It’s funny, over the years Toyota has aimed its Avalon at traditional Buick buyers even while Buick has gone after Lexus, Toyota’s luxury division. From the moment you slide behind the steering wheel of the Avalon, it’s obvious that this is a traditional car chasing traditional-sedan buyers. You know, the people who usually buy Buicks. The big Toyota is definitely geared toward older people, and there’s nothing wrong with that, since there’s a huge population of aging baby boomers and for many of them the Avalon is the ideal car. All of the controls are simply laid out and easy to decipher. The steering wheel rake is adjusted with a ratcheting device that reminds me of the ones in scores of GM sedans in the past. The digital displays for driver- and passenger-side interior temperature settings have digits that must be 24 points tall, for easy visibility. All of the display fonts are pretty big, actually. Hey, I’m only 45 years old but I already wear bifocals, so I am the last person to complain about big type fonts! The cowl is low, so you can see the hood sloping down in front of you. There’s good visibility in all directions. Our tester had cooled seats, a welcome touch in the July heat. The front seats are flat and wide and easy to slide into but not particularly supportive.
The back seat is huge. Associate web editor Jake Holmes and I sat on either side of summer intern Greg Fink, while road-test editor Chris Nelson handled chauffeur duties, and we all enjoyed the impressive leg, hip, and shoulder room. It’s a very comfortable ride back there as well; even when Chris nailed the gas, we weren’t at all unsettled.
Nail the gas, you say, in an Avalon? Well, yes. Although the Avalon is no sport sedan, its silky smooth V-6 delivers nice, strong, linear acceleration, especially if you shove the gearshift lever into S for Sport. (Yes, we agree, it’s pretty incongruous to even see a Sport setting in an Avalon.) If you’re late for church or rushing to make the early-bird dinner special, the Avalon can easily pass the slowpokes impeding your progress. This Toyota V-6 sounds better at high revs than similar V-6 engines from both Nissan and Honda, in fact.
That praise aside, the Avalon was pretty soggy when I had to swerve to avoid a dead raccoon on a two-lane road, and I was driving the Toyota for some panning-shot photos and managed to pretty much fry the brakes after three or four successive stops from 80 or 90 mph. The front rotors were a-smokin’ and a-stinkin’ something fierce. Like I said, this is not a sport sedan. But it’s a perfectly nice, traditional full-size sedan for the folks who want one.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
The Avalon is a pleasantly surprising car. The expectation is that it will be the marshmallow ride that every octogenarian dreams of; the reality is that it is a creamy sedan in both comfort and power. The 3.5-liter V-6 is responsive, but not neck-snappingly so, and pulls smoothly and silently off the line. The hushed cabin means that speed is accumulated much more quickly than you realize from behind the wheel. The plush seats are comfortable, every button is dampened, and road noise is generally suppressed. However, the interior’s luxury trimmings are not equal to those found in a Lexus, and show some cost-cutting in the dash, door, and center-console trim.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
Having received the keys to the Avalon, I hopped into the driver’s seat, put on some chill-out music, and expected to waft home. When presented with some slow-moving, dim-witted traffic at an intersection in downtown Ann Arbor, my first idea was to slow to a crawl and wait for everything to work itself out. But I didn’t do that: I stabbed the accelerator and sprinted away.
As I roared down Ashley Street, I wondered one thing: who the heck attached a rocket booster to this queen-size bed? I turned off the chill-out and turned up the trip-hop on the suspiciously loud stereo (thanks, JBL). That afternoon I blasted home both very quickly and very smoothly.
In its segment, there’s no arguing that the Avalon is the most boring choice. It is supremely comfortable, eminently capable in a straight line, and it’s reliable, even at the expense of any character. When compared with, say, the Chrysler 300 or the Hyundai Genesis, it’s seriously outclassed in curb-appeal.
Will an Avalon buyer care that the flaccid steering is so uncommunicative and the front end is so vague. Nope — it’s easy to grip and turn the wheel, and it requires little effort to drive. The seats may be made out of the worst material ever called “leather,” but they’re leather, they’re heated and cooled, and they’re comfortable. When it rains, the wipers turn on. When it gets dark, the headlamps illuminate. Nice.
For me, the powertrain doesn’t make up for the dullsville styling, the utter lack of driver involvement, or the cheesy leather seats — I really don’t like the car. I do get why it works, however.
