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2011 Toyota Avalon: First Drive

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The 2011 Toyota Avalon isn't a big mystery, but we'll forgive you if you didn't know a new Avalon was even in the works. It's been buried.

With Toyota's recall troubles earlier in the year, it's been forced to play defense. That's put the launch of some of its vehicles into simmer mode, and that's where we found the Avalon--on the back burner. After its 2010 Chicago show introduction, Toyota quietly put Avalons in its showrooms in May and started doling out test cars after that. No splashy press drive, no deep-dive backgrounder, nada. Before we knew it, we could stage our own first drive of the 2011 Avalon, which we did over the bubbling blacktop here in 95-degrees-and-counting Atlanta.

The slow burn suits the Avalon just fine--it's not radically changed in any way--but it underserves a car that's exactly the kind of vehicle Toyota does really well. The Avalon doesn't fit the sweet spot carved out by buff books and enthusiast drivers. It simply provides the kind of carefree, low-fuss, no-brainer driving experience that plainly works for a wide swath of drivers, especially older drivers.

Designed in California and built in Kentucky alongside the top-selling Camry, the Avalon's essentially a stretched Camry with more interior space and a streamlined ordering sheet, with some nicely conceived details woven into its off-the-rack suit of sheetmetal. We've mentioned in prior reviews how the Avalon's exterior tames any notion of excitement, and that's true again for 2011. Still the new Avalon carries some swell details inside and out, and you can thank Target for providing an empty gray parking deck to show off those subtle creases and welts. The formal grille? It's grown wider and more assertive, just like the gentle underbrow of its headlamps. From straight on, some of the cutlines and moldings in the front bumper clone the same bits on the latest Benz E-Class, even. Down its sides, the Avalon's crisper stampings give it a broader shoulder line than before. And in back, the generic Toyota taillamps light up with C-shaped LED coolness.

Inside there's an elegant dual-cowl dash, with the second cowl arching over the radio and climate controls. Woodgrain trim dominates, along with big knobs and a big LCD screen that controls the Avalon's available navigation system. The gentle swells formed into the dash are some of the more effortless Toyota efforts, and save for the bugle-bead radio buttons and the matte artificiality of the woodgrain trim, the cabin strikes us as styled and trimmed above its slightly downscale mission.

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