A "tranquil ride" is how Toyota describes the behavior of its luxury flagship, Avalon. And tranquil it is indeed, as well as quiet, roomy and very, very comfortable. Avalon is a near-luxury car that tries to lure customers from Buick and Mercury,
rather than Mercedes or Volvo. The overall feeling is that of an American-style boulevard cruiser, soft and cushy. Avalon was revamped for 2000; the redo carries over for 2001. When it first arrived in '94, it was little more than a slightly
bigger, dolled-up Camry. Styling was bland and the driving unremarkable. Avalon now moves forward as a more distinctive automobile. Styled in California for the American market, Avalon has the look of a small limo, with a large chrome grille, slab
sides, upright side windows and a nicely detailed rear. It's an eye-catching look for a luxury car. Toyota in general is moving in a new direction, vying for an image based as much on edgy styling as it has on rock-solid reliability. Look at the
newly sharpened lines of its sporty Celica; the tiny, quirky Echo; and now, the luxurious Avalon. Avalon's interior is commodious, with lots of leg and head room for rear-seat passengers. There's an airy feel to the cabin, partly because of the
wide, high ceiling and the upright windows. The trunk is huge. The thickly padded seats are like easy chairs. The test car, an upper-end XLS, came with bucket seats, but Avalon can be ordered with three-across bench seating up front, a rarity
among Japanese nameplates. The sweeping dashboard is unlike anything else, arching from door to door with all of its gauges and computer data on a vertical portion far forward from the driver. It's disconcerting at first, but the forward shape
enhances the feeling of spaciousness. The Avalon drives like a big, domestic car, absorbing bumps and irregularities and insulating the occupants from outside intrusions. The trade-off is an overly soft suspension that feels uncontrolled, allowing
the body to sway in turns and heave over dips and rises in the asphalt. Despite that, the handling is fairly nimble, with good cornering agility. Steering is responsive and precise, but too light and numb to the touch. The V-6 engine,
which Avalon shares with Lexus, is powerful and smooth, befitting Avalon's image. Acceleration is blunted by the weight of the sedan, but under way, performance is strong, with loads of power for merging, passing and hill-climbing. The automatic
transmission is mated well to the engine power, with shifting that is nearly imperceptible. The base-model Avalon, the XL, can be had for as little as $25,195, decently equipped. The XLS comes standard with a full load of luxury goodies, including
every power feature possible; the full leather treatment; dual climate control, so the person sitting next to you can be in a different climactic zone; and a computerized information display.
Options on the test car included vehicle stability control with traction control and brake assist, all of which help bring a skidding car under control, within reason. That's available only on the XLS and costs $850, well worth the price. Antilock
brakes come standard. The power moonroof costs $910. And a premium luxury package for nearly $2,000 includes leather-trimmed and heated seats; memory for the power seats and mirrors; 16-inch alloy wheels and performance tires; and a seven-speaker
stereo upgrade that sounds superb. In the Avalon, it's more likely to play Chopin than Metallica. Avalon is a class act for drivers who want American-style comfort from an import brand with a reputation for durability. Though calling Avalon an
import is something of a misnomer, since it's styled in California and built in Kentucky. Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sedan with front-wheel drive. Base price:$29,755. Price as tested:
$33,910. Engine: 3.0-liter V-6, 210 hp at 5,800 rpm, 220 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. Transmission: Four-speed automatic. Curb weight: 3,428 pounds. Wheel base: 107.1 inches. EPA mileage: 21 city, 29 highway.
Highs: • Interesting styling. • Interior room, comfort. • Boulevard ride. Lows: • Mushy suspension. • Numb steering.
• Expensive top model.