DRIVEN: First Drive: 2011 Toyota Avalon

September 14, 2010
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Recently, Toyota has given the Avalon a push, with a vaguely retro advertising campaign that extols buyers to travel "Avalon class." And while the visuals may appeal to a demographic that fondly remembers the 1950s, the ads also work because their message is built around a kernel of truth. For passengers, particularly, the Avalon is definitely a nicer-than-average way to travel.
2011 Toyota Avalon Front View
Size matters
When the Avalon first appeared, it seemed almost an afterthought in the Toyota lineup. A stretched Camry with a bench front seat to cater to the geezer set, there wasn't much in the Avalon to get excited about. Now, however, there's more separation between the two cars. Not mechanically, but certainly in their design, with the Avalon wearing a unique suit of sharply creased sheetmetal. The Avalon is more than 8 inches longer than a Camry, but its wheelbase is only 0.8 inch longer. You'd think that with so much of the Avalon's extra length is outside of the wheelbase, there wouldn't really be a major difference in the two cars' interior volume, but there is.
While the Camry is a fairly roomy midsize car, the Avalon is an EPA-classified large car, with five cubic feet more passenger space than its mid-size sibling. With a relatively low cowl and a fairly generous glass area, the cabin is airy, and visibility is decent (although a rear-view camera is an option, it's not really a necessity). But the real revelation is the back seat, with its near limo-like 40.9 inches of legroom and reclining seatbacks. The front seats aren't bad either, wide and soft yet supportive enough for a long haul. The cushy armrests are welcome, but we were surprised at the rough-textured leather on the steering wheel, the one part of the car that you're touching all the time (the Avalon Limited has a wood steering wheel rim).
Otherwise, there were no cheap finishes in the cabin of our base Avalon, and leather is standard. The optional navigation system works very well, and the Bluetooth phone connection is easy to set-up. Controls generally are straightforward. Electroluminescent gauges, new this year, add a Lexus-like touch.
Unfortunately, none of the Avalon's extra length was put toward enlarging the trunk. Its 14.4 cubic feet is actually fractionally less than that of the Camry, and is somewhat disappointing for such a big car.
Is that the engine I hear?
The Avalon's 3.5-liter V-6 is identical to that in the Camry-and lots of other Toyota products. Paired with a six-speed automatic transmission that is a paragon of smoothness, the V-6 is barely audible as it goes about its work. With 268 horsepower (the same horsepower rating as in the Camry), it has no problem accelerating the Avalon, and it's EPA rated at 20 mpg city and an impressive 29 mpg on the highway. The 248 pound-feet of torque may not seem like a lot, but given the way the softly sprung suspension unloads the front wheels during acceleration, it is enough torque to twitch the steering wheel in your hands.
2011 Toyota Avalon Front Three Quarter View Gray
The upside of that soft suspension, though, is a smooth but not offensively floaty ride. There is no pretense of the Avalon being some kind of sporting machine-at least there isn't any more, as the former Touring package with its stiffer suspension has been quietly dropped-so you'll want to slow down for those curves. And, naturally, the steering prioritizes parking ease over road feel.
Embracing its inner fogey
Unlike many big sedans, the Avalon is all about room and comfort. The chunky, thick-waisted design extracts no concessions in rear-seat space. The mellow chassis tuning doesn't sacrifice bump isolation on the altar of high-speed handling. The easy-to-use controls aren't hidden beneath a veneer of austere modernism. The Avalon is a relaxed-fit car, and that earns it an old-man's-car rap (not entirely undeservedly, since the median age of buyers is 64 years old). But for sedan shoppers who are secure enough to ignore that image-or old enough to embrace it-the Avalon is a comfy ride.
2011 Toyota Avalon
Base price (with destination): $33,205
Overview
Body style: 4-door sedan
Accommodation: 5-passenger
Construction: Steel unibody
Powertrain
Engine: 24-valve, DOHC V-6
Displacement: 3.5 liters
Power: 268 hp @ 6200 rpm
Torque: 248 lb-ft @ 4700 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: Front-wheel
Fuel economy: 20/29/23 mpg (city/highway/combined)

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2011 Toyota Avalon

Base FWD 4-Dr Sedan V6
starting at (MSRP)
$33,195
Engine
3.5L V6
Fuel Economy
20 City 29 Hwy
2011 Toyota Avalon