2011 Toyota Avalon Limited Review
By Kevin Miller
A group named Roxy Music recorded a song named Avalon. It’s a vaguely jazzy tune that is inoffensive and while it doesn’t really bother me, it doesn’t do much for me as it meanders along. Toyota makes a car, also named Avalon, that does the exact same thing.
Toyota provided me a Zephyr Blue Metallic example of their refreshed-for-2011 Avalon Limited sedan for a weeklong review. The timing of my week with the Avalon coincided with a family vacation around Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. A good old-fashioned family road trip would be the perfect venue for testing Toyota’s advertising claims of the Avalon sedan being “Jet Smooth” and “Whisper Quiet”.
My initial reactions to the Avalon were mixed. The Avalon’s restyling for the 2011 model year gave it a large Venza-like grille and the Toyota family’s protruding, rectangular headlamps which I find terribly unattractive. To my eyes the front of the big sedan looks incredibly generic, especially from across a parking lot. At the rear, the Avalon looks vaguely like a Lexus ES (itself essentially a tarted-up Camry) or a Hyundai Genesis. The shape of the taillamps mimic that of the headlamps, though they do feature a visually interesting LED light pipe for the brake lamps.
Although Toyota is solidly a mainstream brand (with Lexus being their luxury line), the automaker markets the Avalon as luxurious. Climbing inside, I appreciated finding the front seats to be ventilated and heated. Once a feature only found on European luxury cars, climate controlled seats have made their way into mass-market sedans like the Avalon.
For a car with luxurious aspirations, though, I was disappointed with several aspects of the Avalon’s interior. Both the steering wheel and dash are assembled from too many different materials with differing textures. The black upper dash has an odd curvature where it joins the gray lower dash at the center stack, and the silver plastic bezel surrounding vents located there has an uneven gap to the navigation screen’s bezel immediately below it. Differing, inconsistent gaps follow the simulated wood and light-gray dash panels, which themselves are constructed from materials which don’t quite match one another. And then there’s the steering wheel.
In addition to having too many colors and textures on it, it also has too many buttons. Let me explain- the wheel has slippery dark-brown simulated wood at the top and bottom of the rim. The center section of the rim is “leather-wrapped”, though it looked like the kind of leather that comes from petrochemicals rather than cows, and it too seemed more slippy than grippy. The hub of the wheel has a textured plastic airbag cover. The bottom spokes are similar textured plastic, each with two smooth plastic buttons in the same color, though one of the button on the right side (DISP) doesn’t sit flush with the surface of the spoke like the other three do. The upper spokes have smooth gray plastic buttons (5 on each side), which are set in a silver-painted bezel. The top button on each side didn’t align properly at its top with the silver bezel. With 14 buttons, slippery rim surfaces, and a mish-mash of colors and textures, the Avalon’s steering wheel had a lot going on, but most of it wasn’t good.
That isn’t to say that the Avalon was designed without thoughtful features. I appreciated the Smart Key entry and keyless start. Integrated with the Smart Key entry was smart approach lighting that illuminated the Avalon’s interior and LED puddle lamps on the bottom of exterior mirrors when I approached the car. The automatically-dimming mirrors (exterior and interior) were nice at night, and the clear electroluminescent gauges were always appreciated, day or night. The big sunroof was also appreciated, though when open on sunny days the navigation display was difficult to read, and the climate display below it was washed out completely by the sunlight.
The front seats are among the flattest thrones I’ve ever experienced in a car. Although the seats are not uncomfortable and feature 10-way power adjustment (including a bottom cushion length adjustment for the driver), the slippery leather allows the driver and passenger to slide around if corners are taken with any significant speed. Although leather is used on the seating surfaces, the remainder of the surfaces are decidedly vinyl, with hard plastic backs.
