Out-Buick a Buick. That’s the one phrase that comes to mind when discussing Toyota’s flagship, the Avalon. Provide a completely relaxing experience, isolated from all the distractions of your commute. Serene, luxurious, but not flashy. It succeeded so well in capturing that market that Buick is re-launching itself as an American performance brand. Toyota scared them well enough away.
1. A 3.5L V6 makes 268-hp and delivers 20/29-mpg (city/hwy).
2. The 2011 Avalon gets Toyota’s new brake override system for added safety.
3. Unique in the segment are reclining rear seats.
4. Base models start from $32,595; roughly $4,000 less than a Lexus ES350.
Before considering an Avalon, ask, do I enjoy turning corners vigorously? If yes, walk over to the Buick dealer and invest in a LaCrosse. The long and short is that it’ll be more rewarding to drive. If comfort trumps all, keep reading.
A JAPANESE SEDAN FOR THOSE WHO THINK BIGGER IS BETTER
The Avalon hasn’t changed its course much in its three generations. It’s still mechanically based on a stretched Camry platform, with adequate power and loads of space. The current version, which had some minor updates in 2010, continues with that formula.
At nearly 200-inches long and 73-inches wide, the Avalon provides a big body to stuff people and cargo into, although at 14.4 cu. ft. the trunk isn’t as big as you might expect. Should you need space for longer items, however, the 60/40 split-folding rear seat accommodates those needs.
Those dimensions also allow for a large, roomy cabin with stretch-out room for five. The gauges are well organized and clear, and the Avalon has one of Toyota’s more well-laid-out dashboards.
EXTENSIVE STANDARD EQUIPMENT
As you might expect, standard Avalons come with a long list of luxury items like a leather-wrapped steering wheel, power-adjustable heated and ventilated leather seats, keyless entry, a nine-speaker audio system, dual-zone climate control and wood-grain trim everywhere. The more expensive Limited gains a power rear sunshade, a JBL audio upgrade, keyless ignition and ventilated front seats. The only real option is a DVD-based touch-screen navigation system.
Mechanically, the Avalon comes in one basic package: a 3.5-liter V6 producing 268-hp and 248 lb-ft of torque with a six-speed automatic transmission sending power to the front wheels. Direct gasoline injection and low-rolling resistance tires help it achieve 20-mpg in the city and 29-mpg on the highway.
QUIET AND COMFORTABLE
Thanks to some serious work with sound-deadening, aerodynamics and soft bushings, the Avalon is quiet as a tomb. Even when the V6 is at full throttle – which chances are will be rarely – it is extremely isolated from the occupants. But make no mistake, the big Toyota moves out of its own way fairly well since it only weighs around 3,600 lbs., which is decent for such a large machine.
Throw it into a turn, though, and you’ll be in for a surprise. The MacPherson strut suspension is tuned very, very soft, and the 17-inch aluminum wheels have relatively tall 55-series tires designed more for noise reduction and long life than corner-carving. That the steering has virtually no feel and the power-assist is overboosted comes as no surprise either. The brakes are surprisingly good, though, with standard ABS, stability and traction control to help when needed. Should the worst happen, the Avalon has seven airbags, including a driver’s knee airbag, to help cushion the blow.
Avalon pricing starts at $32,595, while the Limited rings in at $35,835. That’s decent value compared to other big front-drivers, but the aging Hyundai Azera tops out at only $29,570. Admittedly, most of the competition is due for replacement soon too. The Buick Lucerne doesn’t really attract since it’s one of GM’s oldest platforms and is thoroughly outclassed. A high-end Ford Taurus has the space, but doesn’t cosset as well as the Toyota. A couple rear-wheel-drive options include the excellent Hyundai Genesis and new Chrysler 300, both in V6 form. Those would be similarly priced, and offer some color compared to the staid Toyota.
But the Avalon really is as close to a Lexus as you can get without paying the price premium for the little “L” badge. In fact, it’s more a Lexus than some current cars, like the HS 250 hybrid sedan or upcoming CT 200 hatchback. It’s smooth, quiet and unassuming, and perfectly positioned to capture Toyota customers who’ve grown up with the brand and grown out of a Camry.