Editor's note: This review was written in July 2010 about the 2011 Toyota Avalon. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2012, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Done right, there's something about a large sedan that's highly appealing. Good ride comfort, power to spare and plenty of room are attributes that defined the full-size American sedan for decades. That's the type of car Toyota now makes in the form of its Avalon, which got a number of significant updates for the 2011 model year.
The Avalon succeeds at transporting people in complete comfort and surrounding them with a host of luxury trappings. In short, it's the modern reincarnation of the classic American sedan.
The 2011 Avalon is offered in base and Limited trim levels. I tested a Limited model with an as-tested price of $37,884. (To see a side-by-side comparison of the two trims, click here.)
Long and low, the Avalon stretches to 197.6 inches overall, making it about 8 inches longer than a Toyota Camry. It looks a little bulbous from some angles, and the C-pillars don't have the most graceful arc.
For 2011, the Avalon receives some subtle styling changes to its front and rear. The headlights, grille and front bumper are new, but because the overall look closely resembles the prior version, the changes could easily go unnoticed. The same goes for the rear, which has new but familiar-looking LED taillights and a license plate holder that's been moved from the bumper to the restyled trunklid.
Ride & Handling
Comfort reigns supreme in the Avalon, and this has some positive and negative consequences. On the plus side, the sedan's soft suspension tuning provides excellent ride quality. The Avalon floats smoothly down the road, the cabin undisturbed by rougher stretches of pavement. It's one of those things that give the Avalon a sense of luxury beyond its price. A quick dip in the road makes the nose bob up and down briefly, but the motion is quickly controlled. Larger bumps, however, are acutely felt.
The steering is another area where the Avalon upholds its comfort mantra. The wheel turns easily with a light touch; it feels like it's attached to a giant ball bearing that's been lathered in WD-40. Despite the light effort at lower speeds, which makes maneuvering a parking garage a cinch, there isn't any unwanted twitchiness on the highway, just confident and predictable transitions when changing lanes.
The flip side of the Avalon's comfortable outlook is that it doesn't hold up well when you drive it hard into a corner. It will go along with you up to a point, but plenty of body roll and a nose-heavy feel keep any chance at fun locked away in a safe … at the bottom of Lake Michigan.
Going & Stopping
"Effortless" is the best word to describe the Avalon's drivetrain. Like the 2010 model, the 2011 Avalon is powered by a 268-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine that drives the front wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission. The car pulls strongly away from stoplights, and the V-6 still has plenty of gusto on the highway for a quick pass. Floor the gas pedal around 70 mph, and the transmission quickly kicks down, engine rpm jumps and the hood noticeably rises as the Avalon squats down and surges forward. This engine's high-speed power is truly impressive, and not all that common among mainstream full-size sedans.
You might think this kind of performance would make your local gas station owner rich, but the Avalon gets surprisingly good mileage for its size. Its EPA-estimated 20/29 mpg city/highway rating beats the most efficient versions of large front-wheel-drive sedans like the 2011 Ford Taurus (18/28 mpg), 2011 Hyundai Azera (20/28) and 2011 Chevrolet Impala (19/29). The Avalon's V-6 takes regular gas.
Some of Toyota's newer interiors, like the ones in the recently redesigned Corolla compact sedan and Sienna minivan, haven't left the best impression; the materials quality and attention to detail trail the competition — significantly in some areas. Perhaps Toyota is turning a corner, because the new Avalon's cabin doesn't suffer this same fate. It's a noteworthy aesthetic improvement over the prior model's interior and gives the Avalon a luxury-car feel.
The 2011 Avalon's dashboard, center control panel and center console are new, and unlike the prior model all the areas feature premium materials, with the dash and many of the door panels finished in a nicely grained, low-gloss surface that looks great. Gone is the blue-screened display that used to sit to the right of the instruments, as well as the many silver-colored doors covering things like the stereo and cupholders. Instead, my test car's console had covers finished in nicer-looking simulated wood and gray-silver trim. Overall, the interior is nice enough that no one would question it if there were a Lexus L badge on the steering wheel instead of the Toyota T — at least in the Limited model I drove.
There is one thing in the Avalon's interior that's a drag, but it doesn't seem like something that would be too hard to fix. There are two levers to adjust the standard tilt/telescoping steering wheel, as opposed to the more common single one. If you plan on sharing the car with someone who sets the wheel in a completely different spot than you do, it could get annoying.
The standard power-operated front seats are upholstered in leather. The seats are flat — there's no real side bolstering — and the cushioning is on the softer side. Even with the driver's-seat lumbar support backed all the way off, I could still feel it in my lower back, which isn't ideal.
If you haven't experienced the backseat of an Avalon, I guarantee you'll be impressed by the amount of room the car offers. There's an enormous amount of space for passengers to stretch out, including loads of legroom for taller folks. Even with the front seats in their rearmost position, there's still decent legroom in back. To top it off, the Avalon has standard reclining rear backrests — an uncommon feature in a non-luxury sedan. Their overall comfort is enough to make you toss the keys to your spouse, slide into the backseat and say "Wake me when we're there" — as long as you aren't worried about the repercussions of such a move.
The Avalon's trunk measures 14.4 cubic feet, which is less than some of its main competitors offer. (The Impala's trunk is 18.6 cubic feet, the Azera's 16.6 and the Taurus' a sizable 20.1.)
The cargo area is deep but not particularly tall, and there's a full-size spare tire on an alloy wheel underneath the cargo floor. One downside of the reclining backseat is that it precludes a folding backseat, which is useful when you need to carry large, bulky items inside the car. A locking pass-through between the outboard rear seats is standard.
The 2011 Avalon received the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Top Safety Pick designation, which is given to models that offer a stability system and achieve Good overall ratings in the agency's frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests, its roof-strength test and its whiplash-injury test.
Standard safety features include a stability system, side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags for both rows, active front head restraints and a knee airbag for the driver.
For a full list of safety features, check out the Standard Equipment & Specs page.
Avalon in the Market
You can look at the Avalon in one of two ways: Either it's a non-luxury car with a luxury-car price tag, or a luxury car without the luxury badge. Regardless of where you come down on that debate, one thing is clear: There are few cars in the Avalon's price range that provide more passenger room and comfort.
If you do decide to hold the Avalon up against a similarly priced luxury car, like the Lexus ES 350, it fares pretty well. The Avalon gives you more room, better gas mileage and just as much luxury. I think I've chosen sides: The Avalon is a luxury car for those who don't care about luxury badges.
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