A performer? Well, yes, the 2011 Avalon can perform. We wouldn't be surprised if Toyota quoted a 0-60 mph time of about 8 seconds; the 3.5-liter V-6 puts out 268 horsepower with a little more pronounced sound than an Avalon ever has, and feeds it out to the front wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission. It's a familiar recipe, found across thelineup from the Venza crossover to the Sienna minivan and in the Camrys as well. Here, the transmission's a little more jerky than we've felt in previous iterations--and we'd guarantee, from the stiffness of the lever moving into the slot, that we were the first ever to put the automatic into its manual-shift mode. We'd call it Sport mode, but it's not. It doesn't induce any noticeable fever in the powertrain, and just awards the handful of interested drivers with another way to tap that ample power. With this sole drivetrain, the big Avalon is rated at 20/29 mpg, which Toyota says is best in a class that includes cars like the Buick LaCrosse and the Hyundai Azera.
Handling dulls the engine's straight-line performance a bit, but the Avalon's the rare Toyota with decent on-center steering feel. It's light from that point to any point on the arc, but that's precisely what attentive but unengaged drivers need. A simple strut suspension avoids some of the harshness that low-travel control arms can introduce, and the four-door's ride is beyond creamy--though the softness also allows the front end to bob up and down more so than any family sedan we've driven this year.
To fully understand the Avalon, you'll have to slip from the roomy but flat front buckets (which also vibrate at speed, in uncharacteristic fashion) into the back seat. Here the Avalon does is at its most convincing. The near-luxury accommodations have so much leg and head room, even with the power driver seat dialed back, we can't even think of a friend who wouldn't be cozy. The rear seats tilt back for long-distance comfort, and there's a keyhole of access to the ginormous trunk that makes a ski weekend for four a snap. A six-seat version can be ordered, for the one or two fans of column-mounted shifters out there; leather upholstery is standard, and with the generally handsome level of materials, the Avalon's cabin is up to its $30,000-plus task.
Toyota's trimmed the Avalon into two models, with relatively few options. The base car has Bluetooth; steering-wheel controls for phone, climate control and audio; XM radio; USB connectivity; and the usual array of airbags, including a driver knee airbag. The Limited adds a smart-key system, ventilated front seats, and a power front passenger seat.
All versions get a rearview camera; the base car's display is in the rearview mirror, and it washes out easily--though opposed to the navigation-system rearview display on more expensive models, at least it's in the right location. The USB port's in the center console, so hiding your media player is a snap. And the Avalon has storage galore: the glovebox is large, the doors have flip-out bins (but no molded-in bottle holders), and the console has two large storage bins behind and under lids for protective custody, though the vertical woodgrain door on our test car needed adjustment.
Our Avalon wore a pricetag of $32,245 base, with an additional $750 destination charge. Including $199 floor and trunk mats, and a $900 JBL audio system with CD changer and Bluetooth streaming, the final tab rose to $34,094--and that's before a navigation system or Limited trim. At this leaner end of its pricing spectrum, the Avalon represents a big six-passenger deal--particularly if you're not devoted to the S-curves that life throws at all of us at one point or another.