The Toyota Avalon is all new for 2013, having debuted earlier this year. Despite being new from the ground up, its mission remains unchanged-the Avalon is a softly-sprung, large near-luxury car geared toward traditional American-style comfort/luxury in the vein of Oldsmobile or Buick vehicles from the 1980s, rather than attempting to be sporty or aggressive. For 2013, the Avalon is available with either a 200 HP hybrid powertrain, or a 268 HP 3.5 liter V6. Both versions feature more upscale, modern styling than its predecessor, which we reviewed in 2011.
The Avalon’s grill has a trapezoidal shape which has become very popular on new cars; it doesn’t wear the shape quite as well as a Ford Fusion, but it is stylish nonetheless. At the back, the Avalon has LED taillamps reminiscent of the ones on Hyundai Azera. The overall look is one of an upscale sedan, even if somewhat generically so.
Climbing into the tasteful and spacious interior reveals wide, flat seats with slippery perforated leather (with ventilation up front, and heating front and rear). The dashboard and door panels feature ivory-colored vinyl upholstery with blue stitching which matches the seats, while the center and door armrests have a medium blue leatherette. The stitched vinyl is applied over mostly hard plastic surfaces, though the dash top is a soft touch material. The driver’s seat has ten-way power adjustment.
The dashboard’s upholstery and layout are both dramatically styled, and dramatically improved from the previous-generation Avalon. While the ambience looks upscale, none of the materials feel particularly upscale – but the design does provide visual interest in an attempt to set Avalon apart from other players in this class. The climate and navigation control feature capacitively-actuated pads rather than discrete buttons; on a metallic-looking plastic surface with indented lines to define the control areas. The controls worked more successfully for my long, thin fingers than do the similar controls in Ford products such as Taurus and Edge.
The instrument panel features easy-to-read electroluminescent gauges including a speedometer and a Power Meter (in place of a tachometer) whose needle swings quickly to indicate whether the battery is being charged (due to regenerative braking), economical acceleration, or powerful acceleration. A green “EV” indicator lamp in the power meter illuminates when the internal combustion engine has switched off. The Avalon Hybrid can operate under electric power at speeds up to 42 MPH. An electronic information display is present between the two analog instruments, which can display speed, hybrid power flow, cruise control, consumption, and navigation information.
The navigation/entertainment system has a large, clear display and features easy-to-read menus and display screens. When in navigation mode, the guidance is shown on the full screen until directional instructions are given, at which point the screen is split into two side-by-side panes to show lane guidance beside the map. Destination entry can be done by hand through the touchscreen display, or by voice using the steering wheel’s voice command feature, speaking a street address by state, city, street, and house number in response to separate prompts.
The AM/FM/SAT radio screens are easy to navigate and display information clearly, and the iPod integration works seamlessly. The Avalon Hybrid Limited is equipped with Toyota Entune functionality; I was not impressed by Entune mandatory cable connection to use Entune Apps; after setting up and pairing my phone and trying to stream Pandora, I simply abandoned the Entune and listened to Satellite Radio and my iPod.
The Avalon’s back seat is large and comfortable, with features including heated rear seats, rear-zone climate control and a power-operated sunshade for the back window. While the seat-bottom cushion is fairly low to the floor, legroom is decent, and I was able to fit my 6’4” frame in the back without my knees touching the back of the front seat, with the driver’s seat adjusted for myself to drive. A center armrest folds out of the seatback, and offers two cup holders; pockets are also present on each of the front seatbacks. The rear seats do not fold or recline, as the hybrid battery pack is located between the back seat and the trunk. Around back, the trunk is 14 cubic feet, giving up two cubic feet compared with non-hybrid Avalon models.
As all Avalon models are equipped with Toyota’s Smart Key system with pushbutton starting, you enter the Avalon just by grabbing the exterior door handle and sitting down, then pushing the START button with your foot on the brake pedal. Like other hybrid vehicles, the Avalon Hybrid makes a few beeps and then displays a “READY” indicator on the dash to let you know it’s ready to roll.
