First Drive: 2016 Toyota Avalon

The mythical island of Avalon features prominently in Arthurian legend, as the place the King went to recover after an epic battle, and where Arthur's sword, Excalibur was forged. At various times, it has been suggested Avalon's true location was near Scotland, Australia, or Italy. In other words, if the place ever was real, no one knows where to find where it stood.

No one save for Toyota, who will happily introduce a plot twist and tell you Avalon is halfway between Toyota-town and Lexus-land, where you'll find a luxury sedan that’s a bit nicer than a Camry, but not quite as fancy as an ES 350.

If you had asked us back when the Avalon was introduced in 1994, we wouldn't have guessed it would still exist 20 years later, but here it is, fresh from a makeover to update the fourth generation of Toyota's big sedan, introduced as a 2013 model.

Those updates are of the blink-and-you'll-miss them variety: outside there's a new grille and headlights (now standard LEDs) and LED daytime running lights. Toyota says the taillights are new, too, but if there's a difference, it's so subtle we can't see it in a side-by-side look at photos of old car and new.

Toyota's interior designers massaged the dash with a new, larger central touchscreen, updated gauge cluster, and more convincing wood-grain trim.

So what makes the Avalon worth writing about? Certainly not the car's popularity in Canada: Toyota Canada sold fewer than 800 Avalons this year. Indeed, this car's reason for being is that Americans like big, cushy sedans, and Toyota USA sells enough (over 50,000 last year) to warrant shipping a few north of the border for buyers somehow left unimpressed by the latest Camry. If you do find yourself wanting such a big, cushy sedan, let's see if you can handle what the Avalon has in store.

As before, power comes from Toyota's excellent 3.5L V6, sporting familiar power ratings of 268 hp and 248 lb-ft of torque. Funny we should say sporting, because the engine is the only thing remotely sporty about the Avalon. It's a smooth, powerful motor that has perhaps never had a more fitting home. Get hard on the gas from a stop, and you're limited only by the grip afforded by the front tires. Once they hook up, the Avalon accelerates briskly and with just the scarcest aural evidence that said acceleration is the result of anything mechanical.

The ride remains almost ridiculously comfortable, with body motions controlled just well enough to keep the car from truly wafting over wavy pavement. Almost comically, Toyota mapped out a drive route that took us down some of west Quebec's fantastic secondary roads, with all kinds of corners to carve. It was a bit like being asked to carve a turkey with a butter knife, but driven within its modest cornering limits, the Avalon actually proved a bit of fun. It certainly doesn't hurt to have all that power available for powering out of tight turns.

Avalon's seats are fabulous: they're wide, and provide decent support everywhere your body touches them. The Limited model we tooled around in has an electric thigh bolster to make the seating position easier to adjust for drivers of varying heights.

Beyond that, there's a big trunk and a spacious back seat, and the sub-10.0 L/100 km fuel consumption average we saw on our spirited drive suggests driving range of nearly 700 km for the more relaxed driver this car is aimed at.

For 2016, a Touring trim replaces XLE as the base model, a change that also brings an $805 price increase to $38,990. Standard kit includes a nine-speaker stereo with USB input, satellite radio, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, navigation, integrated garage door opener, leather seats with heat up front, driver's seat memory, backup camera, intelligent keyless entry with push-button start, and leather trim on the shifter and door panels.

Stepping up to the $43,770 Limited model adds an 11-speaker sound system, heated rear seats, ventilated front chairs, powered rear-window sunshade, wireless smartphone charging, and a comfort-tuned suspension Toyota says provides a "wonderfully smooth ride." Limited trim also adds the Toyota Safety Sense suite of features, including pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert with steering assist, automatic high beams, and radar-based cruise control.

Above all, the Avalon is a strong value, bringing Lexus-like luxury down to a more affordable price point: a Lexus ES 350 with its optional touring package adds a few niceties, but is otherwise similarly equipped, for about $2,500 more. The Avalon's problem, at least in Canada, is the ES's own value proposition when lined up against its European competitors.

The Avalon certainly isn't for everyone, but if a comfortable, competent big sedan is what you're after, you won't need a degree in British folklore and mythology to see this as a very compelling alternative to any number of more expensive upscale sedans.

Fresh from a makeover to update the fourth generation of Toyota's big sedan, introduced as a 2013 model. 1/11/2016 6:33:25 AM