By Charles Krome
When fellow Savant Roger Boylan reviewed the 2011 Toyota Camry at the beginning of March, he kicked things off with a relatively controversial point: That Toyota’s midsize sedan suffered from a sort of reverse snobbism, with customers (and critics) automatically complaining about how bland and un-engaging it is based solely on the badge it wears. Well, not only do I think he’s spot on with his analysis, but I’m also going to extend it to what’s often considered the epitome of Toyota’s soulless creations, the 2011 Avalon—which I recently drove for a week courtesy of the fine folks at Toyota.
The Avalon is aimed at buyers who prefer what’s loosely termed “traditional American luxury.” That means vehicles that offer a relatively large footprint, strong straight-line acceleration, restrained styling and presence, and a boatload of comfort and convenience features. It’s a shrinking niche, but the number of potential cars that fit the bill is shrinking even faster, so volume does remain for the automakers that continue to reach out to these customers.
To make the most out of that audience, Toyota refreshed the Avalon for 2011 with some subtle tweaks that greatly improve the car’s appearance. Key changes include adjustments to the Avalon’s character lines, redesigned rocker panels and a wider grille that’s better blended into the rest of the vehicle. Updated, integrated light treatments, including the now de rigueur LED accents, are also in the mix, as are new chrome accents and a fresh wheel design. The result is a sleek and sophisticated sedan with a well-proportioned, surprisingly aggressive stance, especially in my Avalon’s “Classic Silver” paint job. Fit and finish were above-average, with nice work done on the body-colored roof seals.
It’s by no means as striking as the Buick LaCrosse, or even the Lucerne, but that’s not likely to be a huge problem for the Toyota’s target audience. In the final analysis, I know there’s a fine line between bland and subtle, but I think the Avalon has managed to cross it.
The Avalon’s interior design required a few caveats as well. For example, the seats overall were very nice, with the rears reclining for added comfort, but my butt sometimes felt lost among the wide expanse of leather covering the large bottom of the driver’s throne. I also wasn’t too geeked about the shade of “blue” used in the cabin. The light hue left the cockpit feeling nice and airy, but the actual color seemed too artificial for my tastes and somehow accentuated the plastic-ness of the interior’s plastic pieces.
Much more successful were the brushed metal accents around the nav/audio screen, and the various pieces used to cover the between-the-seats storage areas up front. The fold-down center console between the outboard rear seats was both functional and stylish as well, and the steering wheel felt very natural in my hands. Fit and finish were excellent, too. Again, the interior of the Avalon isn’t exactly stylish, but it’s well put-together and the contrast between the Toyota’s cabin and that of something like the Hyundai Sonata is pretty drastic—even considering the $8,000 price difference between the two.
Which brings us to pricing: The Avalon proper starts at $32,595, with the Limited trim bringing the price up to $35,835. Add in $1,450 for a navigation/premium audio setup—with touch screen, voice activation, integrated backup camera, 12 speakers (including a subwoofer), AM/FM/CD/MP3 and Bluetooth compatibility, and 660 watts of power—along with $199 for floor mats and $750 destination charge, and the Avalon’s sticker ended up at $37,884. To put that into context, it’s about $475 above the final price on the LaCrosse CXL I reviewed in February. And while I give the LaCrosse the nod over the Avalon in nearly all measures, I do have to point out that the former was outfitted with an I4 that made 182 hp and 172 lb.-ft. of torque, the Avalon packs a V6 worth 268 hp/248 lb.-ft. of torque. And it’s not like the extra cylinders have much of an impact at the fuel pumps: The four-cylinder LaCrosse achieves an EPA line of 19 mpg city/30 mpg highway/23 mpg combined, and the V6 Avalon is certified as able to reach 20/29/23.
But let’s investigate that driving experience a bit farther. The Avalon Limited is relatively svelte for a larger sedan, with a curb weight of 3,616 lbs. So we’re talking about a fairly decent power-to-weight ratio and correspondingly perky acceleration. On the other hand, the car’s handling was shockingly boat-like. On tight turns at even moderate speeds there was enough body roll to make me feel physically uncomfortable as I struggled to stay in a proper driving position. And this was exacerbated by very light and uncommunicative steering. The car was plenty quiet, but I’m going to have to once more trot out the LaCrosse for comparison: The Buick was even quieter, and it achieved that feat without sacrificing road feel or handling in the way the Toyota does.
Some other random pros and cons of the Avalon:
- The nav system had some trouble in downtown Detroit, and its setup is not exactly amenable to making adjustments on the fly.
- The roomy trunk included some neat storage solutions to prevent groceries from rolling around.
- The cruise control switchgear was incorporated into a third stalk on the steering column, not integrated into the steering wheel itself.
- Wind noise with the sunroof open was relatively minimal and never interfered with in-cabin conversations.
- The Avalon had a rubber gasket-type thing surrounding the the opening of the gas tank, and it matched up with the rubber back-splash protector usually found on gas nozzles. It’s not as cool as Ford’s capless system, but it was a nice touch nonetheless.
The bottom line: The 2011 Toyota Avalon is almost an ideal near-premium sedan, with more-than-competitive levels of technology, power, fuel efficiency, comfort and style, all wrapped up by an equally competitive MSRP. And its primary drawback—notably un-athletic handling—is only a drawback to drivers who wouldn’t be likely to shop the Avalon anyway.
If that description sounds like a car you’d like, you’re going to like the Avalon a lot. Otherwise, I suppose, not so much.