News Column

Smooth Avalon Acquires a Bit of Sex Appeal

Nov. 2, 2012

James R. Healey, USA TODAY

Toyota Avalon interior. Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales USA.
Toyota Avalon interior. Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales USA.

Toyota Avalon remains a big smoothie, but now has some sex appeal and a gas-electric hybrid version for the first time.

It's also just enough smaller in key spots that you might notice. The slightly trimmer exterior translates to a bit less rear legroom, roughly an inch less rear shoulder room and close to 2 inches less hip room in back. But you get about the same headroom and a bigger trunk.

Test Drive stuffed five grownups inside with only modest griping from the rear seat.

The changes drop Avalon into the top of the government's midsize category. The 2012 was at the low end of full-size.

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Price: The base model, called XLE, has more features, but a $2,170 lower price than the bottom 2012 model. Among the additional standard items are defrosting outside mirrors and heated front seats.

On the other end, though, the top-flight Limited (like the pre-production test car) starts at $3,250 more than the 2012 Limited, which admittedly wasn't as lavish.

Mileage: Fuel economy, and not just for the new hybrid, is up a bunch. V-6 gas engine is rated 4% to 9% better in the government's city/highway combined rating.

The 100-pound diet helps. You'd think the svelter shape would, too, but Toyota says the 2012 and 2013 have the same wind resistance: a so-called coefficient of drag rating of 0.28. Excellent for a sedan, by the way.

Looks: The previous Avalon had a whiff of the dork about it. Nice enough car, but you surrendered any remaining hipness driving one.

Not quite so with the new one. It's still on the conservative side, but stylishly so.

The grille is more dramatic but not exhibitionist, and the tail angles down in a slimming fashion that suggests "premium."

Toyota says Avalon styling telegraphs how other redesigned models will look.

Interior: Updates are lovely to see and feel. Lots of soft-touch materials, and straightforward lines and angles that, while not everyone's idea of grace and beauty, are simple and honest.

Touch-screen controls in the Limited test car were especially sensitive, which some might love but Test Drive dislikes, favoring a more tactile interface, as the experts might say.

Avalon's 6.1-inch main screen is paltry in these days of 8-inchers.

One interesting feature: The climate control fan display gets bigger when you touch it. That makes it easier to adjust, though the adjustment is via a left or right stroke, which isn't as handy as a tap or push, or a conventional knob.

The gasoline V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission are carried over from the previous car, but the transmission is tuned differently, Toyota says. It has a "faster-locking torque converter that locks up early even in second gear."

To the driver, that means the sloppy feel you get in some automatics is banished, at the same time reducing mpg-robbing slippage of a conventional automatic.

It also means the car drives more like a sporting machine and less like a wheeled hog. The gearbox's selectable "sport" mode firms the steering feel and even blips the throttle for you on downshifts, something once unimaginable on an Avalon.

The test drive took place in an area of Michigan where roads dip and wind, and show if a "sport" setting is credible or cosmetic. Credible enough.

An "eco" mode ruins all the fun Toyota has managed to sneak into the new Avalon. Mainly, it makes the throttle less responsive. Test Drive has discovered, however, that sluggish "eco" settings can be useful in stop-lurch traffic, minimizing the tendency to become intimate with the tailpipe of the car ahead.

Brakes felt somewhat soggy on the test car, very out-of-character with the car's nifty new responsiveness.

The hybrid system, similar to what's used in the gas-electric version of the Camry and the Lexus ES, is OK. It did as advertised and ramped up fuel economy considerably. Like the gas model, it was generally quiet and serene. But because it's based on a modest-power four-cylinder gas engine, not a six, the sounds of strain and struggle come through when you push the go pedal hard.

The electric motor was true to form, providing a leap forward from a dead stop, courtesy of the instant torque that electric motors generate.

The transition from electric to gas seemed smoother than it was in a Lexus ES hybrid evaluated recently. But Test Drive remains disappointed by the shimmies, wiggles and shakes that happen when the gas engine restarts after a shutdown. No matter how distant and vague and barely there the vibrations have become, they should be flat gone by now. Hybrid engineering should have come that far. Toyota was a hybrid pioneer, but now others seem to do it better.

Avalon isn't any more "all-new" than the Camry, regardless of what the ads might say. In both cars, the chassis, drivetrains and other key hardware that define a vehicle are little changed from old to new.

But while the Camry feels like more of the same after its update, the Avalon feels transformed.



Source: (c) Copyright 2012 USA TODAY