Ben Timmins, Associate Web Editor
Yes, Ben, the Toyota Avalon is fast. The same engine that smoothly propels the Lotus Evora to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds makes the Avalon a predator on the highway, should you desire to be so. It wafts down the road at 80 mph with the smoothness and effortlessness of a bygone era. A bygone American era, that is. Joe DeMatio mentioned its similarity to GM sedans of yore. I’m specifically reminded of my grandparents’ late-1990s Oldsmobile Aurora. Smooth-as-creamy-peanut-butter ride, amply proportioned leather seats, ergonomically friendly controls. Of course, that Aurora, built during GM’s bad old days, broke very often and very expensively. That’s not a concern for the Avalon, making it the perfect car for the many people who don’t really like to devote much thought to their car. Does the car float? Yes. Does it understeer? You bet – I had the front tires howling like a Werewolf through a decreasing-radius highway off-ramp. Would this matter to my grandparents? No. And guess which of us actually has $38,884 to spend on a car?
As others have noted, the only real shortcoming is the quality of the interior materials. The not-quite-luxury-grade plastics undermine what is actually one of Toyota’s more attractive cabins.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
Like Toyota’s Camry, the Avalon offers little in the way of driving excitement. It’s not meant to please or satisfy the desires of automotive enthusiasts or even those of anyone under the age of 50. Objectively, though, the Avalon is a supremely smooth, comfortable, and quiet vehicle that, despite its totally bland design, has managed to find enough buyers to keep Toyota from dropping it. I guess that shows how much we know.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
The Toyota Avalon is not thrilling or interesting in the least, but it does exactly what it’s supposed to do — it provides a perfect step up in the Toyota lineup from the brand’s similarly businesslike, purposeful, but unexciting Camry and Corolla — and it conveniently avoids the potential expense and flashiness of a Lexus-branded product.
There’s lots of room in the back seats, which recline. Acceleration is surprisingly abrupt when you step on it, although the front tires are too anxious to squeal. This car seems hardly changed from the Avalon I drove for an autumn weekend in 2005 while writing this comparison test. In the half dozen years since, however, the cassette-tape deck has disappeared from the Avalon’s cabin. Ah, glorious progress!
Its anodyne looks impress no one, but the Avalon transports driver and passengers in comfort — and at a decent price. For me, though, I can think of at least a dozen $39,000 five-seat automobiles that I’d rather own.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
The Toyota Avalon has never been an exciting car to drive, and the 2011 model is no exception. It does benefit, however, from a redesign that makes it look somewhat more modern than its immediate predecessor, with a more pronounced grille treatment, new headlights, and chrome trim around the side windows and on the door sills. The interior was also redesigned, although calling it more modern might be a bit of a stretch. The wood on the dash and the steering wheel is so highly glossed that it looks fake. The parts of the steering wheel that aren’t done in wood are covered in leather, which could have a nicer feel. In a nod to yesteryear, the rear seats are designed to comfortably seat three across. Not to say that this car will actually put you to sleep, but if you’re a little drowsy, you can also recline the rear seats and take a nice nap. The nav system works pretty well and is easy to use, but it could also use some updating, as the graphics look like they come from a five-year-old Garmin system.
As is typical with Toyota, the powertrain is silky smooth, and even at 80 mph, extra power comes on immediately. The steering is odd, however, as it feels overassisted and keeps wanting to spring back to the center. The brakes are fine for sedate motoring (which is all this car is likely to see), but feel as if they might become overwhelmed if pushed too hard.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
Is this an exciting car? Not at all. But it is one of the smoothest, quietest, and most comfortable vehicles I’ve driven, shy of some six-figure luxury cars. Some bemoan the death of traditional American barges like the Ford Crown Victoria, but their spirit lives on in the Avalon. It’s roomy, cushy, and surprisingly quick — at least in a straight line.
From a dynamic and NVH perspective, the Avalon reminds me quite a bit of the Lexus ES, despite costing some $4000 less. I don’t see much need to completely reinvent the Avalon formula since its older demographic seems keen on it, but some refining of the interior materials — particularly those applied to the upper dash and the steering wheel — would go a long way in helping the car look as nice as it feels.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor
2011 Toyota Avalon Limited
Base price (with destination): $36,445
Price as tested: $38,884
3.5-liter V-6 w/dual VVT-i
6-speed automatic transmission w/sequential shift
17-in alloy wheels
Vehicle stability control
Smart Stop technology
Leather-trimmed 8-way power front seats
Smart key system w/push-button start
Power rear sunshade
Dual zone auto climate control
Options on this vehicle:
Navigation & premium audio – $1450
Voice-activated touch-screen DVD camera
12 speakers w/subwoofer
USB port w/iPod connectivity
Remote engine starter – $529
Wheel locks – $67
Preferred accessory package – $393
Carpet floor mats/trunk mat
Rear bumper applique
First aid kit
Glass breakage sensor
Key options not on vehicle:
Paint protection film – $395
3.5-liter V-6 w/dual VVT-i
Horsepower: 268hp @ 6200 rpm
Torque: 248lb-ft @ 4700 rpm
6-speed automatic transmission w/sequential shift
Curb weight: 3616 lb
17-in alloy wheels