2013 Toyota Avalon First Drive

2013 Toyota Avalon startles with new look, hybrid trims.

What It Is
The 2013 Toyota Avalon is a full-sized sedan for buyers who want a luxury vehicle without the badge or price tag.
Best Thing
Spacious interior.
Worst Thing
Polarizing front grille design.
Snap Judgment
While the 2013 Toyota Avalon matches the competition in power and features, the new grille may not perfectly jibe to the Avalon's expanded consumer base.


Automakers have planned out your life. No, seriously. Their sales folks have detailed out your future cars long before you took that first driver's ed course, or the family sedan out joyriding, bribed older sibling in tow. Most automakers have 2-3 tiers of car brands: entry level; mainstream; and luxury. Honda and Ford respectively have Acura and Lincoln, while Toyota has three: youth-oriented Scion, mainstream Toyota brand, and luxury-level Lexus.

Some consumers balk at switching to another brand. Toyota Camry owners may not want to "trade up" to Lexus. Reasons vary, but popular ones include lack of interest in name recognition of luxury cars, and price. But that doesn't mean that Camry owners, for example, don't like the high-end features available from Lexus vehicles.

The Toyota Avalon is aimed at such buyers. Going on sale in 1994 in the U.S. as a 1995 model, the Avalon is the flagship of Toyota's sedan fleet. The third generation Avalon rolled out to dealerships in 2005, making it long-in-tooth in car years when this latest, fourth-gen 2013 Toyota Avalon model debuted at the 2012 New York Auto Show.

But is Toyota--as the cliché goes--"too little, too late" in returning to this car segment? The market for large, premium sedans has grown the past decade. The Avalon's traditional rival had been Buicks and Lincolns. Now the segment has expanded, says Toyota, to include the Ford Taurus, Chrysler 300, Nissan Maxima, and the Hyundai Azera. The latter, especially, is viewed by both analysts and the press as Toyota's main rival/target. We traveled to wine country in Napa Valley, California to see what changes Toyota wrought on the Avalon. Would the Toyota brand flagship match the competition? Fall behind? Or take the lead among premium sedans? We drove two hybrid models and two gas-powered siblings around Napa for this review, cumulating with an over 400 mile drive back to Southern California in a Toyota Avalon Touring.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Walkaround

Polarizing.

That was the operative word bandied about by reporters when discussing the Avalon's revamped look, specifically its new grille. Never has reaction been so mixed. Words thrown about between sips of (excellent) wine included "maw," "Jaws," and "vacuum cleaner." More than a few saw a resemblance to the hexagonal front grille of the Hyundai Sonata hybrid. Even the attending Toyota reps said the Avalon's face would be a jolt to those familiar with the last model. But the automaker insisted its traditional buyers--who averaged 67 years old--not only like the design, but so did new, younger buyers; although it should be pointed out that "younger" in this case means "in their fifties." We have to agree: not only were we talking about the Avalon, but even managed to stop using "geriatric" in every other sentence.

The rest of the Avalon's exterior follows modern car design language (much to our relief.) Calty Design Research, based in both Newport Beach, Ca., and Ann Arbor, Mich., is responsible for much of the Avalon's sheetmetal. Calty designers stretched the "bubble" greenhouse of the previous model, giving the new Avalon a more swoopy appearance found in even larger sedans like the luxurious Audi A8 and Lexus LS. They also tightened the wraparound headlamps and taillights as well as smoothed out character lines on the Avalon's side and rear. You almost can't see the rear bumper. Toyota revealed there was actually very little change to the Avalon's exterior from initial concept drawing to clay model to the production vehicle. The overall effect is a sleek-looking, modern vehicle with an unforgettable "face." Toyota states the new Avalon is the most American version yet in design, engineering, and manufacturing.

Sitting Down

The prior Toyota Avalon was known for its expansive interior and--with one tiny exception--the 2013 model follows suit. It's easy to enter and exit. The Avalon's front seats are quite wide, with side support virtually non-existent. They are also quite cushy, and several of us found it very difficult to find a comfortable setting despite the numerous seat controls. The rear row seating felt just a bit more firm, and a six foot tall person could easily sit behind a similarly sized driver or front passenger. You can truly fit three people back there. Oddly, someone asked if Toyota planned to resurrect the Avalon's front bench seating which was a prominent among large sedans of yore; the automaker rightly said no. Toyota states shoulder room is slightly less the previous generation model but we couldn't detect it.

Toyota's Calty team went wild, design-wise, on the interior. Leather is used extensively throughout the cabin, even framing the front row cupholders. Faux chrome inserts are also abundant especially around the driver's side like on the new steering wheel. The overall effect is a richer, sporty, and--dare we say--"luxurious" space to while away hours on the road.

