The Avalon, Toyota's top-level sedan, gets an upgrade for 2011. Although Toyota refers to it as a "bold redesign," you could more accurately call it a midcycle freshening. It continues to be a very pleasant and comfortable sedan that sits above the common Camry, but isn't quite a Lexus either.
The exterior receives a new, more dramatically rendered grille along with revised taillamps that are more neatly integrated into the tail end of the car. Redesigned rocker panels along the lower sides, along with additional chrome trim, give it a somewhat more luxurious appearance. Nobody will likely notice these changes, because the Avalon is not about standing out, but with fitting in perfectly.
Inside the car the changes are more apparent. The dash and doors, for example, look more European in flavor. I analyzed the designs and figured out that the dash shape, with a second hood over the center section and a concave face, was borrowed from BMW. The teardrop-shaped gauge binnacles were definitely inspired by Audi. And the "wood grain style" trim along the dash and doors wears a slim silvery edge that looks like the kind found in a Mercedes-Benz—except that in the Mercedes the panels are made of genuine wood with gleaming chrome.
The sense of space while driving the Avalon is impressive. The light gray interior of my test car, dressed in comfortable, soft leather, was definitely upscale and made for some very nice commute miles. Of course, little sound makes its way into this parlor on wheels, the better to enjoy the audio system. The standard Avalon receives a nine-speaker unit, but my tester, a Limited model in Sizzling Crimson Mica, came standard with the voice-activated touch-screen JBL Premium Synthesis system. It features 12 speakers and 660 watts of power through an enhanced two-coil sub-woofer. It was a real concert hall for the Beethoven Symphony #3, and rock and roll really rocked.
Both the standard and Limited levels of the 3,600-lb. Avalon employ a strong 3.5-liter V6 that produces 268 horsepower and 248 lb.-ft. of torque. It sends this through a multi-mode six-speed automatic that lets you choose your gears manually if you're so inclined. I was pleased to average 22.7 mpg—virtually the same as the EPA average estimate of 23 mpg (20 City, 29 Highway). That's laudable for what the EPA considers a large car.
The agency's Green Vehicle scores for this Ultra Low Emission Vehicle are 6 for Air Pollution and 5 for Greenhouse Gas—pretty much in the middle. If you want to double those numbers, Toyota will gladly sell you a Prius.
Every Avalon comes well equipped, with features like leather-trimmed power driver's seats, back-up camera, dual-zone automatic climate control, 17-inch alloy wheels and a moonroof. The Limited gets more, though, including a driver's seat cushion extension, and the front passenger gets eight modes of seat adjustment along with the driver. Throw in seat cooling for the front row along with the heating, rain-sensing wipers, and the keep-it-in-your-pocket smart key.
Safety has been a big deal at Toyota lately—they want you to know how much of it they normally offer—so the Avalon brags of seven airbags, including one to protect the driver's knees. You will also find the full range of energy absorbing body structures and active belts and headrests that tighten up and get ready before a crash. The Star Safety System includes stability control and antilock brakes with Electronic Brake force Distribution (EBD), Brake Assist and traction control. These take advantage of the interrelated electronic systems of the car to make sure that it goes where you point it and stops as quickly as possible—helping distribute and maximize braking force automatically as needed.
Little things can make a difference. The car gets a full-size spare tire with an alloy wheel—not one of those funky temporary spares. A sliding sunshade is remotely operated from the driver's seat to protect rear seat passengers.
Prices start at $33,205 for the Avalon, with a jump to $36,445 for the Limited. Both prices include a $760 destination charge. My Limited tester, with the Navigation and Premium Audio package and a few small accessories, came to $38,188.
Frankly, the Avalon reminds me of a Buick—the kind that people really appreciated years ago because they were strong, roomy, comfortable and well equipped cars that weren't as expensive as Cadillacs. This very American style car was styled at Toyota's Newport Beach, California location—Calty Design Research—and built in Kentucky at a plant that also produces the Camry, Camry Hybrid and Venza crossover. As traditional American sedans go, it doesn't really get much better than this.