2013 Toyota Avalon: First Drive

October 30, 2012
Youthful readers: This is your father's Avalon.

There's nothing shameful or denigrating about this declaration. If you're old enough to be shopping for an Avalon, you might recall that Olds once advertised its products as “not your father's Oldsmobile.” After going after the grandpas (and grandmas) for nearly a couple of decades, Toyota is shamelessly going after the fathers—reaching out to the 40-to-60-year-old crowd, and maybe even the kind who are empty-nesters and polishing up their image, post-minivans.

To understand how it's going to pull that transformation off, you need only take a quick look at the 2013 Toyota Avalon, inside and out. It's gone modern; with a full redesign, the Avalon has found a sheen of sophistication in everything from its control interface to the way it drives. It's no longer the exclusive domain of those who don't mind looking conservative, and simply want the cushiest, most hemorrhoid-placating ride possible.

In fact, the Avalon is such a good car—with a real personality, this time—that we're surprised Toyota didn't bring back another name for it: The Cressida had always been more of a fashion-forward, sporty rival in step with the Nissan Maxima, and we can see the new Avalon, with its graceful, curvaceous rear fender sheetmetal and just-right silhouette striking some of that same sporty-yet-elegant ground.

As American as Toyotas get

Avalon has always been a Toyota model intended mostly for the U.S. market, so it's not surprising that Toyota is calling this latest Avalon it's most American vehicle yet. From design to engineering and manufacture, it's all been done in U.S. facilities. The original design for it was penned at Toyota's Newport Beach (CALTY) design studio, and when Akio Toyoda first saw sketches of the new Avalon, he reportedly said, “It looks cool; don't change a thing.”

Toyoda's sensibilities were right in line with what Toyota needed. For a company that has in recent years seen a number of homely designs (like the current Camry, Highlander, and Corolla), the Avalon's design feels like a revelation.

That impression carries over into the way it drives. Quite simply, engineers have aced the difficult task of preserving the Avalon's quiet, isolated, comfortable ride, but improving handling—and thankfully, all of the Avalon's bounding, wallowing, and pillowy softness has been quelled. Thanks to some tricks borrowed from the Lexus playbook, like rebound springs, somewhat firmer spring rates, and digressive damper valving—plus a reconfigured suspension geometry—there's no longer a cartoonish level of body motion at times.

Body control: now in check

If you're heading down a curvy road and you're the driver, you feel remarkably well-connected to the road; and if you're the passenger, there's no longer an urgent need to dose up on Dramamine if you're in the passenger seat. And the precise, natural steering feel actually makes this large car easy to place on choppy-surfaced narrow backroads.

What surprised us even more is that, by the end of a day spent driving several variants (even a short stint in the 2012 for posterity), we think the 2013 Toyota Avalon Hybrid models make the most sense, and taking price, value, features, and of course fuel economy into consideration, they're the most compelling. With the Avalon Hybrid weighing less than 3,600 pounds and the hybrid system here making up to 200 hp combined, it can get to 60 mph in 8.2 seconds officially; but it felt faster by our watches and seats, and in Sport mode, which firms up the steering and quickens throttle response (the motor system churns out the torque at tip-in), it felt astonishingly quick and refined for a car with the Hybrid Synergy Drive badge.

A big, spacious 40-mpg touring sedan

What's more, as we toured through California's Napa region, we averaged nearly 40 mpg—matching its excellent 40-mpg Combined rating) in a 30-mile loop with the Hybrid, driving with traffic on highways and through a few small towns. Then heading back out, driving like hooligans on a few isolated backroads for about 25 miles in Sport Mode, we still saw about 36 mpg.

The Hybrid, like upper trims of the V-6, also offers an Eco Mode, which runs the A/C conservatively and softens throttle inputs, so it's likely that daily drivers moving at normal rates will do much better.

The new Avalon shares some of its structure, but not all that many actual parts, with the Toyota Camry and Lexus ES. And while it's nearly identical dimensionally to the ES, the Avalon was actually designed solely for the U.S. So inside, it also feels very much in pace with what Americans will find advanced and modern—and of course as roomy as ever. And although we thought of the capacitive dash controls for audio and climate functions to be somewhat gimmicky when we first saw the Avalon earlier this year, the way they're implemented is far more intuitive with their recessed rims and more precise feel. The way the volume slider works is somehow effective in a way those other cars don't manage.

With an excellent 785-watt JBL audio system available, heated-and-ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, full-featured navigation, and Entune, with well-integrated apps—plus advanced-tech features such as Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Adaptive Cruise Control, and a Pre-Collision System, top Avalon models also make clear that it's honing in on a more sophisticated kind of buyer.

Which leads us to wonder: While entry Avalon XLE models are a great deal, instead of the Limited wouldn't you rather just pay a little more and get a true luxury-brand car, like the Lexus ES?

With age comes wisdom, right? That would be a question to ask dad—while test-driving an Avalon. Change has happened for Toyota's 'big American,' and it's well worth including the next time you're shopping for a luxurious sedan.


See our full review of the 2013 Toyota Avalon for full specs, more pictures, and in-depth information about performance, interior accommodations, and features.

Toyota covered accommodations and some travel expenses in order to facilitate this review.

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