The full-size 2011 Toyota Avalon might be Toyota's best sedan. We think it's as good as more expensive Lexus models, and better than the less-roomy Lexus ES350.
Toyota calls the 2011 Avalon redesigned, but its V6 engine, 6-speed automatic transmission and other mechanical components are carryover. We'd call it mildly re-styled and updated inside for 2011.
The 2011 Avalon improves on already impressive fuel economy ratings by 1 mpg. Also, the 2011 Toyota Avalon line-up is reduced to two models: Loaded, and really loaded. In reality, the Avalon gets just a tad better at what it already did really well. We'd described it as refuge from a hectic world.
The Avalon may not be exciting by any familiar automotive definition, but it can thrill on a daily basis with its smoothness, overall easy operation and sound, uncomplicated functionality. There's no dishonesty in this car, because it doesn't pretend to be anything it isn't.
Avalon's serenity flows from many things, including its underlying design, vibration-mitigating features and good build quality. Whatever the reasons, the Avalon is more tranquil than many sedans that cost a lot more. Empty-nesters will appreciate it for its comfort and flexibility, and families for its space, low operating cost and extensive list of standard equipment.
The base 2011 Avalon comes with just about everything any driver really needs, and then some, including leather seating, dual-zone automatic climate control, and a good stereo with Bluetooth, XM satellite radio and a CD changer. The Avalon Limited adds luxury class ventilated front seats, a power-operated rear window sunshade and mega-watt JBL surround audio.
Its styling may not be flashy, but Avalon's interior is first rate, It's finished with pleasing materials, equipped with ergonomically functional controls and filled with storage nooks. The front seats are roomy and comfortable, the back seat downright spacious. The Avalon rides as comfortably as any car made, almost impervious to the worst roads we travel.
It also delivers good acceleration and mileage for such a roomy car. Its automatic transmission is quick shifting and decisive. It's pleasant to drive for just about any purpose, but it's never sloppy, and it won't fail you if you happen to be in a hurry. The standard array of safety equipment surpasses that required by federal law, including a knee-protection airbag for the driver, and Avalon performs well in government and insurance-industry crash tests.
Bottom line, the Toyota Avalon is easy to like and even easier to enjoy. A test drive might leave you wondering why anyone seeking a smooth, quiet, roomy sedan would pay more than it takes to buy an Avalon.
Toyota Avalon ($32,595); Avalon Limited ($35,835)
The Toyota Avalon's calling card certainly isn't flashy looks. On the other hand, its styling is appropriately staid and elegant, and anything but offensive. The shape comes across as exactly what it is: a wrapping for the exceptionally comfortable, spacious cabin inside. In that sense, it recalls some stately European sedans of the 1950s and '60s.
Toyota has re-styled the full-size Avalon for 2011, though the changes are hardly dramatic. It requires fairly thorough inspection to realize that the Avalon has changed at all. The differences lie in details. Avalon's proportions and profile haven't changed a bit.
Nor have any of its dimensions, by more than a fraction of inch. Overall, the Avalon is eight inches longer than Toyota's top-selling Camry sedan. By most exterior dimensions, it's roughly the same size as the Ford Taurus, Chevrolet Impala, and Chrysler 300. Compared to European luxury sedans, it's larger than the mid-size Mercedes E-Class, but smaller than the full-size S-Class sedan.
The revised look for 2011 starts with a slightly wider grille connecting the headlight clusters with bolder, heavier chrome slats and trim. The lights apply the so-called light-pipe design, which creates the impression of illuminated tubes at night. The fog lights are now surrounded by a chrome garnish and more closely integrated in the air intake below the bumper.
Compared its predecessor, the 2011 Avalon has thicker, more obvious chrome strips around its side windows, and slightly smaller, more sculpted side mirrors. There's a thick strip of chrome at the bottom of the doors, above more prominently contoured side sills.
The taillights have been reshaped for 2011 to reduce turbulence at the rear. Indeed, many of the styling details are optimized to limit wind noise inside the car, including the shape of the windshield pillars and the placement of wipers under the hood line.
Subtle details distinguish Avalon Limited from the standard car. Its wheels have 10 thin spokes rather than five thicker ones, and its door handles are chrome rather than painted. The Limited's headlight clusters feature high-intensity discharge low beams, and its side mirrors have LED puddle lights underneath. These are essentially invisible until the doors are unlocked with the key fob, at which point the puddle lights dump a swath of light on the pavement underneath the front doors.
