On The Road Review: Toyota Avalon

Toyota’s tenure in the United States market has been marked by numerous success stories, all leading to this automaker’s worldwide number one status for a period of time recently. This rapid ascension also has been marked by some quality gaffes of late, mistakes that overshadow the maker’s robust growth and strong presence in the automotive world. Like General Motors before it, and perhaps Ford Motor Co. after it, Toyota’s leading position atop the world stage has been, and will continue to be, fodder for criticism and critique that other makers evade purely by their also-ran positions on the sales charts.

During all of this market success, Toyota’s various products have rarely been heralded as a top performer in any of the car-lines in which the automaker competes. Enthusiast publications and other car-testing forums usually compliment Toyota’s ability to make competent cars, but this is vastly different from cars that are fun to drive or own, or, create an emotional attachment between buyer and his/her car. There are not many fan clubs swearing allegiance to Toyota products like there are Mustang, Camaro, Impala or any other number of American-branded cars, nor are there many folksy country songs touting the benefits of a Toyota pickup versus a Ford or Chevy truck.

That being said, Toyota’s overall sales success proves the theory that most drivers have modest expectations; quality, reliability and everyday competence — cover the basics and get me where I want to go, every time, and I’ll continue to make the payments. This appliance-like efficiency gets you solid points at Consumer Reports and Consumer Digest; not so much within the confines of the enthusiast reviewers who enjoy the interaction between man and machine in perhaps a more ethereal sense.

With the outlook of the latter — a driver who relishes the subtle sensory feedback provided by the sophisticated interaction of a vehicle’s steering, throttle, brakes and chassis while ensconced in a supportive seat behind fluid controls that adroitly manages this little dance — it can often become difficult to get an objective handle on the former, a car so finely built that it absolutely isolates the operator and his/her passengers from all of the mechanizations of the vehicle.

Not to put too fine a point on this contradiction, there are just cars that create emotional bonds for different reasons; one driver loving their vehicle no less than the driver with an opposing outlook. It is probably why there are over 700 various models for sale in the U.S. market, a startling array of choices for what is essentially a mode of transportation.

This brings me to my impressions on the latest Toyota Avalon, a full-size, five-passenger, front-wheel-drive sedan based on the Camry chassis. Drivers who relish the Avalon’s space and relative fuel efficiency make this one of the cars on the market with the highest resale value as well as a consistently high quality-ranking for a used car. Whether you think the Avalon is an entry-level Lexus (pretty close) or a high-end Camry (certainly true, too) the Avalon excels at its intended market.

Toyota has created lots of products from the single platform that underpins the Camry sedan. The Avalon is just one of these iterations, a much longer model that offers great interior dimensions as well as a spacious trunk out back. For tall car owners I can think of no other sedan that offers this much rear leg space or a longer front seat track — all pieces that make this four-door suitable for every driver. Visibility is excellent out all windows, a none too subtle point that is often overlooked in many new cars’ attempts to be overly stylish.

We have all adapted to driving cars with adjustable front seatbacks, but have you ever ridden in a car that has an uncomfortable rear seatback angle that made the journey a mild torture test? The Avalon removes this inconvenience by adding reclining rear seats, a feature borrowed from its Lexus Division. A flat floor below also improves rear seat foot-space, giving this Toyota limousine-like accommodations.

Piloting the Avalon is where the driver gets mixed signals. A robust 268-hp V-6 provides ample power for hauling a family of five down the road at speeds that tax the suspension and would create a plethora of green faces if pursued for any length of time. When pushed, the Avalon leans heavily in turns and the isolated helm doesn’t deliver the kind of instant feedback that makes hurried driving all that much fun here. The Avalon’s cruising persona is smooth, fluid transportation, not back-road carving.

While trying to bridge the gap between premium Toyota and entry-level Lexus, the Avalon offers a mix of features aimed to please buyers at both ends. Some worked great; the Avalon’s push-button start and passive door lock system (with keyless access to all four doors) is vastly superior to the arrangement seen in the recent Acura, plus the tilt and telescoping steering column uses separate levers to perform this function. Tall drivers will want more reach — due to that elongated seat track capability.

Some pieces didn’t work as well, however. That tilt/tele steering wheel is made of leather and polished wood and is often slippery, the integrated nav system and audio system had some dated input data and an XM signal that struggled to produce consistent reception, plus the front seats could certainly offer more lateral support. Once you’ve had a daily dose of satellite radio there is no going back to FM or AM. The Avalon’s XM reception has to be an anomaly.

Avalon sales are up 25 percent so far in 2011, a testament to the car’s credentials as well as the continued appeal of real full-size sedans. Other automakers are betting on greater large car sales too despite high gasoline prices. Look at the investment in recent new launches of these full-size sedans — Dodge Charger, Chrysler 300, Buick LaCrosse, Ford Taurus. Add the Chevy Impala and Nissan Maxima to the mix and buyers have several credible offerings even though such class mainstays, as the Mercury Grand Marquis and Ford Crown Victoria are no longer available.

If you called me tonight and said that we had to drive to Florida right now, I would have no reservations about picking the Avalon as the device to get us there safely, quickly and smoothly. I averaged better than 28 mpg in the Avalon. It is quick when needed and quiet all of the time, plus the cabin is relaxing.

Toyota has copied some of its rivals very efficiently, making upgrades and improvements where others might have stopped short. GM created the first modern electric car for sale with the EV-1. Toyota took that effort and built the Prius, the world’s best-selling hybrid. While others have dabbled in hybrid propulsion, Toyota has excelled and now builds and sells more hybrid-powered vehicles than all other manufacturers combined.

Several new Toyota hybrid models are due this fall including two variations of the Prius, a hybrid RAV4, plus more. The Japanese earthquake might slow these plans somewhat, but maybe deep in the minds of Toyota’s engineers rests a hybrid-powered Avalon, a full-size sedan with small car efficiency.

Toyota has also done very little with all-wheel drive cars. Now that Subaru is a Toyota partner, I wonder if there might be some sharing planned besides the anticipated sporty Subaru compact car coming. The Avalon with AWD would be a nice alternative to the large German offerings, for less money. Just think, an AWD Avalon with hybrid power. Now that would be icing on a cake that is already pretty tasty.

Just the Facts: Toyota Avalon

Avalon measures 197.6 inches long on a 111-inch wheelbase, or about 8 inches longer overall than the Camry. Base weight is 3,572 pounds — excellent for this class.

Avalon comes in two trim levels. Base starts at $32,595 while Limited begins at $35,835. All Avalons use a 268-hp 3.5-liter V-6 and a six-speed automatic transmission with EPA mileage estimates of 20/29 mpg.

Standard pieces on Avalon: power leather seats, split-reclining rear seats, back-up camera, dual-zone climate, auto-dimming rear view mirror, Optitron gauges with trip computer, power moonroof, 17-inch wheels, seven airbags including driver’s knee bag and full-size spare tire.

Avalon is built in Georgetown, Ky.

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Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.