A trip to Connemara in the Toyota Avensis
Loading up the Toyota Avensis and heading to Connemara was a delight this year for Campbell Spray
So it was into the West we went at the beginning of the month for a much-needed break. It seemed a good idea to test the face-lifted Toyota Avensis as well.
A big family saloon wouldn't be the normal choice for a few days in Connemara, a SUV is more fitted to the landscape, state of the roads and the beaches you might want to navigate. Yet the Avensis performed very well, except for the time when we decided that it would be just too brave for driver and machine to continue on a narrow lane whose surface had suddenly petered out.
I have known the Avensis through all its guises since it was first launched in 1997 to replace the Carina - whose last incarnation, the Carina E, was perhaps, all round, the finest car of its time. Any issues had been long ironed out and it was reliable, comfortable family motoring at its best.
The new Avensis had a lot to live up to. Initially, it wasn't so good and was notable for a total lack of excitement, but it has steadily improved while still remaining one of the country's favourite cars.
More than 88,000 Avensis cars have been bought here since the launch 18 years ago, and it is reckoned that half of them are still on the roads, many as taxis. Designed, engineered and built in Europe, there have been more than 1.7 million of them across the continent in three generations.
The updated model is not earth-shatteringly changed, but rather, goes for some styling and quality finesses to give more elegant and refined touches. There are also better diesel engines and lower C02 emissions across the range.
However, what impressed us during the visit to Connemara was the ride quality and the active safety features. These included a pre-collision system which first warned and then braked in emergency conditions, lane departure alert, road-sign assist - with visual and acoustic warnings, and an automatic high beam.
The new 1.6 was amazingly frugal, and over some very mixed driving of 1,000km, the tank wasn't emptied. The top-end power was a bit disappointing and you had to use the gearbox a lot, but, generally, it was a very satisfying car that gave great confidence - you can tell that the whole chassis has been improved. It was effortless to drive.
While the Avensis range starts a bit short of €26k, you need to spend €4,000 more than that, and then perhaps even another €2k or so, to get the real plushness you deserve. Yet, even at that, the Avensis is good value for money against many of its rivals.
This generation model is coming to the end of its life and that's why it is packed with goodies.
For our trip to Connemara, we had booked into the Cashel House Hotel, which is near Recess and Roundstone. We had chosen the hotel because it was one of the few in the area which took dogs, and a holiday - and car test - without Sam, our collie/Labrador cross would be unthinkable.
Cashel House is right on the shore and is surrounded by its own 50 acres of wonderful gardens and woodlands. It was built in 1840 and designed by Geoffrey Emerson, the great, great grandfather of the present owners.
Captain Thomas Hazell was the first owner, TD Jim O'Mara had it from 1919 to 1951, and then Lt-Col Browne Clayton owned it until 1967.
During that time, the then former British premier Harold Macmillan, whose political demise, came after " the events, dear boy" of the Profumo Affair in 1963, was a guest. Dermot and Kay McEvilly bought the house in 1967, converting it to a hotel and developed it considerably. Kay still runs the hotel after her husband died some seven years ago. She is a prodigious worker, talking to guests at breakfast with the same vigour she has enquiring after their welfare over dinner. She can also be seen walking the gardens with her Jack Russell, Sammy, giving instructions for maintenance.
The French president Charles De Gaulle and his wife came to stay in 1969. The hotel is a splendidly friendly mix of styles with lovely antiques nuzzling against some dated furnishings. It is perhaps 10pc too expensive but the splendour of its setting and the warmth of the welcome made up for a lot, even if it took a while to get my partner's vegetarian options right.
Yet we look back on the days we spent there, and in the Avensis, with a lot of happiness. It was, of course, helped by the glorious weather we had for our trip, which meant that the Wellingtons and heavy coats we had packed into the car's massive boot were never taken out.
You'll probably never dream of an Avensis or remember with delight it racing across the hills, but for what we wanted - and for many families - it is ideal.
And yes, Sam made the hotel his own and loved the car.