The Toyota Avalon's dashboard and much of its cabin have been redesigned for 2011, and it adds a couple of new standard features. The unique sliding doors that used to cover Avalon's audio and climate control switches are gone, replaced by a more conventional array of buttons that are visible all the time. Nonetheless, the full-size Avalon still delivers one of Toyota's best interior packages.
In a nutshell, the interior is perfectly appropriate to this sedan's general character. It contributes to Avalon's serene ambience and, from the functional perspective, it's top-notch. The cabin is quiet, well-crafted and more than spacious, and we'd rank it at the top of its class.
There may not be a vehicle anywhere that's easier to climb into or out of than the Toyota Avalon. Its door openings are large, and the side doors have three stop positions rather than the typical two. That makes it easier for people of all sizes and strengths to get the doors to catch. The step-in height is low, yet the seat bottoms are fairly high, so the drop down or thrust up is short for averaged size drivers and passengers.
Once inside, occupants are greeted with a finish that's warm and pleasing. Our test car had a two-tone cabin, with black around the tops of the doors and dash, and an ivory color below. It reminded us of much more expensive cars. There are still a couple of trim pieces to demonstrate that the Avalon is not an extra-expensive luxury car but fewer than ever. The steering wheel in the Limited has wood-leather trim, like an $80,000 European car. The simulated wood trim now has a matte, oiled look, rather than the glossy stuff Toyota favored for years. If it doesn't look exactly like wood, it's genuinely attractive. Even the painted plastic pieces and chrome rings around the gauges and knobs are improved. The fit of the various parts and panels is impeccable.
The front seats are large enough to accommodate oversize folk, but not so expansive that they make petite occupants feel uncomfortable or unsupported. The seats are fairly flat and soft, but the relative flatness makes then easy to slide into, and there's enough strategic bolstering to keep lower backs and backsides from becoming numb within a half hour or so. Overall, we loved them. They'll adjust for a wide range of drivers, and the controls offer an excellent compromise between adequate adjustment and too many things to fiddle with. The Avalon Limited features a fan in the seat cushion and seatback that blows air through the perforated leather trim to improve comfort.
The steering wheel tilts and telescopes manually through a wide range. The side-mirror adjustor is on the dash to the left of the steering column, and nearly all drivers will be able to reach the switch and set the mirrors with back, shoulders and head settled into the normal driving position. The steering wheel has redundant buttons for climate and voice activation on the right spoke, and phone and audio on the left, and these too are an excellent compromise: Big and easy to find, but not confusing. Cruise-control settings get a separate stalk on the right side of the wheel. These work much better than the Mercedes-Benz stalk-mounted cruise control, which is too easily confused for the turn signals.
The window switches are placed perfectly on the driver's door armrest, so when the left forearm lies flat, they the switches are right at the fingertips. Wipers and lights follow Toyota's familiar pattern, with the light switch on the left, turn-signal stalk and wipers on the right. The moonroof switch is overhead, with garage-door buttons in the rearview mirror. Everything is positioned just as we like it.
The 2011 Avalon's new dashboard is clean and straightforward, but not overly simplistic in its aesthetic appeal. Its so-called Optitron gauges are large, back-lit with soft white and easy to read through smoked lenses. The switches are a bit more centralized than previously, and collected under a large LCD information display square in the center of the dash. The display offers a wide range of information, like inside temperature settings, outside temperature, date and fuel range, in large, easy-to-read script. It's not adversely affected by glaring sunlight.
The primary temperature, air flow and fan adjustment controls are huge, located below the screen. They operate with a firm, steady action, and they're nearly impossible to miss when the driver reaches a hand from the steering wheel. A six-CD changer is standard in the Avalon, and for 2011 so are Bluetooth wireless connectivity and XM satellite radio hardware. The upgrade JBL audio package delivers 660 watts of output. It sounds fantastic, though we could certainly live with the standard stereo.
The information screen itself is bigger than before for 2011, and the optional navigation system has an updated database. Hard buttons are used for audio functions to the left of screen, and more buttons for navigation and information to the right. There are also easy-to-find radial knobs for volume and tuning. In all, it's a good combination of mechanical buttons and touch-screen operation. The Avalon's interface lets the driver work a complex range of systems with minimal diversion of attention or concentration. Other manufacturers could learn a thing or two here.