Rear doors are long, and open wide to provide easy access to the interior. The rear seat has enough legroom that, even when the driver’s seat is adjusted for my 6’4” frame, I was able to sit behind it without my knees or legs touching the front seatback. This massive legroom also meant that my 19-month old in her forward-facing convertible carseat was unable to kick my seatback, which she often does in my own car. Unfortunately, the rear seatbelt buckles are not rigidly supported, which made it very difficult for my five-year-old to buckle her own seatbelt (because the buckle always flopped down beside her booster seat). It would be helpful to have the buckles supported so they stand up.
The rear seat backrest reclines and features adjustable head restraints in all three positions, and also has an armrest with drink holders and a storage compartment that folds down when the middle seating position is unused. The armrest and adjustable backrest are the only things rear seat passengers will have to keep themselves entertained though; there isn’t any rear seat entertainment available, nor is there even a power port for connecting a portable DVD player or other device.
Back seat passengers do get one more treat- an electrically-operated sun shade on the back window- though its control (located to the left of the steering wheel on the dashboard) can only be operated by the driver. Cleverly, the shade automatically retracts when the car is shifted to reverse and redeploys when forward motion resumes. There is also a reverse camera which is activated when that gear is selected; the navigation screen displays the image in surprisingly vivid color.
While we’re talking about the infotainment screen- the Avalon’s 660 w JBL Synthesis sound system was great, with plenty of volume and clarity. While the operation was one step removed from intuitive, the “AUDIO” display screen on the touchscreen did give a straightforward view of the entertainment options. Of note is the fact that the XM Satellite Radio doesn’t work well on the Olympic Peninsula- the peninsula’s northerly latitude coupled with tall, dense trees growing immediately beside the road conspired to frequently block the satellite reception.
Too, the Avalon’s navigation system had a distinct problem estimating travel time to destinations. When traveling on the Olympic Peninsula, the Avalon indicated it would take 4 hours 30 minutes to travel 140 miles from Kingston to Quinault. My iPhone’s Google Maps estimated just over 3 hours, which proved to be correct. Subsequent trips resulted in similar erroneous times- including a 40 minute estimation for a 25 minute drive, a 95 minute estimation for a 60 minute drive, and a 3 hr 45 min estimation for a 2 hr 45 min trip.
A further irritation with the navigation system was that two destinations on the Olympic Peninsula were unable to be navigated to. The system knew the addresses of two different POIs, but was only able to navigate us to the part of town where the attraction was located, before announcing “detailed guidance information is unavailable for this location; use the arrows to scroll the map to determine the best route”.
Of course, the not-particularly-high-resolution navigation screen is also used to control the Bluetooth telephone, USB connection of music player, CD, and AM/FM/Satellite radio. After pairing my iPhone, it was straightforward to download my contacts to the Avalon’s controller. The system displayed my caller’s name and number, and the car’s quiet ride meant it was easy to hear and be heard. The system was straightforward to operate, with the notable exception of iPod control. My iPod contains about 2200 songs, and changing songs or attempting to select songs or playlists was an exercise in frustration, with a delay approaching 30 seconds between touching the “playlist” button and the first page of playlists loading. Attempting to scroll to the next page of playlists resulted in a delay, and also in the first playlist on the next page beginning to play automatically. Attempting to select a song by name resulted in similar delays and unintended play of the song at the top of each page.
Out back, the trunk of the Avalon (which is mildly long, but not very tall), falls short of other large sedans. Our family of four completely filled the trunk, which we don’t normally do when packing in our decade-old Saab 9-5 sedan. Specifications show that the Avalon has 14.4 cu ft of trunk space; Ford’s Taurus has 20.1, the Mazda6 has 16.6 cu ft, and even our Saab has 15.9 cu ft. Even Toyota’s own Camry has a marginally larger trunk, at 14.5 cu ft. Additional trouble with the Avalon’s trunk includes the fact that a rear shelf speaker protrudes down into the luggage space (as do tension bars for the trunk hinges), and the Avalon’s rear seat doesn’t fold down to expand space. There is no 12 V power receptacle in the trunk (nor is there one in the back seat), so plugging in our portable cooler for the road trip meant running its power cord through the center armrest pass-through and across the back seat to the 12 V outlet in the compartment between the front seats. Too, lift-over height for loading and unloading is unexpectedly high; perhaps this is the reason my test car had a clear film paint protector applied to the bumper there.
