As practical as the Avalon appears, it can be equipped with luxurious leather seats, handsome seven-spoke aluminum wheels, and a JBL sound system that rivals almost anything you can buy for your home. It offers a strong value among full-size sedans that deliver this level of luxury, performance, comfort and reliability for around $30,000 (fully equipped).
Both models use Toyota's silky-smooth 3.0-liter V6. This engine produces 210 horsepower with 220 pounds-feet of torque.
XL models come fully equipped with side air bags, dual-zone air conditioning, power windows, door locks and mirrors, and a 120-watt AM/FM stereo with cassette and CD players. XLS models add automatic climate control, a driver information display (compass, trip computer, outside temperature and calendar functions), fog lights, aluminum alloy wheels, remote keyless entry, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
The styling has somewhat of a sharp edge to it, but the look is reserved. The wing-shaped halogen headlights and wide grille with vertical rails provide a slightly toothy smiley-face look. An air dam under the molded front bumper provides a subtle racy touch, and optional flowing trapezoidal fog lamps are needed to complete the facial aesthetics.
The rear seat also offers good visibility and legroom. However, high windowsills make the chamber feel deep. Carrying of long, narrow objects is made easier as the rear center seat has a pass-through that opens up to the trunk.
The interior sports ample doses of burled walnut, good, simple switchgear, and solid-feeling control stalks. There's even a leather boot on the column-shift lever, a nice touch. The superb leather-wrapped four-spoke steering wheel feels lovely in your hands. There are big cupholders all around, grab handles over all four doors, and flip-out coin pockets in the front doors. Also included are soothing electro-chromatic mirrors that self-adjust to reduce glare, and an easy to adjust dual climate-control system providing independent climates for driver and passenger.
The data system is … well, aren't they all mostly just toys? The Avalon's "multi-information display" is in a big rectangular window in the center of the instrument panel. The compass is necessary (or should be), and miles to go before empty might be comforting if you're prone to push it to the last drop, but all the stuff after that - momentary gas mileage? - sometimes puts this instrument on the same overkill level as your Palm Pilot.
The optional leather is plush, in two-tone beige/ivory. The feel of the leather, the doses of walnut, the big recessed instrument panel, and especially the inside shape of the C-pillars, all make the Avalon interior reminiscent of a Seville. That shouldn't be surprising, as the Toyota Avalon was designed and built in the USA and a veteran of GM's large-car division led its development team.
The ride is flawless. Handling via rack-and-pinion steering is tight, even direct. While some still call such feeling "no character," we think "purity" is a better call. Oh, the chassis can be felt lightly rising and falling over undulations, but that's not a flaw, it's a soft balance appropriate to the car. We haven't taken the Avalon on a long trip, but we feel safe in saying our bones won't feel a thing after hours in the saddle.
Michelin 205/60R16 tires were impressive in the wet. We aimed for narrow rivers in the road that stretched for half a mile at a time, places where water collects in the worn spots from tire tracks, and at 60 mph we could have taken our hands off the steering wheel. We could see the water, we could hear it, but we couldn't feel it. We hit a shallow double pothole in the river. We heard a light thump, but scarcely felt it. We drove over a washboard-unpaved road. We felt it, but not much.
Then we got a little daring in the wet, blasting through a two-lane sweeper heavy on the throttle at 65 mph. The traction control connected in the middle of the turn, three or four times on and off, each time for a mere instant, and the car's direction stayed true without our having to do a thing except point it the first time. Something faster, smarter and more sensitive than us was doing all the tricky work.
We mashed the brake pedal as hard and fast as we could. Excellent anti-lock brakes said, "No problem. Thumpeta-thumpet-thump, there you are." We were stopped before the final splash landed. Because we were full on the pedal, Brake Assist wasn't triggered. Brake Assist applies the brakes full force if a sensor thinks that's what you need based on how quick and how hard you hit them. It was invented because most drivers don't brake hard enough in panic stops with ABS.
We accelerated away, feeling 210 horses rush the car along at a pace no Avalon buyer is likely to find inadequate. The upshifts of the four-speed electronic transmission were … well, where were they? We never felt them.
We saved the most exotic for last: Vehicle Skid Control. It's a Lexus hand-me-down, remaining innovative as it moves along from $50,000 cars to $30,000 ones. It's only available on the XLS, but it's a lot of option for $850. No, it's a steal for $850. Get it.
Vehicle Skid Control keeps you from sliding off the road. Electronic sensors measure four forces to detect a slide ("when the direction of travel does not correlate with driver steering inputs," in robot language), which may be either at the front or rear wheels. Using throttle or brake intervention, VSC makes the appropriate adjustment in grip. For example, if your tail is sliding out to the left on a right-hand turn, VSC will cut the throttle and apply the brakes to the left-side wheels. It won't take over the steering wheel, but with the other corrections it won't need to.
We found a hard-packed logging road, vacant on our rainy Sunday and slick from oil as well as water. We found a sharp curve with good visibility and no ditch. We charged it at spinout speed: all gas, no brakes.
Because the Avalon is front-wheel drive, understeer was our obstacle in this slow turn. We heard the VSC warning ding that says, "Whoa Bucko!" saw the orange traction-control light out of the corner of our eye, and then felt the car magically bite and come back into position. VSC had cut the throttle and hit the ABS brakes on all but the outside rear wheel.
This is a great sedan, though it seems like the dignified styling could use a bit of swoop or flash to match the performance. We'd love to see a jet-black Avalon with a lowered nose and Vintage Red Pearl flames streaming from that toothy grin. But we may be the only ones who feel that way.