I have some seriously sweet feelings for a car, and one that will probably surprise you. So here goes: it’s the Toyota Avalon.
Yes, really. It’s the company’s flagship, usually kept so low-key that many people don’t even realize it’s still around. But it is, and it’s just had a makeover for 2013 that improves the styling and driving performance, adds some new features, and splits the single previous model into two trim lines.
It’s definitely not a sports sedan, but it’s not a marshmallow, either. Instead, it’s a genuinely nice car that coddles you in comfort. Audi and BMW won’t be worried about losing customers who want a daily dose of excitement from their vehicles, but that’s not how this Toyota rolls. The Avalon is an entirely different animal: the relaxing drive for unwinding after a long day.
Previously, there was only one trim line. For 2013, there are two: the XLE at $36,800, and my tester, the Limited, at $38,900. My car was further optioned with a Premium Package that’s available only on the upper trim line. For an additional $2,950, it adds a premium stereo, three-zone automatic climate control, heated rear seats, adaptive cruise control, pre-collision system, automatic headlight high-beam system, and a power sunshade on the rear window.
The Avalon uses a 3.5-litre V6, shared with the Camry and Lexus ES, that makes 268 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque. Acceleration is smooth, delivered through a six-speed automatic transmission, and it’s never at a loss for power, even when passing at highway speeds.
Buttons on the console let you switch between Eco, Normal, and Sport mode, with paddle shifters for manual shift mode. The Sport mode provides more decisive pick-up when you hit the throttle, but I kept it mainly in Eco mode. On some vehicles, this economy setting can turn the car into a real dog, but that’s not the case here.
Steering feedback? Fuggedaboutit. It’s electric and speed-sensitive, and it does tighten up in the Sport setting, but overall, it’s light and doesn't communicate anything. That will turn off more adventurous drivers, but remember, the Avalon’s all about being suave and easy to drive, and it’s just right for the target market.
The ride is big-car comfortable, and while I heard the bump of road imperfections in the undercarriage, I didn’t feel them. It eats up highway miles effortlessly, and I could have happily driven it across the country.
Toyota is fond of mashing numerous interior appointments together, and the three shades of leather and plastic surfaces in my tester could have been whittled down to two for a more cohesive appearance. The Kentucky-built Avalon seems to be put together very well, though, with tight panel gaps and a solid feel.
The controls are clustered into a centre stack that has the sweeping profile of Jay Leno’s chin. Most are capacitive switches that you lightly touch, and although they have little ridges to help guide you, they still require too much attention to be sure you’ve hit the right one. Toyota says they can be operated with gloves, but I wasn’t always able to get them to work when my hands were clad.
The screen containing the climate control information is easy to read, and has a nice touch: when you’re making an adjustment, such as to the heated and cooled seats (which are controlled with buttons, as they should be), everything else temporarily fades to grey. This lets you can focus on what you’re doing, and once you’re done, the normal illumination returns.
Speaking of lighting, while everything is backlit, the lock buttons should be better identified. The toggle switch simply has a line of dots on it, and you have to figure out which side to push to lock or to unlock the car. Another thing missing is a three-tick detent on the turn signal switch for changing lanes.
Even though the roofline has come down slightly, there’s still a lot of headroom inside, and sufficient space for legs and feet both in the front and rear seats. The front seats have a bit more travel and adjustment than before, and are ten-way for the driver and eight-way for the passenger in the Limited (eight and four in the XLE).
Small-item storage is mostly of the covered variety, including a console box with tray, and a bin in the centre stack. Slide the lid on that one backwards, and you’ll find the USB port and charging outlet; a nice touch is a slot in the lid, so you can plug in your phone or music player, snake the cord through the slot, and then keep the device up top. The trunk logs in at 453 litres, but the rear seats don’t fold, and you’re limited to a locking pass-through for long cargo such as skis.
A blind spot monitor and cross-traffic alert system are standard on the Limited, but my tester had a few more high-tech items added with its Premium Package. The adaptive cruise control uses radar to detect vehicles in front and adjust the car’s speed to them. There are three distance settings, and they’re very simple to use; instead of having to go through a computer screen, it’s just a button on the steering wheel.
The radar system also operates the pre-collision system, which warns if you’re coming up too quickly behind another vehicle and you haven’t made an attempt to stop. It first sends out a warning, and then if you ignore it, it applies the brakes. It doesn’t completely stop the car, but is intended to reduce the severity of the crash.
Finally, on a night drive in a rural area, I got to play with the automatic high-beam function. The system shuts off the high-beams when it detects an oncoming vehicle, and then turns them back up once it has passed. (These systems have been around since the 1950s, believe it or not.) I was impressed by its sensitivity, catching sight of vehicles well off in the distance and dipping the beams. The owner’s manual warns that it can sometimes be tripped up by reflective signs or street lights, but mine worked perfectly through a maze of construction signs.
The big question with the Avalon seems to be: why buy a Lexus? The Lexus ES, which used to be based on the Camry, now shares its platform with the larger Avalon. There’s that “L” on the front, which probably carries more weight than the Toyota badge with many buyers, but the base ES is $2,700 more than the base Avalon.
Put a Technology Package into the Lexus, and you’re $9,900 over the price of my top-line Avalon tester. There are some Lexus extras that were missing on my car, such as a panoramic sunroof, power-adjustable heated steering wheel, and power trunk lid, but that’s quite a chunk of change.
Which brings me to the acid test: would I buy the Avalon? Yes, I would. I drive a lot of vehicles, and each time I’m finished with one, I’m ready to hand it back and see what the next one is like.