Toyota Avalon — Satisfying blend of comfort, performance

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The Toyota Avalon entered the market in 1994 as a full-sized family sedan with a bench seat option and a column shifter, a strange configuration in an industry that had all but abandoned six-passenger sedans a decade earlier. Though the bench seat option was short-lived, over the years the Avalon became known less as a family sedan and more as an entry-level luxury retirement rewar
d for life-long Camry owners.

With the newest iteration, Toyota is attempting to overcome this image hoping to bring in younger buyers looking for a combination of cutting-edge style, the newest in automotive technology, and a quiet Lexus-like interior environment. We think Toyota has succeeded with the 2013 Avalon.

The exterior design is on target. The 2013 Avalon sports an intriguing interpretation of a wide-mouth grill under the new signature chrome bar with the Toyota emblem hanging from it. Narrow headlight lenses give the new sedan a more aggressive look and the nicely sculpted sides and the pulled-in-tight rear end give the Avalon an overall modern persona.

Not only did Toyota ring the bell with its sleek exterior treatment, it created an appealing interior with a modern, useable dashboard layout. Every Avalon gets leather seats, and the dashboard — with some first-class stitching — carries the theme with high-quality soft-touch vinyl. Fit and finish is superb, the color schemes available are attractive, and ambient lighting glows in the night on the Limited model.

The front-wheel drive Avalon still rides atop a 111-inch wheelbase, but overall it's slightly shorter and wider than last-year's model. A slightly stiffer body and revised suspension settings yield an improved ride and slightly better handling. After cruising through some hill country  we concluded that the new Avalon feels much like the old one, but with a bit more road feel — less power boost to the steering wheel — especially in sport mode, which can be dialed in via a button between the seats for those wanting a more athletic feel.

We had no problem with the performance of the outgoing Avalon, and apparently Toyota felt the same way because the 3.5-liter V-6 mated to a six-speed automatic is carried over with 268 horsepower. That equals a satisfying 0-to-60 of 6.3 seconds. The Avalon offers a nice blend of performance, confidence-inspiring handling and predictable braking measured from 60-to-0 in a short 120 feet. Some tweaking of the engine and the shedding of a few pounds has resulted in improved gas mileage of 21mpg city and 31-highway. The outgoing Avalon was rated at 19/28.

While the car hits the mark in all of the important areas, we have a problem with Toyota's features lineup. To simplify the purchasing decision, Toyota officials say options have been kept to a minimum, and the base XLE model is mono-spec — it comes the way it is, no options available at a price of $31,785 including destinati

This may pose a problem for some budget-conscience buyers because while the bottom trim level comes relatively well equipped, Toyota scrimped in some rather
surprising and inexplicable ways. For instance, the increasingly popular satellite-ready radio is not offered for any price forcing the customer to move up a trim and add nearly $2,200 to listen to SiriusXM music. You can find the music system in cars selling for half the price.

Even more outrageous, buyers of the lower trims do not get what we consider the best new safety feature on the market — blind spot monitoring — even as an option. You would need to move up two trim levels. Ditto for a backup camera, not offered on the XLE, but a standard feature on many cars selling for thousands less.

Another relatively new safety innovation — cross-traffic alert which informs the driver of vehicles approaching on the right or left while backing up (integrated in the backup camera) is available only on the top two trim levels.

In addition to the base XLE, the Avalon comes in XLE Premium starting at $33,990 including destination charge, the well-equipped XLE Touring beginning at $36,295, and the Limited with all the bells and whistles starting at $40,445.

Our test vehicles were a XLE Touring with a couple of low-cost options carrying a bottom line of $36,719, and a Limited with a technology package including a Dynamic Radar Cruise Control system priced out at $42,494.

We think the Avalon will continue to draw as many retirement-age buyers as before, but it should also appeal to a younger segment (which is Toyota's goal) and compete quite nicely with the likes of the Ford Taurus, Hyundai Azera and Chevrolet Impala.

Base price: $31,785; as driven, $36,719
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Horsepower: 268 @ 6,200 rpm
Torque: 248 foot-pounds @ 4,700 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 111 inches
Length: 195.3 inches
Curb weight: 3,505 pounds
Turning circle: 40 feet
Luggage capacity: 16 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 17 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 31 highway, 21 city
0-60: 6.3 seconds (MotorTrend)
Also consider: Chevrolet Impala, Ford Taurus, Hyundai Azera

The Good
• Head-turning styling
• High-quality, quiet cabin
• Solid performance
• Spacious interior

The Bad
• Some safety features missing on lower trims

The Ugly
• Suspension might be stiffer than traditional buyers like