The Toyota Avalon full-size sedan is one of the few cars I've experienced whose backseat holds as much appeal as the driver's seat, if not more. Even though the Avalon's rear-seat accommodations are especially satisfying, some elements of the driving experience aren't.
The Avalon is, however, impressively quick, both from a standstill and at highway speeds. Toyota claims the Avalon can go from zero to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds, and that time seems entirely believable. Credit the free-revving 280-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 and five-speed-automatic transmission. The transmission has a clutchless-manual mode for those who wish to change gears themselves, but because the engine and transmission work so well together, it's almost unnecessary.
Toyota recommends 91-octane unleaded gasoline for the V-6, which earns respectable fuel-economy numbers from the Environmental Protection Agency: 22 mpg city and 31 mpg highway. The car can run on regular, 87-octane, fuel, but the specifications and fuel-economy ratings are based on 91 octane. Regular fuel is likely to diminish both, though not dramatically.
Other areas of the driving experience aren't as praiseworthy. Being a Touring model, my tester had a firmer suspension than other Avalon trims. The suspension tuning yields minimal body roll through corners, but occupants are forced to endure ride quality levels that can only be described as brittle — you hear and feel every road imperfection, even the ones you'd rather not. Fortunately, those looking for a more forgiving ride can choose one of the other trims.
The Avalon responds with precision and drives like a much smaller car than it is, but drivers do have to contend with minimal feedback from the steering wheel. The brakes stop the sedan with ease and are easy to modulate, but the brake pedal has a spongy feel.
Now let's get back to that backseat. The Avalon indulges rear passengers in a few important ways. Legroom and knee space are generous, even with the front seats moved fully rearward, and the rear cushion is quite comfortable. The Avalon also lacks a center floor hump; this allows outboard passengers' feet to roam where they please and also enhances the comfort of center seat occupants. But what distinguishes the Avalon from much of the competition is its reclining rear seatbacks. Pull a lever in the cushion of either outboard seat, and its backrest will recline up to 10 degrees. All told, it's enough to make you want to share a few jars of Grey Poupon with fellow motorists.
With each outboard seatback reclined at a different angle, however, center seat comfort — which is only passable to begin with — is compromised. LATCH child-safety seat upper and lower anchors are installed in the outboard seating positions, while the center seat — the safest position for a child — makes due with a top-tether anchor only. Unlike the Chrysler 300 and Ford Five Hundred, the Avalon's rear seatback doesn't fold, but there is a lockable pass-thru to the 14.4-cubic-foot trunk. A full-size spare tire mounted on an alloy wheel is standard.
The driver and front passenger are treated to a refined environment and ample space. The comfortable seats have excellent fore and aft travel, and a power lumbar adjustment for the driver is standard. The substantial C-pillars impair rear visibility, but the large side and rear windows compensate somewhat.
Standard safety features include side curtain-type airbags, side-impact airbags for the front seats and a knee airbag for the driver. The front head restraints can't be positioned close enough to the head for optimal safety in a rear-end collision, however. A tilt/telescoping steering column is standard, but instead of a single lever like some manufacturers' systems, it uses two: one for tilt and the other for telescope, which makes its operation more complicated than necessary.
Other curiosities exist. The stereo's display is positioned in the center of the dashboard, far above and separated from the unit's buttons and dials. The display — which is installed where an optional navigation system would go — also shows climate control settings and other vehicle information. It appears pretty lifeless when the climate control system and stereo are off; a dashboard storage bin and a slimmer LCD screen would be a better use of the space.
The Avalon's interior designers also appear to have a fascination with covers. The stereo, cupholders, cassette deck (when installed) and center storage area can all be concealed behind doors. While these covers give the cabin a clean appearance when all are shut, it looks cluttered when they're open.
Overall, interior materials have a high-quality feel, and it's clear Toyota fretted over the details when designing the passenger compartment. Case in point: The Avalon's lighted vanity mirrors in the front sun visors have a dimming feature not seen before in this price class. Nice. My Touring test car was fitted with silver-look trim pieces, but if that style is not to your liking, Avalons are also available with imitation wood trim. Storage provisions include a large glove box, a sizable center console bin and pull-out front door pockets.
Standard XL features include a power driver's seat; 16-inch wheels; dual-zone climate control; power windows, locks and mirrors; steering-wheel-mounted stereo and climate buttons; cruise control; and keyless entry. Touring models have 17-inch wheels, leather seating surfaces, xenon high-intensity-discharge headlights, fog lamps and a rear spoiler. XLS buyers get a standard power moonroof, an in-dash six-CD changer, heated outside mirrors, HomeLink buttons and a security system. The top-level Limited has front heated and ventilated seats, power seat-cushion-length adjustment for the driver's seat, rain-sensing wipers and a power rear sunshade as standard equipment. Available options include a remote engine starter, a navigation system, Toyota's Vehicle Stability Control electronic stability system and adaptive cruise control.
In the Avalon's market segment, class-leading performance figures don't automatically result in driving enjoyment. Rather, driver satisfaction is oftentimes influenced by the mood of any passengers along for the ride. For drivers who need a car that can keep the passengers happy, the Avalon is worth considering.
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