Toyota’s 2005 Avalon has a new look and new energy

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

We sat in a press conference in Atlanta more than 10 years ago thinking what an idiotic decision. Toyota was heralding the addition of a full-sized sedan to its lineup of small and mid-sized cars and trucks.

The Japanese automaker was announcing a new car with a front bench seat option and a shifter on the column that would give it six-passenger space and go head-to-head with Buick, Chrysler and Mercury.

The Avalon, we thought, was pure folly.

Granted, Toyota at that time had turned the mid-sized Camry into one of the success stories of the decade. But to ramp it up with a sedan competing in a segment dominated by LeSabre was taking things a step in the wrong direction so us know-it-alls thought. Well, we know who was right and who was wrong on that late winter day in 1994.
Avalon was an instant success. There was a market for a well-built family sedan. Toyota had done its home work.

And now a decade later we are witnessing the third chapter in the Avalon saga. An all-new 2005 Toyota Avalon, which launched in February, is bigger in every dimension than its predecessor, and its muscles are bulging.

It has become the new heavyweight on the big sedan block. In fact, the Avalon has undergone such a complete makeover that it would make Dr. Phil and his daytime talk show cronies proud. By the numbers, the Avalon is five inches longer than the 2004 model at 197.2 inches, an inch wider and its wheelbase has been stretched nearly four inches to 111.

This means the Avalon is now truly a big car with big power.

It is more stylish and less conservative than the previous edition. The car is more chiseled, almost as if it was cut from the same cloth as the all-new 2006 Lexus GS. The front end also has a Lexus look, resembling the LS430.

The greenhouse is slightly pinched, a styling trait that is now in vogue. The extreme side of this styling trend is the Chrysler 300.

In one word, the new Avalon screams “upscale.”

The interior is spacious and the dashboard is attractive and innovative with stereo controls that can be covered up with a well-damped lid, and navigation controls that fold out flat in a small tray.

But the Toyota folks have done more to improve the Avalon than endow it with impeccable styling. They have slammed in unprecedented power in the form of a 280-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6. The engine is mated to a “super electronically controlled” 5-speed automatic transmission that can be shifted manually if desired.

With the new sedan, Toyota is hoping to lower the average age of Avalon buyers currently popular with us geriatrics. But we predict people of all ages will fall in love with it. And after hundreds of miles of testing in a loaded mid-level XLS model who could blame them.

Perhaps this is overkill to the many retirees who now proudly drive the Avalon. But Toyota, it would seem, is going after a wider audience with this new car, hoping to attract those baby boomers that came through high school in the muscle car era and are looking for luxurious transportation with a big bite that won’t strain the ‘paying-off-the-kids-college-loan budget.

The engine is not just an upgrade. It’s a giant leap. The previous 3.0-liter engine churned out an unremarkable 210 horsepower through a 4-speed shifter so the new running gear does make a big difference.

Not that the 2004 Avalon is a turtle, it is not. It’s responsive in a conservative big-car sort of way. But the new Avalon leaps away from the stoplight. It surges with exuberance into traffic and passes with a new-found zeal. And all this quickness comes without torque steer, a malady of front-drive cars with a lot of horsepower.

We were impressed. But we’re easily impressed with power. For the sake of comparison, the new Avalon can surge from 0 to 60 in an estimated 6.5 seconds. Fortunately, or unfortunately, most Avalon buyers will never realize the full force of this quiet performance.

What they will realize is surprisingly good gas mileage. The gas mileage rating of 22 in the city and 31on the highway actually betters the 21-29 turned in by the previous engine.
One thing that remains from the past is a well-tuned ride that can best be described as a cross between a float and glide. In other words, those with sensitive behinds will be delightfully pleased.

This means, of course, that the Avalon is not a sports sedan in any definition of the term. True, you won’t be carving up back roads at speeds reserved for sports cars, but the Avalon, outfitted with power rack-and-pinion steering, handles well. It yields a good sense of control offering up a polite passage of the twists and turns on our country back roads.

A Touring package is available with firmer shocks and springs and special Michelin tires for those who want to inject a little more sport into the mix allowing for a bit more aggressiveness.

Although the interior is more spacious, there is no longer a bench seat option. Those days are long past. Six-passenger configurations are left to the sport utility vehicles and minivans. A center console is the way of the world in most forms of transportation these days.

This center console contains a covered bin and covered drink holders as well as the gated shifter. The center console stereo and climate controls take just a bit of orientation, but there is no steep learning curve such as found in German machines.

The optional navigation screen features the best mapping in the business, and Toyota/Lexus systems are still the easiest to use with the possible exception of Honda’s.

The voice-activated navigation together with a great-sounding 360-watt JBL sound system was one of only two options on our test vehicle. The other was Vehicle Stability Control bundled with traction control, brake assist and heated front seats (go figure how that fits into this package).

Such things as leather seats, rear reclining seats, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, power moonroof and dual-zone climate control are standard equipment on the XLS. 
Safety features standard on all models include antilock brakes, seat-mounted side airbags and side-curtain airbags.

The Avalon comes in four trim levels beginning at $26,890 for the XL. The top-of-the-line Limited has a starting price of $34,080.

The mid-level XLS model begins at $31,340, and our test vehicle including the two major options outlined above brought the bottom line to $35,259. 
If those prices sound inflated, Toyota says the price of the XL is only $230 more than last year, a rather modest increase considering the jump in performance, refinement and features.

Toyota has set a very ambitious sales goal of 85,000 a year. We certainly won’t bet against Toyota; we have learned our lesson.