The seat-warmer switches, and those for seat cooling on the Limited, are easy to find, right behind the gear selector on the center console. They're rheostat-type dials with fully variable range, rather than the typical two- or three-stage heat adjustment in most cars. The Limited also comes standard with a rear glass sunshade, operated by the driver. The shade lowers automatically if it's up when the driver engages Reverse, then lifts again when the driver selects Drive.
The Avalon is loaded with interior storage, and the center console design is excellent. There are three compartments around the shift lever, covered by touch-release doors. One exposes the cupholders, which are deep and fitted with little drink-securing levers. Another is at the bottom of the center stack, with a rubber mat to keep glasses, phone or whatever is placed inside from sliding. The third has a little pullout rack that will hold a phone or MP3 player.
The main box to the rear of the console is thickly padded, and the lid slides fore and aft to adjust as an armrest. Its height matches the armrests on the doors precisely. Inside, there's enough room for a handbag, a removable felt-lined tray with coin slots, a power point and auxiliary audio connections. The Avalon's door pockets are large, too. They don't have any lining material to keep items like phones, glasses or CD cases from sliding easily on the hard plastic, but we love how they swing open like a folder to allow an easy reach inside. The glove box has three or four times more volume than the owner's manual occupies, with little dampers that keep the door from just falling open.
The feeling of space, not to mention comfort, carries through to the back seat. Three adults will do quite well here. There's more leg room than in many taxis, and a 5-foot, 8-inch passenger could turn his hand sideways above his head without hitting the headliner. Even the middle space is wide enough, and soft enough, for an evening on the town. The floor is flat all the way across.
The Avalon's rear occupants get some nice perks, too. The seatbacks recline with a range comparable to a coach-class airline seat. Any recline feature is a rarity, even in sedans costing twice are much. There are individual reading lights overhead, and big air vents on the back of the center console. The lights are bright enough to read, without overly distracting the driver, and the vents can be directed or switched off completely.
The faux leather on the rear-door armrests is soft and feels rich. Stretchy pockets on the front seatbacks hold a small stack of magazines or a paperback. The rear door pockets are tiny, and they don't fold open like those in front. There's a shallow storage bin in the drop-down center armrest that will hold a tablet computer. There are also a couple of cup stabilization points in the armrest, but they are reliable cupholders only if there is a hand helping hold the cup.
The biggest gripe? Coat hooks, of all things. They should be further forward, toward the center pillars, where a shirt or even a dress hung on a hanger might drape freely in the space between the front and rear seats. As it is, the hooks are almost back to the seatbacks, where the dry cleaning bunches up and gets caught between the seat bottom and the door.
The trunk is another one of Avalon's relative weaknesses, though it probably isn't enough to offset this sedan's many strengths. With 14.4 cubic feet of space, the trunk is smaller than that in many similarly sized competitors. There's still decent room for luggage, and lift-over height is fairly low. Yet the Avalon's trunk is hampered by its basic shape, with a load area that's long but relatively narrow. Much of the available space stretches forward toward the rear seatback, under the rear glass and shelf.
The trunk lid raises itself once you open it with the remote key fob, something many trunk lids don't do, but the opening is smaller than that on other cars in the Avalon's class. And the locking pass-through into the cabin doesn't make a lot of sense. The hole through the seat is maybe five inches square, so you can't fit more than a couple of two-by-fours through it or a set of skis.
On the positive side, the trunk is as nicely finished as the cabin, with smooth carpeting. A standard, removable cargo net hangs within easy reach across the trunk opening to keep items such as plastic grocery bags from dumping or sliding around during transport. There's also a plastic bin to one side that might keep a partially empty jug of washer fluid or cleaning supplies leak-contained and relatively secure in normal driving.
There's isn't much about the Toyota Avalon that we don't like. Some driving enthusiasts might say it's too vanilla, but there's a certain excitement in Avalon's overall competence, and it's a car we look forward to driving. It's pleasant to drive in all circumstances, and never aggravating. The value of that last point should not be underestimated because we see many luxury cars nowadays that are aggravating.
For 2011, the Avalon has been mildly re-styled and updated inside. None of the changes alter its driving dynamics, though there is one operational benefit. Slight improvements to this big sedan's aerodynamic efficiency raise its already impressive EPA fuel economy ratings by 1 mpg, city and highway.
