Motoring: Keeping up with the Joneses: John Fordham drives the Toyota Carina E, the car that's in front - or is it?

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IN LAST summer's advertising campaign, Toyota marketed the Carina E as the car that is always in front of you. It was the same old advertiser's message: freedom is just a matter of making the right investment. If you own a Carina E, traffic jams, wobbly cyclists and vans holding up three streets of traffic while their drivers deliver a boxful of croissants will somehow miraculously melt away.

Clearly, it has been a long time since manufacturers sold cars by portraying the reliable, routine kind of vehicle that is lovingly polished by men in short-sleeved pullovers who look like Michael Palin. But as gridlock approaches, the 'breakaway' image so beloved of advertisers becomes less convincing too. With our roads increasingly choked with traffic, the idea of motoring freedom seems a fantasy.

But there is a twist to Toyota's message; the Carina E is not really designed to appeal to those hyper-competitive maniacs who are always ahead because they drive with teeth, knuckles, brains and buttocks clenched. The message is that a Toyota stays in front by a combination of smooth and effortless efficiency, and the decisiveness and unflappability of the people smart enough to choose one.

There is a degree of cunning in Toyota's latest approach. The company has a reputation for unexciting reliability in its bread-and-butter cars, for engines built to churn on for ever and a day. With the Carina E, it needed to capitalise on that track record, but also to suggest that this is a vehicle which, despite its solid virtues, has a certain amount of style.

But you don't have to stare long at the paper performance of this car to notice that, with the exception of the GTi model, the Carina's behaviour isn't as dynamic as we are led to expect. At pounds 16,980, it's geared to the mid-range of family or middle-management cars, territory traditionally occupied by Sierras and Cavaliers.

What's noticeable about the Carina is its size. A substantial boot swells up at the rear, and a well-finished bodyshell occupies a large chunk of the kerbside. The car is wide, with a billiard-table of a bonnet. It is also spacious inside, with plenty of head and legroom for even the tallest and most eccentrically designed of occupants. The rear bench seat will take three average-sized passengers with ease - though the middle one will need to visit the dry-cleaners on a daily basis, if the unwisely dark velour centre cushion isn't to look as if you run a collection service for a cat's home. The test car's upholstery looked flaky after a handful of journeys - and I don't have a cat.

The Carina comes with a range of power units - four petrol options ranging from 103 to 155bhp, and one diesel. This is a more than adequate choice for most needs, but oddly - from the company that also knows how to make the Lexus - it's a surprisingly noisy unit. The GTi tested was fitted with the 155bhp twin- cam 16-valve unit (which it shares with the Celica and the MR2), and it puts in a performance that rivals the Cavalier GSi for pace.

Almost everything about the Carina E is well conceived and well executed - though it isn't a car with which you'd signal to the world what a lateral-thinking livewire you are. Its regular Japanese-built suspension is predictable and dull by several accounts, although the GTi model's springs have been substantially stiffened - particularly at the back. It corners with grip and security, aided by a sharper steering rack, also modified from the standard model. Though still a little rough on low-speed bumps, it is very smooth on motorways.

The Carina E doesn't have BMW-style perfect balance on corners, but then very little in the sector it's aimed at does. Unlike that of many Japanese cars, however, the power steering is quite sensitive. I found the instrument layout rather fiddly - the ventilation controls too low down, the rear-screen demister switch buried in a scattered group above the radio. Nor does the Toyota escape the impression of vinyl-clad blandness that is a feature of so many contemporary fascias.

Build quality and fuel economy are good and the overall design is elegant enough to offset the Carina E's less imaginative qualities. The clincher for many potential buyers will be the space available, both in the cabin and in the boot. Long journeys won't be too much of an ordeal in the Carina E - particularly if you don't buy the advertising line that you'll always be the one in front.

Auto Biography: Getting to know the Toyota Carina E in 0-60 seconds

GOING PLACES: Eager, free-revving and well-tried 2.0-litre twin-cam engine; solid but rather notchy gearshift linked to a well- spaced five-speed box; top speed 134mph, 0- 60mph in 8.2 seconds.

STAYING ALIVE: Safety beams in the doors, child-proof locks, anti-lock brakes standard on the GTi, good visibility. Slightly lumpy suspension but good on motorways.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Bland but extremely well-appointed and spacious cabin. Good seating position for the driver; ample room for five occupants without breathing in. Headroom, legroom and luggage room excellent for the class.

BANGS PER BUCK: Power steering, ABS brakes, central locking with alarm; electric windows, sunroof and mirrors standard throughout. Good fuel consumption for the performance, upwards of 26mpg in town, 33mpg at the legal limit.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Rivals include the Cavalier 2.0 GSi ( pounds 17,486) - archetypal car with a suit hanging up in the back, good motorway cruiser, unexciting; the Ford Sierra 2.0 Ghia ( pounds 16,660) - rugged but noisy, dated; the Nissan Primera 2.0 SGX ( pounds 15,100) - high-quality, well-equipped, sharp performance; the Peugeot 405 Mi16 ( pounds 18,475) - great handling, and spacious.

STAR QUALITY: A roomy, ruggedly built, well-finished and reassuring saloon.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Engine noise level harsh for the smooth image of the Carina E; suspension a bit unforgiving over potholes. The dust-bug dark velour in the upholstery only makes sense if you've got a car valet team working a five-day week.

(Photograph omitted)