Could anyone dislike the Toyota Avalon, newly reworked for the 2000 model year? If you deal for Lexus, Toyota’s luxury franchise, you probably hate it. It’s a thin line manufacturers tread when they send mainstream cars out one door and snob-appeal offerings out the other . . . with the new Avalon, Toyota may have strayed across the line; bravo for them.

The Avalon series started life in 1995 as a replacement for the top-of-the-line Cressida. Originally not a great deal more than a stretched Camry, it has now, with generation II, become almost a rival for the Lexus ES300. There are many points of differentiation – the Avalon is roomier and the ES300 is sportier, to name the main two – but the popular perception is that the low-end Lexus is little more than a pricier Avalon. And when you’re selling, perception is perhaps more important than reality.

The Avalon – originally sent to do battle against the now defunct Oldsmobile 88 – was the first Toyota model to qualify as a domestic American product and is still built alongside the Camry at the Georgetown, Ky., facility. It was designed jointly by American (well, Californian) and Japanese engineers. It is considered a full-size car, by dint of its 121.5 cubic feet of interior space. Equipped with a front bench, it’s a six-passenger machine – at least there are that many sets of seatbelts. Asking that much of most large cars today is a bit of a stretch. The Avalon does afford plenty of comfort for two adults in the back, though, and actually, three people could coexist there on amiable terms for a while, at least. Certainly more now than before; the Avalon II is bigger than its forebear by almost an inch in all the crucial dimensions, the most notable of which, perhaps, is width. It’s surprising how much difference that small increment can make in look and feel.

From the outside, the Avalon appears much more substantial than the Camry. Indeed, it is 3.5 inches longer overall, sits on nearly two inches more wheelbase and is about two inches taller. It carries the mass well, though, looking more like a midsize. It’s not likely to draw unwanted attention – the “bland” label still fits, although of course one could argue that “classic” and “restrained” are different facets of the same stone. The same can be said of the interior – it’s done with good quality materials, tastefully and skillfully applied – but somehow lacks character or an inviting visual appeal. A hefty 6-footer, I had plenty of room behind the wheel and, had it been necessary, could have moved the seat forward a bit to allow a second-class passenger to stretch out. Headroom was sufficient, even with the intrusion of the optional moonroof. The dash has been moved forward four inches, and that trick alone creates a much more open feeling in the cabin. Instruments and controls are attractive and well-placed.

The Avalon comes in two series, XL and the premium XLS. The XL is by no means base, featuring the no rmal range of power assists, air conditioning, the same drivetrain as the XLS, and both front and side air bags. One important point of difference is that only with the XLS series can you get the optional ($850) new vehicle skid control package. This includes traction control, and those two up-and-coming driver helpers, yaw control and brake assist. Yaw control, or skid control, uses sensors to detect when the vehicle is deviating from the intended path and applies selective braking to attempt to re-establish equilibrium. Traction control, of course, keeps the front, driving axle, from getting out of sync with the rear, and brake assist uses a sensor to detect when the driver is applying the brakes with unusual speed and force and electrically triggers maximal braking force. The test car did not have this package, but having tested a similar scheme on German luxury cars, I’d be very strongly inclined to hazard the relatively modest price.

Avalons of both series get four-wheel akes with antilock as standard equipment. They’re good-sized and the ones in front, which do the majority of the work, are ventilated for better heat dissipation. They produced strong stops with no discernible fade after a number of repetitions, and the antilock purred as it kept the front wheels turning on the edge of lockup as a “panicked” driver jammed them on a slick road.

The engine Avalon gets is much the same as the unit supplied with V-6 Camrys, a 24-valve, 3-liter, all-aluminum double-overhead-cam specimen that here has picked up a variable valve timing trick that boosts both power and torque. In normal trim, the engine is good for 194 horses and 209 foot-pounds. In the Avalon, those numbers are bumped to 210 and 220. The compression ratio was raised to 10.5:1, which helps peak power and crispness of response, but also brings with it a desire for premium fuel. The valve-timing machinations are employed mainly to allow a broader, flatter power band, and the Avalon does have that to a remarkable degree. There is a definite sense of moving into another dimension as the engine passes through 4,500 rpm, but liftoff from a standing start is also suitably brisk. Even with its solid curb weight of 3,439 pounds and an automatic transmission, the Avalon got off its duff and cracked 60 in just a hair over eight seconds, which, for the class, is plenty good. The engine is exceptionally smooth and quiet; at idle, the tach is the only clue it’s running. Even when working very hard, it emits no rude noises. Similarly, the four-speed automatic transmission goes about its work unobtrusively as an honor graduate of butler school.

Ride quality is excellent, the Avalon coping well with challenging surfaces and gliding over the good ones. Hustled over my washboardy torture track, it felt as if it was running out of shock travel, but there’s enough cushioning built into the mounts that even that didn’t create any harshness.

I’m sure the test car benefited from having the optional, larger wheels. Fifteen-inchers are adequate for a car this size, but the premium 16’s are better for both ride and handling. The 205/60 Michelins squealed a bit when stretched to the limit, but hung on quite nicely on both wet and dry pavement. The transition into oversteer (running wide) was gentle and predictable when the G forces exceeded the tires’ ability to cope.

The premium JBL stereo was pleasingly clear and had excellent overall tonality, abetted by preprogrammed equalization curves. The radio tuners were hampered by the on-glass antennas, which I’ve never found to be as effective as masts. Still, sensitivity was well within the average range, thanks perhaps to the “diversity” system, which combines signals front and rear to yield a better signal.

As a new model, the Gen-2 Avalon has neither reliability nor crash-test records. The antecedent model, however, was well above average in reliability and the Toyota folks certainly haven’t gotten dumber. EPA gas mileage estimates are 21 city, 29 highway. I logged 26.6.

Base manufacturer’s suggested retail price on an Avalon XLS is $29,755. The sample tested also had the power tilt/side moonroof ($910), carpeted floor mats and cargo mat ($158), and the XLS leather package ($1,940). This lattermost brings leather heated power seats up front, memory settings for driver’s seat and the heated outside mirrors, a rear console air conditioning vent, 16-inch alloy wheels, and the premium JBL AM-FM-cassette-CD changer with seven speakers. With freight, total sticker price was $33,218. That’s certainly intruding on luxury territory, but given the content and execution, the Avalon need make no apologies.

“The Gannett News Service”

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