Driving the Avalon truly is a tranquil experience. This sedan approaches serene, but it isn't numbing in a way that allows a driver to forget he or she is operating a motor vehicle. There's a linear, consistent feel to its controls, and it doesn't come across as sloppy.
The Avalon's powertrain provides the foundation for its impressively smooth operation. On paper, its 3.5-liter V6 engine might seem a bit small for a fairly large, heavy car. In fact, the Avalon can be almost peppy, and it certainly isn't underpowered. Its secret is two-fold.
For starters, its dual overhead-cam V6 generates an adequate 268 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. And thanks to variable valve timing and a dual-stage variable intake manifold, the power isn't the least bit peaky. It flows smoothly and evenly from idle to the engine's redline, whether you're accelerating casually from a stop sign or flooring the gas pedal to merge onto a crowded freeway.
The second contributor is Avalon's well-tuned 6-speed automatic transmission. This transmission uses a unique mounting system designed to minimize the transfer of shift-shock into the Avalon's cabin. It does an excellent job tapping the horsepower available, and it almost always knows the best time to shift, whether it's up or down. The shifts are reasonably quick, but they're also exceptionally smooth, even at full throttle. Light-throttle upshifts are barely noticeable. The top gear is a tall overdrive, so the Avalon cruises in relaxed fashion on the freeway, with the engine spinning quietly at relatively low speed.
We tested the transmission's manual shift feature on a curving river road, tapping the sequential shift lever between second and third and keeping the engine spinning near its redline. In such circumstances, the Avalon can be something like a sports sedan, because the V6 is happy to run at high rpm. There's enough torque to create a bit of torque steer when you floor it from a slow speed, manifesting itself as a slight tug on the steering wheel. In the Avalon, it's nothing that will disturb the typical driver, but it's enough to let that driver know that there's a strong engine under the hood.
The Avalon will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than eight seconds and, while that's no longer sports car performance, it's anything but lethargic, especially in a large car that carries five people and their luggage with lots of room to breathe inside. Or one with the Avalon's mileage ratings.
Delivering 20 mpg city and 29 highway, according to the federal government, the Avalon's fuel economy is impressive for a sedan its size. Those figures are among the best in class, and better than the ratings for many smaller, mid-size V6 sedans, including the Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion and Nissan Altima. They equal the ratings for Toyota's smaller Camry sedan.
Mileage ratings or lively acceleration aside, the Avalon is built primarily for comfort, and that's obvious in its suspension settings. The ride is silky smooth in nearly all circumstances, and rarely does a road shock ruffle the occupants. The softly tuned suspension means Avalon can lean noticeably when taking turns aggressively.
Still, this body sway is progressively controlled, and the Avalon doesn't feel mushy or disconnected. Its steering is on the light side, but it responds directly to movement of the wheel. We'd call the Avalon cushy but good. It holds its line nicely when driven reasonably quickly through a series of curves, whether the road surface is smooth or bumpy. A sharp lane change or a deep jab on the brake pedal won't scare the dickens out of its driver.
The brakes are strong enough to stop the Avalon with authority. The pedal feels a little softer than we'd like, but it's linear in operation and it makes it easy for the driver to smoothly apply the stopping force. The well-managed anti-lock brake system keeps Avalon on an even keel during panic stops.
The Avalon is up to whatever the typical driver might encounter or dish out. Yet its trademark remains the peaceful stillness inside. At a stoplight in the city, the hubbub outside the Avalon sounds like a muted purr to its driver and passengers. At 75 mph on the expressway, about the only sound is a soft crack from the tires as they slap over pavement joints, and 15 percent volume with some soft music will take care of that. The Avalon is exceptionally smooth, too, especially for its price. At freeway speeds, there's less vibration through the steering column, seat bottoms or floorboards than one feels in some luxury cars that cost $30,000 more.
The 2011 Toyota Avalon does lots of things well, but its strength is the solace it offers those riding inside. It's difficult to be aggravated by the news, the traffic or other drivers when you're cruising Zen-like in this big, comfortable sedan, with just about every feature you need, all easy to use. The Avalon gets good safety marks. It can accelerate in lively fashion, given its modest engine size, and it returns good fuel economy, given its space and luxurious demeanor. Who needs a Lexus, when you can drive an Avalon?
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent J.P. Vettraino reported from Detroit, with John Stewart reporting from Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.