The Sacramento Bee's view

I had a real identity crisis driving the 2002 Toyota Avalon. Not with myself – with the car. The Avalon I was driving did not seem like a Toyota. It was more like one cupholder short of a Lexus.

Granted, the Avalon in my test drive was the XLS version, a major step up from the Avalon XL (with the XLS priced about $4,000 more). And, yes, my test car included a $650 vehicle stability control system and a sweet option package that included leather trim, heated seats and a six-disc, in-dash CD changer – bringing the bottom line to $33,594.

But this Avalon – the biggest sedan made by Toyota – would have been entirely at home wearing a badge from Toyota’s luxury loaded Lexus division. It felt, handled and looked like a luxury model.

For starters, the Avalon XLS just feels more substantial than all those Toyotas that sell so well but feel small – Corolla, Camry, Echo, Celica and Prius. At nearly 192 inches in length and 3,500 pounds, the Avalon’s ride feels rock solid – along the lines of a Lincoln Town Car.

At speed, the Avalon motored along with barely a whisper, which the automaker said is no accident. Engineers put enough sound-absorbing technology into the Avalon to qualify it as a sensory deprivation chamber – no wind noise, no squeaks, no jarring rumble from the engine.

The Avalon’s profile is pleasing to the eye, a look of understated elegance courtesy of Toyota’s Calty Design Center in Newport Beach.

Interior comforts are numerous, and the dash is free of clutter. I liked the center-mounted information center above the dash. A quick glance to the right told me virtually everything I needed to know about what was going on inside and outside the vehicle (time, direction, fuel economy, average speed, fuel range, trip-time meter and calendar).

The Avalon can be purchased with a five-passenger or six-passenger configuration. In my five-passenger test model, the back seat was happily spacious – plenty of room for three adults to stretch out and relax.

The 3-liter, 24-valve V-6 engine easily handled everything that was asked of it, from robust accelerations to smooth runs up steep hills. The variable-valve timing feature translates to good fuel mileage from the enthusiastic power plant – my mileage actually surpassed the fuel economy rating of 21 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway.

A car that goes for $33,594 is certainly a major investment, but the list of standard features was long and impressive. It included side air bags, dual power heated mirrors, automatic/dual climate control, a premium JBL sound system and power windows and door locks.

Given Avalon’s history of strong showings in customer-satisfaction surveys and high reliability ratings, the package adds up to serious competition for anyone else making a big sedan for American motorists.

Avalon has made big-time inroads in California. In 1999, 10,178 new Avalons were so ld statewide, state Department of Motor Vehicle registration figures said. Last year, that jumped nearly 73 percent to 17,595 units sold.

Californians obviously like what they’ve seen, and that should not change with what Avalon has to offer in the 2002 model year. And for those who might desire a Lexus but can’t quite afford the fare, the Avalon XLS provides that same Lexus rush for a few dollars less.

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