On the road, the 268 HP, 3.5 liter V6 (shared with the Camry) idles and cruises quietly, and has plenty of grunt to haul the 3600 lb Avalon around. It also has a surprisingly aggressive exhaust note when revs approach redline. In keeping with the Avalon’s smooth image, the standard 6-speed automatic transaxle with manual shifting mode (controlled by a manual gate on the console-mounted shifter) shifts incredibly smoothly, if not particularly quickly. The transmission does respond promptly when gearchanges are manually commanded.
My road trip included plenty of curvy, undulating roads- and the Avalon did its best to straighten and flatten them out. Whether fully loaded with four people and a trunk full of luggage or with just me in the driver’s seat, the chassis engineer’s interpretation of “Jet Smooth” comes off floaty and wallowy when measured from the driver’s seat. Steering feedback through the steering wheel is virtually nonexistent, and there isn’t much on-center feel (or any other feel for that matter). Attempting to hustle the Avalon down a curvy road was an exercise in body motion and understeer- it was best to follow the racing practice of braking before entering turns and keeping steady throttle through them. At the very least, handling (and understeer) was predictable.
While on our trip, we passed one of Washington state’s Speedometer Check sections on the road- it’s a section where there are mile markers placed close together so that speedometer (and odometer) accuracy can be checked. I decided to check the Avalon’s accuracy and was surprised to find that over the five mile calibrated test section, the Avalon’s odometer reported 4.8 miles traveled. Extrapolating this error, the Avalon’s odometer will report 96 miles for every 100 miles traveled.
With an EPA rating of 20/29 city/hwy, I was pretty impressed to see 27.1 MPG from the 450 miles I drove in the Avalon (according to the car’s own odometer and trip computer), though it is important to note I spent a lot of time at steady speeds on 50-60 MPH highways. Less impressive was the fact that I was cruising on the freeway when the low fuel lamp came on after about 360 miles- and the trip computer’s display at that point said 17 Miles to Empty. If I had been in a rural area far from a filling station, it would have been alarming to discover a scant 17 miles remained when the fuel lamp illuminated. Note that the Avalon burns regular unleaded gasoline.
The Avalon is the Toyota’s largest, top-of-the-line sedan, and the Limited is the best-equipped version of it. Base MSRP is $35,485, which includes vehicle stability control, TPMS, a full-size spare tire on matching alloy wheel, power moonroof, rain sensing wipers, heated outside mirrors with electrochromatic dimming, HID headlamps, Leather-trimmed 8-way power seats, Smart Key system, JBL Synthesis 6-disc changer with satellite, USB, iPod, and handsfree phone control, reclining rear seats, power rear sunshade, and dual-zone climate control. The $1450 Navigation/Premium Audio package adds a voice-activated touchscreen DVD navigation system with 660 W output; the Avalon also had Carpeted Floor Mats for $199, Emergency Assistance Kit (jumper cables, emergency blankets, tire-changing glove) for $70, VIP Glass Breakage Sensor for $165,and Rear Bumper Applique (scuff guard) for $69. Including a $750 delivery fee, the total is $38,188. When compared feature for feature, the Avalon Limited stacks up very closely to the Ford Taurus Limited, with TrueDelta.com showing a feature-adjusted price difference of just $951 in the Taurus’ favor.
During my week with the Avalon, I found it to be easy to drive, and accommodating for my family, with the exception of the unusually small trunk. While its driving style was not what I would choose for my own vehicle, most prospective Avalon buyers will appreciate the Avalon’s smooth and quiet ride, spacious interior, reasonable highway fuel economy, and the car’s many luxury features.