Around the office, I carry the reputation — if in jest — of being an over-the-hill man stuck in a young guy's body. My penchant for fogeyish jokes and power ballads doesn't help. Even less helpful, I'm afraid, will be my regard for the Toyota Avalon. It's roomy, efficient and comfortable. There were some reliability glitches when the current generation debuted for 2005, but it's since turned out to be relatively dependable. The Avalon is due for a redesign soon, and it is showing its age in some areas. But if comfort and quality rate high on your list, it's definitely worth a look.
For 2009, Toyota got rid of the sport-tuned Touring trim, leaving the base XL, midlevel XLS and top-of-the-line Limited. An electronic stability system is now standard; check out all of this year's changes by comparing the '08 Avalon to the '09. I tested an Avalon XLS.
One Swift Boat
Standard on all trims is Toyota's capable 3.5-liter V-6, and it moves the Avalon authoritatively. The exhaust note turns to a raspy strain if you push the car hard, but otherwise the engine sounds sedate. Torque steer can tug at your fingers on occasion, but that's to be expected in a front-drive V-6 sedan, and it's not a dominant sensation in the Avalon.
The standard six-speed automatic transmission, which replaced a five-speed auto last year, feels more responsive than the six-speed in the V-6 Camry. Upshifts are smooth enough to go unnoticed, and under hard acceleration they occur lickety-split. When accelerating into a faster-moving lane on the highway, though, the transmission can stumble a moment as it looks for the right gear; 6th ticks down to 5th, but 5th doesn't quite cut it, and now comes 4th. Kickdown at lower speeds, however, feels responsive enough — better than the Avalon's Korean competitors, the Hyundai Azera and Kia Amanti. Nissan's CVT-equipped Maxima has a more responsive transmission still, but Toyota's isn't bad.
The brakes — antilock four-wheel discs — don't feel particularly strong, but the pedal at least imparts a linear response. There's significant suspension nosedive as you come to a halt, though.
Gas mileage, at 19/28 mpg city/highway, leads the competition. Other full-size sedans, from the redesigned 2010 Ford Taurus to the Chrysler 300 and Buick Lucerne, fall 1 or 2 mpg short in city or highway ratings. It's also worth noting that the Avalon runs fine on regular unleaded. The 300 recommends midgrade with most trims, and the Maxima requires premium.
Ride Comfort, Handling
Like most full-size family cars, the Avalon rides softly. The suspension soaks up bumps with some noise but little cabin disturbance, yet handling isn't as sloppy as I would expect with such an isolated ride. The steering wheel turns easily at low speeds, though it isn't as well-assisted as in the Lucerne and 300. Try to take the Avalon through some fast corners, and the substantial body roll will serve as a constant reminder that you're having more fun than your doctor recommends. But it's easy enough to follow through a turn, as the steering exhibits consistent — if not really expert — precision. On the highway, the wheel feels a smidge too twitchy, requiring more minor corrections to stay on course than I'd expect in a full-size car. The Maxima in particular has a more planted steering feel.
The cabin is quiet — impressively so — with only a slight bit of wind noticeable at 70 mph. Road and tire noise, even over grooved concrete, is low. My test car had 17-inch wheels; it's possible that the Avalon XL, which has 16-inch wheels and thicker tires, is even quieter.
Though its design has aged — in some ways quite obviously — the cabin offers a high level of quality not seen in a number of more recent Toyotas, including the Camry, Corolla and Highlander. Materials along the dash and doors are padded and attractively finished, and the electroluminescent gauges have a sharp layout. Most controls, from the steering-wheel buttons to the temperature adjusters, operate with Lexus- or Honda/Acura-like precision. (Not to beat a dead Camry, but Toyota's midsize sedan has badly dropped the ball in that regard.) One exception: The cloth liner along my test car's passenger-side A-pillar had come loose. Material fit was otherwise acceptable.
Toyota's decision to throw hinged covers over the stereo, navigation controls and center cupholders still puzzles me. Close them up, and the dash looks slick, if rife with a cheapish silver-plastic finish. Problem is, you need to use those features, and closing up shop every time you get out is an annoyance. I confirmed the issue with a friend who owns a 2006 Avalon: "The covers are dumb," he said. His collect dust in their hinged-open slots, he noted, as he never shuts them.
Leather seats are included on XLS and Limited models; my tester's cowhide looked and felt high-rent — better, in my opinion, than the perforated leather in the Maxima and Lincoln MKS I tested recently. The seats are roomy and well-cushioned, though I found that with the lumbar support dialed all the way back, a seam across the backrest clawed at my spine. Limited grades get a power-operated cushion extender for improved thigh support, but there's enough thigh support as-is that I'm not sure who outside the NBA would need that feature.
Backseat legroom is plentiful. The seats manually recline about 10 degrees (uplevel Camrys also offer this feature). With the seatback fully upright, headroom for adults is merely adequate. Lean the seats back, and it improves significantly. You'll also be sawing logs in short order.
Trunk volume, at 14.4 cubic feet, trails all but the Maxima. The Lucerne (17.0 cubic feet) and Taurus (20.1) in particular offer quite a bit more space. The rear seats offer a small center pass-through for skis; the Maxima and Taurus offer folding rear seats that might accommodate larger cargo.
My tester's JBL Synthesis stereo, optional on the XLS and standard on the Limited, cranked out clear, distortion-free sound. Editor in Chief Patrick Olsen found the surround-sound playback yielded an unnatural echo, though. The stereo's volume and tuning dials are also far too small, though standard steering-wheel audio controls make this less of an issue. A six-CD changer and MP3 jack are also standard.
The optional navigation system hasn't aged well. Its dated graphics, laggy response and usability-hampered directional controller will have you longing for the vastly superior touch-screen units across most of Toyota's lineup. If you're directionally challenged like me, skip it and get an aftermarket unit.
Safety, Reliability & Pricing
Thanks to its standard stability system and excellent crash-test scores, the Avalon has been named a 2009 Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Standard safety features include active head restraints, antilock brakes and seven airbags. Click here for a complete list.
Following an early spate of engine problems in 2005, the current-generation Avalon has proved fairly reliable. Consumer Reports surveys find overall reliability for the 2005-08 Avalon to be Above Average, and the publication predicts the same for the '09 model. That's about even with CR's reliability ratings for the Lucerne and slightly better than the 300 and Azera. (The Taurus and Maxima have just been redesigned, leaving no reliability trail just yet; CR has an insufficient sample size to rate the Amanti.)
The Avalon XL starts at $27,845 — about halfway between the Taurus and Lucerne — and comes standard with dual-zone automatic climate control, a power driver's seat and steering-wheel audio and climate controls. Leather upholstery, a moonroof and a power passenger seat are standard on the XLS ($32,145) and Limited ($35,185); the latter also gets heated and cooled seats and a rear-seat sunshade. Other options include the navigation system and adaptive cruise control. Load up an Avalon, and the total hits about $38,000.
Avalon in the Market
Aging in some areas but well-executed in many others, the Avalon remains a suitable choice, even in its fifth year. If Toyota can build the next generation with the same drive for quality it's shown in the 2010 Prius and Venza, the Avalon might avoid the worst of the automaker's recent quality lapses.
Indeed, this is me going on record endorsing the Toyota Avalon. More ammunition for my colleagues' old-man jokes? Probably. But I make fun of them, too.
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