TOYOTA USED to make small Japanese cars. Now it makes big AmericanOldsmobiles. Well, not Oldsmobiles exactly. Just cars that look likeOldsmobiles.For example, there's this week's test car, the 1995 Olds . . . ,er, Toyota Avalon XLS.Look at the Avalon's interior -- hooded, oval instrument panel;analog gauges; neatly mounted center console with flat black finish;everything perfectly tame. It looks and feels like the inside of the1995 Oldsmobile Eighty Eight Royale.But don't just take my word for it. Go to a Toyota dealer and checkout the Avalon XLS. Go to an Olds showroom and look at the comparableEighty Eight LSS. Awfully similar cars, ain't they?Also, the exteriors of both cars were shaped by the Monastic Schoolof Design. They're plain as sackcloth.Finally, take 'em for a drive. You'll notice a certain Americanlooseness in the steering of both models, as if their steering columnsare vaguely connected to the linkages that control the front wheels.Except the steering in the Olds Eighty Eight feels a lot tighter thanthe steering in the Avalon!What we have here is a matter of passionate convergence.Toyota wanted to make its Avalon an "American car" -- "the mostAmerican of all Toyotas, built by Americans for Americans," thecompany's publicists said. Oldsmobile leader John Rock, on the otherhand, wanted to "out-Japanese the Japanese" in designing the interior ofhis new Olds Eighty Eight: The Olds dashboard blends nicely with therest of the car's interior, as opposed to the discordant Olds dashboardsof the past.Both companies succeeded. Talk about harmony! Talk about blending!Makes you wonder why the Japanese and Americans are having such adifficult time trying to settle a simple issue like fair trade.Background: The Avalon is a full-size, front-wheel-drive sedanaimed at a U.S. audience. It is built by Toyota Motor Manufacturing inGeorgetown, Ky. It can seat six adults and accommodate 15.4 cubic feetof cargo.Think of the Avalon as a stretched Toyota Camry, which Toyotamarkets as a mid-size family car. The Avalon is 2.4 inches longer and ahalf inch wider than the Camry. It has more interior space, especiallyin the rear, where three adults can sit in comfort. But the Avalon hasless personality than its smaller sibling. For that matter, it has lesspersonality than the Oldsmobile Eighty Eight -- which really feels likea big American car.The Eighty Eight is 10 inches longer and four inches wider than theAvalon, and bigger in the cargo area (17.5 cubic feet).Both the Avalon and the Eighty Eight run with V-6 engines. TheEighty Eight has more power -- a 3.8-liter V-6 rated 205 horsepower at5,200 rpm with maximum torque set at 230 pound feet at 4,000 rpm. Bycomparison, the Avalon has a 3.8-liter V-6 rated 192 horsepower at 5,200rpm, with torque set at 210 pound feet at 4,400 rpm.The Avalon and Eighty Eight come equipped with the same kinds ofsafety equipment, suc h as dual front air bags and standard anti-lockbrakes. Both are equipped with standard, electronically controlled,four-speed automatic transmissions.Complaints: The super-loose steering in the tested Avalon XLS. Theweightiness of the doors in the tested Eighty Eight LSS.Praise: Both the Avalon and the Eighty Eight are overall excellentfamily sedans. Both are great on long road trips.Head-turning quotients: Blah, blah, bland sheep, have you any soul?Ride, acceleration and handling: Excellent ride for both. What youfeel is what you're getting -- the cushioned-bottom treatment. TheEighty Eight handles better than the Avalon in curves, and is less proneto veering off-lane on straightaways. The Eighty Eight has marginallybetter acceleration -- 0 to 60 miles per hour in 8.7 seconds, versus 0to 60 mph in 9 seconds for the Avalon. But the Avalon's engine is muchquieter than the growl-meister in the Eighty Eight. Braking in both carswas excellent.Mileage: Bot h about 23 miles per gallon, mostly highway, runningwith two to four occupants and light cargo. The Eighty Eight carries 18gallons of unleaded gasoline, offering a driving range of about 386miles on usable volume of regular unleaded fuel. The Avalon carries 18.5gallons, offering an estimated 400-mile running range under the sameconditions on the usable volume of recommended premium unleaded.Sound systems: Optional six-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassettewith optional, trunk-mounted, 12-disc CD changer in the Avalon;installed by Toyota. Six-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassette withoptional dashboard-mounted, single-disc CD player in the Eighty Eight,installed by GM/Delco. Both systems are excellent in terms of soundreproduction.Price: Base price on the tested Avalon XLS sedan is $26,688.Dealer's invoice is $22,866. Price as tested is $28,270, including$1,185 in options and a $397 destination charge.Base price on the tested 1995 Eighty Eight LSS is $24,415. Dealerinvoice is $23,072. Price as tested is $26,022, including $1,022 inoptions and a $585 destination charge.Purse-strings note: If you want a big Toyota, buy the Avalon. If youwant an exceptionally competitive, big American car, buy the EightyEight.
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