Toyota Avalon — Tuned for comfort

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

If you desire a confident, comfortable — and plush — driving experience, but are dismayed that your choices have dwindled over the last decade we have an interesting suggestion.

Trek down to your nearest Toyota store and check out the 2011 Toyota Avalon.

It offers an attractive mix of exterior and interior styling, stretch-out room for four adults, a very energetic V-6 engine that can return nearly 30 mpg in highway driving, a quiet and well-appointed cabin, and as enough technology to keep you happy. And it’s available from the mid-to-upper 30s well equipped.

The Avalon was initially offered back in 1994 as Toyota’s answer to large family sedans targeting the Buick LeSabre and such stalwarts as the Mercury Grand Marquis and the Chevrolet Caprice. Today only the Avalon remains in production as the competitive set has changed, the Grand Marquis having concluded production just last month.

The Avalon has evolved into an entry-level luxury cruiser, sort of a bottom-end Lexus, now challenging the Ford Taurus, Chrysler’s 300 and the Buick Lucerne. Its popularity has waned since hitting 95,000 sales in 2005, the first year of the current iteration. The big sedan managed only 27,000 sales in 2009 and is currently on track for a repeat performance in 2010 with only 21,305 sold during the first nine months of the year.

Toyota is apparently satisfied with things as they are because the Avalon gets only a modest refreshening for 2011 instead of the five-year complete makeover that has become standard with the Japanese automakers.

Don’t let your heart be troubled, however. With just enough enhancements to keep things interesting, the Avalon should continue to be very appealing to its core customers delivering many luxury features and long-distance comfort for a relatively inexpensive price.

The front and rear have been restyled. Redesigned headlights and taillights that feature LED light bars give the car a more upscale “Lexus” look. What has remained the same are the car’s size and engine and transmission. A 3.5-liter V-6 generating 268 horsepower mated to a reliable six-speed automatic that remains standard equipment on all models. And the engine, which has resided under the hood since 2005, works well providing solid acceleration for all circumstances. It’s the type of energetic performance you expect from a well appointed car.

Measured in terms of 0-to-60, the Avalon keeps up with its competition completing the run in 6.8 seconds. A quarter mile flashes past in 14.9 seconds at 95 miles per hour. Stopping quickly is no less rewarding. The Avalon has the ability to come down from 60 in just 129 feet.

Standard safety equipment includes antilock disc brakes, stability and traction control, active front head restraints and a full set of airbags. The sedan has earned a “Top Safety Pick” tag by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Making the acceleration even more appealing when compared to such entries as the Ford Taurus and Buick Lucerne, is gas mileage. Toyota has found something its competitors are still struggling to obtain, 20 mpg city and 29 mpg highway on regular gas. The Taurus V-6 of similar size is rated at 18/28 and the Lucerne at 17/27. On a near 800 mile drive, mostly on freeways and highways we managed almost 22 mpg. Full disclosure – our average speed was around 72 mph which no doubt reduced our mpg.

With a suspension tuned for comfort and highly-boosted power steering, the Avalon as you might suspect is not particularly adept at carving up rural road twists and turns. However, don’t associate Avalon’s very compliant ride with the big marshmallow sedans of decades past. While the Avalon effectively smoothes out the road it rarely wallows.

The interior is spacious and the front seats are broad and flat making for easy entry and exit. The Avalon we must admit is a comfort machine for those up front. The rear is equally plush; the seating area is roomy with scads of leg room. A flat rear floor allows for easier accommodation of three across, but we don’t recommend riding in the middle position for long distances.

Another trait usually reserved for high-end sedans are reclining seatbacks. The downside is that the rear seatbacks do not fold forward so you are limited to the 14.4 cubic feet allowed for trunk space. The good thing is the trunk had terrific depth able to easily swallow up our bags. Storing anything tall was out of the question.

The restyled dashboard is attractive with wood and metal accents as standard equipment. Switchgear is intuitive and the gauges are easy to read and attractive bathed in blue at night. Things that were not available in 2005 and are now standard equipment including Bluetooth hands free phone and music streaming, satellite radio and auxiliary connections for iPods and other music devices.

Toyota has included ample storage for things including a large covered bin in the center console, a large glovebox, door bins, and large covered cupholders that can also hold the junk of everyday life if necessary.

Our constant criticism of navigation in all Toyota and Lexus products is that audio controls including station presets are built into the screen and need to be accessed with an audio button. When driving these vehicles, we are continually reminded of simpler times when you reached over and punched up a station in one motion.

The climate controls are more accessible with fan speed and temperature settings obtained without consulting the screen. Steering wheel controls helped with both the audio and climate operations.

The trim lines have been reduced to XLS and Limited starting at $33,205 including destination charge. says that depending on the area, people are paying about $30,000. One option on our Limited test car was navigation at $1,450. Toyota has done a good job pricing this feature because it includes a host of good things in addition to navigation including a backup camera, a 660-watt 12-speaker JBL audio system, satellite radio with NavTraffic, and hands free capability including setting destinations and using the phone. It’s a $2,350 option on the base edition. Our test car including destination was $37,884.

Base price: $33,205; as driven, $37,844
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: 197.6 inches
Curb weight: 3,616 pounds
Turning circle: 36.9 feet
Luggage capacity: 14.4 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 18.5 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 29 mpg highway, 20 mpg city
0-60: 6.8 seconds (Edmunds)
Also consider: Buick LaCrosse, Nissan Maxima, Lexus ES 350

The Good:
• Spacious, attractive cabin
• Strong performance from V-6
• Pleasant ride tuned for comfort

The Bad:
• Rear seats do not fold down

The Ugly:
• Finicky radio controls with navigation system