First Drive: 2011 Toyota Avalon

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.

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.

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