

When I came across this one on the street, I got down on my (bare) knees and checked out its undersides: No front driveshafts, and a genuine norté-sud orientation of the drive train–just like a Corolla RWD wagon back in the seventies.

The interior looked generic enough, and the transmission’s intrusion is no worse than that of the console in a FWD car.

Although the drive shaft tunnel is obscured from view here, it’s tiny–in fact, almost non-existent, thanks to the tall body. Makes you wonder if today’s tall cars really need FWD.

In back, the roomy cargo area features a low, flat floor as well as a fold-up third seat. I was rather intrigued, and eager to learn the Avanza’s story which, as it turns out, is rather long and fascinating.

It all starts with the Toyota Kijang, a rustic, low-cost pickup that Toyota had designed specifically for Indonesia, and was built there starting in 1977.

The second generation was just a wee bit more civilized.

By 1986, the third-generation Kijang sprouted a three-seat MPV version, available in both short-and long-wheelbase models.

The fourth-generation Kijang was built until 2004, when it was replaced by the larger Toyota Innova. The Avanza was created to fill the role of the previous short-wheelbase Kijang.

Strictly speaking, the Avanza is technically an Indonesia-built Daihatsu Xenia (Toyota owns 51 percent of Daihatsu), although most are sold as Toyota Avanzas.Even though the job was farmed out to Daihatsu, the engine and other main components are all Toyota.

The Avanza is sold in several countries, including the Philippines, Thailand, Brunei, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Egypt and India. And Toyota’s JV partner FAW builds it in China. The compact-SUV Terios shares the same 1.5-liter VVT engine, and probably much of the basic chassis. The Avanza has been available with 1.0-, 1.3- and 1.5-liter fours, although only the 99-hp 1.5 1NZ is available in Mexico.

To put it in perspective, the Avanza has a 105.5″ (2,655 mm) wheelbase and a 162.5″ (4,120 mm) overall length–about six inches shorter than a Mazda 5 MPV, and narrower too. It was designed for the challenging conditions of both crowded cities and rough rural roads, and is often used as a taxi in the countries it’s sold in.

Toyota Mexico’s web site confirms that last year, a new generation of Avanza arrived, wrapping the same basic formula in updated styling (here’s a review). The Avanza is the cheapest Toyota to be had in Mexico; its converted price of $15,957 undercuts the Yaris by almost 10 percent. But then, cars are hardly cheap in Mexico, with Toyotas costing about the same or more than in the U.S.

Traveling is about encountering and learning about unexpected new things, and in that regard the Avanza, modest as it may be, provided the automotive highlight of the trip. I’m just not accustomed to running into a totally unknown car, especially a Toyota. Kinda’ of reminds me of being a kid again: what is that?