The new Avalon's instrument cluster and center stack received the most attention. Calty ditched the previous gen's large button-heavy design for touch - sensitive hot spots ("IntelliTouch") with a couple of knobs for audio control. A large, 6.1-inch screen controls the lion share of the Avalon's infotainment controls like audio and navigation, with a smaller one below for climate features and even a clock. Everything is housed in what we call a driver-oriented "splayed" design found in larger Toyota vehicles like the Sienna minivan. The touch spots are easy to see and use and appropriately responsive, which is not always the case in some automakers' systems.

So what was that exception we found? The new Avalon's instrument cluster and center stack seemed to take up more room than the prior model. We suspect it could simply be an illusion created by the driver-oriented design. It's on our checklist as we examine the 2013 Avalon for our more thorough Road Test review. Also on the list is the lack of water-bottle holders in sedan's side doors. The previous model, as well as many of the competitors' offerings, offer greater utility for drivers and passengers than the new sedan. Right now, the Avalon's new side pockets would barely hold a paperback book. On the other hand, we like the Avalon's covered-"eBin" tray below the center stack. It makes it real easily to plug and store iPhones and smartphones while driving. The Avalon's already massive trunk is also larger than last year's model according to Toyota.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Driving

Toyota made two major changes on the Avalon's driver character, and we used the back roads, streets, and nearby freeways of Napa Valley--as well as that 400-plus mile trip back home--to test those changes.

The first major change is the Avalon's suspension. Previous models felt quite floaty on the road, especially over bumps, potholes, and joint expansions. You felt you were on a boat bobbing at sea depending on road conditions. Not in the new Avalon. You could sense such imperfections thunk under the sedan's 17 or 18 inch wheels as you passed over them though rarely transmitted through the car itself, which remains steady. Toyota also updated the Avalon's electric steering to stiffen for greater control at higher speeds and when turning, but would loosen to make parking easy in busy lots. We discovered it was extremely easy to make a U-turn in the Avalon after becoming lost several times on different routes. Several journalists tried more spirited moves in the Avalon and quickly discovered it's still a cruiser at heart, and we feel the offered paddle shifters in more expensive models were out of place. The Toyota Avalon is not a direct competitor to the Ford Taurus SHO sports sedan. The Avalon has caught up to the competition in offering a more stiff, European-esque ride.

The 2013 Toyota Avalon bypasses the competition in offering a full-hybrid powertrain. This is first for the Avalon and unique to the segment of large, premium cars. (The closest is the Buick Lacrosse with eAssist, which uses a mild hybrid system.) You'd think the Avalon's 200 horsepower hybrid engine barely enough to move the large sedan, but we encountered no noteworthy difficulties accelerating from stops, passing traffic, or climbing hilly roads. Toyota says the new Avalon is 120 pounds lighter than the prior model, which contributes to its acceleration and 40 mpg combined fuel economy. We drove our hybrid Avalon sedans a bit quicker than normal, in a variety of terrain, and got slightly over 41 mpg. We also noted how smooth was the continuously variable transmission and "normal feeling" were the regenerative brakes. As one co-driver half-joked, "I didn't notice anything about the brakes."

There was one section in our Avalon drive that saddened us, and that's interior noise. Don't misunderstand: the Toyota Avalon continues to be a quiet vehicle. This was especially true in our long drive back home, where most sound came from the road. Toyota states it has improved the sound - deadening properties of the Avalon's windows. However, it's not Lexus-level quiet. Several of the Avalon's competitors have achieved such quiet levels in their vehicles, notably the Buick LaCrosse and its Chevrolet cousin, the Malibu where it's a major selling point. We won't be surprised if the next iteration of the all-new Toyota Avalon becomes even more silent inside.

Summary

We like to speculate why automakers host their drive events at a particular location, and this was no different for the Avalon. We think Toyota selected Napa Valley because the new Avalon represents the latest vintage of a classic brand that continues to get better with age. This time, the automaker has developed a brand new crop with a more modern taste, and eye-catching new label. Yet much of the original flavoring of the Avalon--spacious, quiet interior--is still retained.

Jury's still out how the buying public will receive the new Avalon. Much of it will depend on the buyer's taste (especially with the Avalon's new look). Automakers for some time are making their vehicles more distinctive within a segment than just matching the competition feature-to-feature. The Toyota Avalon is doing just that by offering a hybrid trim while surprising the public with a distinctive front.

Basic Specs

3.5-liter V-6, six-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive, 268-hp, $31,785 - $40,445, 21 mpg city/31 mpg highway
2.5-liter four-cylinder plus 105 kW electric motor, continuously variable transmission, front-wheel drive, 200-hp (combined), $36,350 - $42,195, 40 mpg city/39 mpg highway

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