Millions of people drive Toyota Camrys, but what if you're looking for something a little more premium, but not quite a Lexus? Well, the Avalon has offered an option for nearly two decades.
The 2013 model debuts the fourth generation of Toyota's premium midsize model. Criticized for blandness, Toyota's designers now are flaunting more evocative styling in all their products, and the new Avalon wears the full corporate regalia. The face has a slim grille of chrome up top, with a large mouth below to bring in the air to feed either a 3.5-liter V6 or a 2.5-liter 4 engine. The body sides wear a definite ridge that grows out of the extended headlamp pods and proceeds all the way back to meet the slim taillamps. It's arguably the best looking Avalon ever.
Inside, a significant serving of chrome-looking plastic surrounds the dash screens. Compared to a Lexus interior, this is kind of flashy, but it complemented the black interior of my Magnetic Gray Metallic test car.
The new Avalon features a nearly button-free dash. Most functions on the center console are touch-sensitive spots rather than moving plastic rectangles or circles. It makes interacting with the car more like using a cell phone. You still get old-fashioned knobs for the audio volume and tuning controls, although once you're accustomed to the steering wheel controls, you rarely use them.
Choose from four trim levels in the gasoline-only Avalon, or, to save significantly on fuel, pick the Hybrid. It’s offered in three flavors: XLE Premium, XLE Touring, and Limited. My Hybrid Limited tester was feature-packed, with a powerful JBL audio system, three-zone climate control (rear passengers get their own settings), premium leather seats, and much more.
Hybrids save fuel by using a smaller engine than their gas-only counterparts and pairing it with an electric motor. Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system combines an Atkinson Cycle 156-horsepower four-cylinder engine with a motor to generate 200 total horsepower. The Atkinson Cycle postpones closure of the engine's intake valves, which delays the compression cycle, improving engine efficiency.
The Avalon Hybrid, at 3,585 pounds, weighs more than 500 pounds more than the highly efficient Prius, so you won't equal its 50 mpg. The EPA gives the Avalon Hybrid 40 City, 39 Highway, 40 combined. I averaged 37.9 mpg. The instrument panel display reports your mileage for each trip when you turn off the car; on some commutes I averaged over 40 mpg. It's nice to know that you can get to work using 3/4 gallon of gas.
The EPA gives the Avalon Hybrid a 7 for Smog and the Greenhouse Gas score is a perfect 10.
The Avalon uses Toyota’s colorful, animated display screens, so I was able to see when the car was using the motor or the engine - or both. And, you also can watch when the battery is charging during regenerative braking, which helps you drive more efficiently.
Selecting the ECO setting enhances your fuel conservation, but it cuts down the fun by making the accelerator pedal less responsive and reducing air conditioner cooling. Conversely, select Sport and throw economy to the wind. The Sport setting tightens up the acceleration and steering responses, too. Select EV Mode and you can drive in full electric mode for up to a mile at low speeds (great in parking lots).
The new Avalon has been significantly upgraded to make it handle and feel better. This includes a 12-percent stiffer unibody and an improved electronic steering system. The overall effect from the driver's seat is a very smooth, quiet and pleasant trip.
The sonorous JBL audio system, easily accessed either though the touch screen or the steering wheel controls, shortens the daily commute. When traffic clears, you can get from zero to 60 in about 8 seconds - not bad for a car with a small engine and a motor.
The Avalon is packed with high-tech features. It not only has a Blind Spot Monitor to let you know about cars you can't see in your mirrors, but it also features the Rear Cross Traffic Alert. This warns you of other vehicles approaching from the side behind you. It’s great when you're backing out of your driveway or leaving a parking spot in a public garage.
Prices start at $36,350 for the XLE Premium and top out at $42,195 for the Limited (including shipping). My tester included the Technology Package, which added radar cruise control (to follow the car in front), automatic high beams, and a pre-collision system that warns you if you're approaching another car or object too quickly. The bottom line came to $44,199.
The new Avalon fulfills its role as Toyota’s top-tier sedan, but at that price, it’s entering Lexus territory. Toyota may be competing with itself, but you can’t lose.