Thumbs Up: It’s roomy and comfortable.
Thumbs Down: Handling is not its strong point, faux-wood interior trim.
Buy This Car If: You want a full size, near-luxury sedan with a Toyota badge on the grille.
As much fun as sport sedans are to drive on a winding mountain road, most don’t offer the same level of enjoyment when the task is swallowing lots of interstate highway miles. If you throw in four adult passengers, plus yourself behind the wheel, I can’t think of a single sport sedan that I’d want to drive from New York to California. Such missions are best handled by the full-size sedan, long the staple of the U.S. auto industry. What’s a buyer to do if they prefer a Japanese automaker over an American one? Doesn’t any Japanese manufacturer, aside from luxury brands, offer a full size sedan? The answer is yes, and that car is the Toyota Avalon.
The Avalon’s been around for a lot of years now, and it’s amassed a dedicated following of buyers. Some need the room that a full size sedan offers, while others prefer the Avalon’s soft suspension and gentle steering. Most appreciate the car’s near-luxury appointments (like heated and cooled leather seats, and voice activated navigation) without an accompanying, Lexus-sized price tag. No one will be put off by the car’s styling, which is conservative and tasteful with very little to make the Avalon stand out in a crowd. Sometimes, anonymity is a selling point.
That’s not to say the Avalon’s exterior is bland, because I think Toyota’s done a good job of designing the car for a certain demographic. There’s chrome, but it’s tastefully used on the door bottoms, the grille and the trunk lid. It’s a styling accent, not a styling element as on some cars. Toyota uses sweeping character lines to define the car’s front fenders, and subtle fender flares enhance the design without adding too much of a bulky appearance. The low roofline, steep rake of the windshield and high beltline combine to give the car an aerodynamic look you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a sedate family sedan. The blacked out window trim is a nice touch, and Toyota gets bonus points in my book for not slathering the B-pillars and window frames in chrome. I’m not sure that many will buy the Avalon because of its styling, but I’m absolutely certain that the car’s lines won’t drive potential buyers away from showrooms.
Inside, it’s easy to forget that you’re in a Toyota and not in a more expensive Lexus. At least it is with your eyes closed, surrounded by the smell of leather and embraced by club-chair comfortable seating. Open your eyes, however, and you’re immediately confronted with the faux-wood Toyota has chosen to use on the dash, doors, steering wheel and center console. I know this is a personal taste thing, and I know that Toyota has researched Avalon buyers extensively, but in my eyes anything looks better than faux wood. Give me piano black plastic, or titanium colored plastic, or even pattern-embossed plastic in a contrasting color, but spare me the fake wood.
Aside from that complaint, Toyota deserves praise for the Avalon’s interior. The front seats are wide and comfortable, just the ticket for a cross-country drive. The stout leather feels Lexus-grade, not Toyota-Camry grade, and the front seats are both heated and cooled in Avalon Limited models. Both driver and passenger get power adjustable seats, and both also get adjustable lumbar support. Front seats are lightly bolstered, but that’s in keeping with the Avalon’s primary mission; you won’t be dancing from apex to apex in this car, so there’s no need to include sport-styled seats.
The rear seats are beyond generous in leg room, and the seat backs recline for passenger comfort. Head room is fine for most, but passengers much taller than six foot three may feel a little cramped with the Avalon’s sloping roofline. Unlike smaller sedans, three adults really will fit, comfortably, in the back seat of an Avalon. The outboards seats are still the most comfortable, and I’d gladly sign up to be a rear seat passenger for a cross country trip. If you need more room than the already cavernous trunk offers, the rear seats fold 60/40 to accommodate oversize cargo.
Faux-wood aside, I liked everything else about the Avalon’s dash and instrumentation. The center stack, trimmed in titanium colored plastic, houses the nav system, audio controls and HVAC controls. The stack itself becomes a styling element, and the humped design of the instrument display blends into the humped design of the center stack. The shapes are mixed with contrasting colors and textures to effectively minimize the size of the dash, which many other automakers would have covered in black plastic. Again, Toyota gets points for a tasteful, stylish design.
Under the front-wheel-drive Avalon’s hood is a 3.5-liter, V-6 engine good for 268 horsepower and 248 ft lb of torque, mated to a six speed automatic transmission. That gives the Avalon a decent amount of forward thrust, and mashing the accelerator to the floor will yield a zero to sixty time under 6.5 seconds. That’s quick, and you’d be well advised to avoid testing the handling limits of the Avalon on a switchback-filled mountain road. Despite its size and power, the Avalon returns an admirable 20 miles per gallon in the city and 29 miles on the highway according to the EPA. In around-town driving, I saw an actual 22.9 MPG, so I’d think the EPA numbers are conservative.
On the road, the Avalon has a Buick-like ride quality. That’s not criticism, that’s praise; I wouldn’t want to pilot an Avalon on a racetrack, but I’d be more than content to deliver the car to a prospective owner in a distant state. As long as your expectations are reasonable, the Avalon handles well enough. Carry any significant speed into corners, however, and the front tires will soon be howling in protest. Steering effort is light, body roll is heavy and getting the Avalon to change direction isn’t instantaneous; that’s the trade-off for a silky smooth highway ride, and that’s exactly the suspension tuning that Avalon buyers have come to expect. Brakes work well enough and provide a good pedal feel, but it’s important to keep the Avalon’s non-sporting mission in mind when feeding in throttle. If you want long distance, all day comfort, the Avalon may be ride you’re looking for. If you want solid steering feel, nimble handling and brakes that will pull the glasses off your face, the Avalon isn’t the car you should be shopping.
My 2011 Avalon Limited had a base price of $36,235, including a delivery charge of $750. My tester includes the $199 Floor Mat Package and the $1,450 Navigation and Premium Audio Package (voice activated, touch screen nav system, back up camera, JBL Synthesis audio system, Bluetooth phone and audio device connectivity, USB port input), for a total sticker price of $37,884. A comparable Ford Taurus Limited would sticker at $38,990, while a similarly equipped Buick Lucerne CXL Premium would list for $39,355. That makes the Avalon a solid value in a full-size, near-luxury sedan; if you’re in the market for one, the Avalon is worth driving.