You don’t usually buy a Toyota to be different. In fact, one could argue that Toyota products are the very definition of mainstream ubiquity.
Then there is the Avalon.
I saw one on the road a few weeks ago (honest, I did) and my car-dar did a double take, flashing “Unidentified! Unidentified!” to the receptors in the old cranium.
The Toyota Avalon actually got kinda’ cool when we weren’t looking.
My initial take: What is this long wheelbase, swoopy and aggressively handsome four-door sedan with the little duck-tail spoiler? The illegitimate spawn of a Ford Fusion and an Audi A7? A secret prototype out for a bit of air?
Uh, no. A rare Toyota. The Toyota Avalon actually got kinda’ cool when we weren’t looking. At least cooler than the previous Avalons that came from the factory with the left turn signal all ready stuck on forever and a built-in homing device set for Scottsdale, Arizona.
Indeed, this fourth-generation Avalon that arrived for the 2013 model year has traded in the chest-high plaid green pants and Velcro runners for something altogether more contemporary. It’s sharply styled, has a high quality cabin and brags such techy features as text and email to voice. It’s also a pretty decent drive.
There is a tautness of body control that comes part and parcel with a ride that could very well alienate a major slice of senior contingent. It’s far from harsh, but neither does the Avalon glide down the road in impervious isolation. You’ll feel most of the road as it passes beneath.
The Avalon’s ace-in-the-hole has always been the silken 3.5L 60-degree V6, here making 268 hp, 248 lb-ft at 4700 rpm and hooked to a smooth-shifting six-speed auto. Power delivery is linear, but it really comes on strong above 3,500 rpm. Put your foot in it off the line and you’ll chirp the front tires and feel a tug of torque steer.
The front-drive only 2015 Toyota Avalon starts at $37,785 for the XLE and it checks most of the boxes expected in this near luxury category. This tester is the $39,880 Limited that adds heated and ventilated front seats with variable cushion length (eight-way power for the passenger), unique alloy wheel finish and auto-dimming side view mirrors with puddle lamps. Also fitted was the Premium Package that bestows automatic high beam, heated rear seats, three-zone climate control, pre-collision warning system bundled with adaptive cruise control, powered rear window sunshade and a very good 11-speaker JBL audio system.
Blind spot warning and a sunroof are standard fare. As heated steering wheels are showing up more in this class of car, my first-world inner spoiled brat was whining on a particularly freezing morning when no button was found to warm the rim.
Toyota Canada moved about 1,000 Avalons in 2014, making it a fairly rare bird. It seems the buying public doesn’t know quite what to make of this dashing and luxurious sedan that lives in a nether world somewhere between Toyota and Lexus. Is it an expensive Camry with all the trimmings or a cut-price Lexus?
I’m leaning more toward the latter, although with a starting price of $41,600, a 2015 Lexus ES 350 is not that far off – but you have to go to the $44,950 Touring to get real leather. The Avalon shares its drivetrain and platform with the ES sedan, the latter accounting for the Raptors-grade rear legroom. Using lots of high-strength steel, it’s a structurally solid chassis and the Avalon feels suitably refined and composed.
The interior is generally ergonomically sound in the way of all Toyotas. The controls are large, intuitive and well marked, although the 6.1-inch touchscreen can be fussy to negotiate – especially the small radio preset buttons that require very accurate finger prods. Not so easy when you’re on the move. Additionally, the sweep function that scrolls through the presets is hit and miss.
There’s a small screen just below the main display that shows HVAC info. The touch sensitive pads, in lieu of real buttons, work well for this type of thing. Again, they are clearly marked and there are little divots just below each one that guide your fingers. You’ll hear a beep of confirmation when pressing one.
The major gauges are backlit and I thoroughly appreciate the rotary controls just behind the shifter for the heating and cooling of the seats. No finger poking while searching through menus, thank you. The two big knobs for audio volume and tuning turn with an expensive feel, and just about every soft surface is trimmed in stitched “something” that convincingly passes for leather.
There are still a few clues in here as to the original mission of the Avalon – that being a North America–only offering aimed at a conservative full-size-sedan-buying demographic. The seat cushions are flat and don’t offer much support, and the shiny dark-tinted chrome accenting everywhere lends a somewhat tacky air that you won’t find in a Lexus product.
But I would argue the Avalon is a more zesty looker than the Lexus ES. And if you’re in the mood for a little spirited motoring, Toyota’s big sedan is happy to play along.
As noted earlier, the 268 hp, 248 lb-ft 3.5L naturally aspirated direct injection V6 is a silken honey that loves to charge when on the cam. It feels stronger than the published numbers. The steering is nicely weighted (although a bit numb on centre) and the controlled chassis keeps the big sedan poised in the corners. There are paddle shifters for the six-speed auto but the response is just too lazy for any meaningful engagement.
There are three mode buttons on the console – Eco, Normal and Sport. In Eco the throttle response softens, the tranny upshifts sooner and hangs on to taller gears longer, and air conditioner efficiency is optimized. Switch to Sport and everything goes the other way, but it’s all subtle to the point of near redundancy.
Official fuel numbers are 11.3 L/100 km city and 7.5 L/100 highway. I came in at a very respectable 9.2 L/100 km.
So what to make of the Avalon?
It’s an excellent luxury conveyance that looks great and delivers everything you might want in this segment, with the exception of all-wheel drive.
But I can guess why Toyota sells so few. Not for any shortcomings, but simply because a few grand more gets you into a Lexus ES 350, which has more cachet, more stuff and a classier cabin with a much larger display.
And here’s the irony. Toyota is currently all about making its cars more exciting, more stylish, more desirable. And now the Avalon, which has traditionally been the antithesis of all those things, is one of the more interesting vehicles Toyota has to offer.
3 years/60,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 3 years/60,000 km 24-hour roadside assistance
|Model Tested||2015 Toyota Avalon Limited||Destination Fee||$1,620|
|Base Price||$39,880||Price as Tested||$44,700|
$3,100 (Premium Package)