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First Drive: 2013 Toyota Avalon and Avalon Hybrid

Since its introduction in 1995, the Toyota Avalon has always brought to mind Walter Mitty, the fictional character created by James Thurber. Like Walter Mitty, the Avalon meekly floated through life, taking a few insults here and there while dreaming it might become fun to drive and genuinely luxurious -- anything besides being the grim ticket for large-appliance buyers.

Walter Mitty, meet Luke Skywalker! The 2013 Avalon shows unexpected derring-do. This fourth-generation car has curves and contours, not to mention an expressive new face. There is some panache to be found in versions powered by the 268-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 and available with paddle shifters, which allow the driver to operate the six-speed automatic transmission in manual mode. (The Avalon Hybrid, new to the model range, is not particularly diverting, although it attains 40 mpg.)

Meanwhile, if anything, the Avalon represents an even better value equation. For modest souls who would never want to ride behind the Lexus badge, the Avalon offers style and features that encroach on Lexus territory. So when we imagine the get-together between Walter Mitty and Luke Skywalker, we picture them meeting up for a hotdog in Costco's food court.

A More Evocative Presence

Although the third-generation Avalon had a crease below the beltline, making it less boxy than its predecessors, the ungainly, flouncing lower-body treatment made the car float before the eyes of onlookers (as well as floating beneath the occupants' backsides). The new Avalon doesn't know how to float. It appears lithe, and its sides are anything but slabs. The hard-working stamping presses at Georgetown, Kentucky, where the car is manufactured, made an unusual number of strikes to form the deep door-handle pockets, reverse curves, sharp creases, and hard-breaking radii that delineate this exterior.

But we've already seen similarly delicious rumpling of steel from Hyundai and others. Rather, it's the Snidely Whiplash moustache and scowl of a Malabar grouper that together make the Avalon's strongest impression. Among other things - -for example, conducting cool air to the mechanical and electrical innards -- these intakes serve to bring down the eyeline. In fact, design chief Kevin Hunter said the upper grille would have been slimmer if not for the need to refresh electric-drive components in the Hybrid (with V-6 and Hybrid versions sharing the same body).

The result of the ambitious design treatment is not an immediately lovable face, but we think familiarity will breed tolerance, and maybe even likability. Situated behind Peter Lorre covers is a slenderized approach to dual headlamps, which in their best imitation of Detroit style, Toyota has named Quadrabeam. The arching roofline adds elegance, although a penalty is the wicked reflection of the rear package shelf, which the driver sees in the mirror. This roofline disguises the trunk's hugeness (16.0 cu ft in the V-6 models and 14.0 in the Hybrid), but the roomy backseat is obvious from afar.

In the meantime, the Avalon's stance correctly suggests prowess that was previously lacking. It's entertaining to throw around this 16.2-foot-long car on a mountain road; body roll is well controlled despite a suspension that's hardly state of the art. Losing 120 pounds has helped the Avalon. Ride quality - -another eye-opener -- is happily on the firm side. Sitting in the driver's seat of a Limited model, looking at the three attractive display screens and tri-color dashboard, and holding the nice steering wheel, we found the word "Toyota" falling from our consciousness.

And among many other surprises, look for the Avalon now to enter service. A black Livery Edition, equipped with heated rear seats and rear climate controls, could account for 500 to 1000 of the 70,000 units expected to sell next year.

Four Trims, Two Powertrains, Multiple Driving Modes

There's yet another surprise with the Avalon, and it is found on the window sticker. With the conventional powertrain, the XLE is priced at $31,750 (delivery included). That's down by $1,445 from the 2012 base car. Premium and Touring models succeed the XLE, with the Limited nudging past $40,000. The Avalon Hybrid starts in Premium trim at $36,315 and ends with the Limited at $42,160.

The Hybrid has a 2.5-liter four-cylinder rated at 156 hp and two electric motors combining for 105 kW. The output is regulated by a continuously variable transmission. Whereas the V-6 is muscular and produces a healthy exhaust note, the Hybrid's four-banger sounds embarrassed and slightly distressed. The Hybrid goes from 0 to 60 mph in 8.2 seconds, or 1.5 seconds slower than the V-6.

Three pushbutton driving modes are included with either powertrain. The V-6 has Eco, Normal, and Sport. Eco restricts the throttle and limits the climate system, while Sport firms up the steering, changes the shift points, and matches revs on downshifts. The Hybrid offers an EV mode that lets the car go up to 25 mph on battery power for a half-mile. Eco and Sport modes correspond to those found with the V-6. But sorry, no paddle shifters peeking at you from behind the Hybrid's steering wheel.

We could dwell on what's missing from the Avalon's specification sheet. The rear suspension isn't of the multiple-link type. But what is done with sometimes mundane pieces leads to an impressive result. While the Hybrid's electric-drive components obtrude in the driving experience, they certainly are well-packaged within the car, minimizing space, weight, and price penalties.

Much improved, and with the desirability factor dialed up, the Avalon no longer is a car to apologize for. Finding itself in possession of a new arsenal of features and qualities, the Avalon is like Walter Mitty after Luke Skywalker teaches him the lightsaber. No more insults -- look out, Darth Buick!

Gas engine:
DOHC 3.5-liter V-6
Power: 268 hp @ 6200 rpm
Torque: 248 lb-ft @ 4700 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic/continuously variable
Drive: Front-wheel

Hybrid: DOHC 2.5-liter four with variable-valve timing and two electric motors
Power: 156 hp @5700 rpm and 105 kW
Torque: 138 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm
Transmission: Continuously variable
Drive: Front-wheel

Electrically assisted rack-and-pinion
Suspension, Front: MacPherson strut, coil springs, stabilizer bar
Suspension, Rear: Twin-link strut-type, coil springs, stabilizer bar
Brakes: Four-wheel disc, ABS
Tires: P215/55R-17

L x W x H:
195.4 x 72.3 x 57.5 in
Wheelbase: 111.0 in
Track F/R: 62.6/62.3 in
Weight: 3459-3638 lb
Cargo volume (V-6/Hybrid): 16.0/14.0 cu ft

0-60 MPH (V-6/Hybrid):
6.7 seconds/8.2 seconds
Top Speed: N/A
EPA Mileage (V-6/Hybrid): 21/31 mpg city/highway and 40/39 mpg city/highway
Base price/as tested: XLE $31,785 (including $795) destination and delivery)/Limited $40,445/Hybrid Limited $42,195