Pulling away from a stop when the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) is off, the Avalon Hybrid slowly starts to glide away, and then the ICE starts. While the starting of the engine is not imperceptible, it also isn’t intrusive or shuddering the way some vehicles equipped with start/stop systems can be. When the ICE starts, acceleration remains linear due to power delivery through the Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT). The hybrid system ECU controls when the vehicle is being propelled by gas engine, electric motor or both. It decides based on throttle input and the driving conditions (terrain, grade, etc.) Typically at freeway/highway speeds the gas engine will be on to maintain speed, but the ICE is always on above 42 mph. Gentle throttle application and thoughtful, measured braking (implemented mostly by feedback-free regeneration) provide very smooth, sedate motoring experience in the Avalon Hybrid.
Underway, it is always quiet inside. The Avalon’s slow, light-effort steering is just as free from feedback as the brakes, and combines with the suspension tuning to provide an incredible amount of isolation from any tactile sources of feedback that might give a clue as to what the Avalon is actually doing as you glide down the road. While the steering never really offers any feedback, at least the understeer is predictable enough that I could tell what was going on despite the Avalon’s best efforts to keep me from knowing.
The Avalon’s continuously variable transmission has a mode called “Sport’, which “lower gears” to be selected, but not in a fixed gear ratio. Moving the gear selector into the “S” position causes a digital tachometer to be displayed on the small screen between in the instrument panel. With the hybrid drive system and the system’s functionality essentially selecting a maximum gear spread/ratio (by being in “gear” 1-6), the CVT still altered its ratios below that top gear, rather than being a fixed ratio, which made me wonder what the point of selecting a “gear” (or ratio) really is in the Avalon Hybrid.
On the center console near the gear selector are a trio of buttons labeled EV Mode, ECO, and Sport. The Avalon Hybrid defaults to “normal” mode (i.e, none of the above). The EV Mode button allows the Avalon Hybrid to be propelled solely by electric power for up to a mile at speeds up to 25 MPH, given moderate throttle input. Choosing ECO mode further dulls the throttle response, and seems to cause the vehicle to operate in EV mode more frequently than normal. After a day of driving in ECO mode, I was a bit surprised how lively the throttle response felt in the normal mode.
While I can understand the ECO and EV Mode buttons on the Avalon Hybrid, I couldn’t understand what the Sport button is there for- and it made even less sense when I actually used it. Essentially, Sport seems to enhance throttle response and power application, to make the Avalon Hybrid more responsive to throttle input. While it succeeds at that, attempting to drive the Avalon Hybrid in a sporting manner (in any driving mode) causes the big front-wheel-drive sedan to lose its sense of composure. Aggressive throttle application causes the non-grippy low-rolling-resistance tires to lose traction, leading to front wheelspin especially when cornering, even on dry pavement. Rapid braking throws off the car’s regen-to-friction-braking calibration, causing the friction brakes to bite too quickly, sometimes overcoming the low-rolling-resistance tires’ available grip, leading to momentary lock-up (of the left front wheel on two occasions) before the ABS is able set things right. Driving the Avalon Hybrid aggressively was not at all enjoyable; at every opportunity the car reminded me that such operation is not its mission.
The Avalon Hybrid Limited I drove was equipped with the Technology Package, which included Dynamic Radar Cruise Control. This system does a good job of maintaining a set following distance and speed; it is capable of applying the brakes to slow while at speed, but does not offer low-speed queue-assist functionality as similar systems from Volvo and Subaru are able to do. Other driver-assistance equipment on the Avalon Hybrid Limited includes blind-spot monitoring (with indicators in the exterior mirrors) and rear cross-traffic alert, which causes a beeping alert if traffic is sensed approaching from the side when reversing.
Of course, the reason to choose the Avalon Hybrid over its non-hybrid counterpart is for fuel economy. The Avalon Hybrid has a 40/39/40MPG rating from the EPA (city/highway/combined), whereas the non-hybrid Avalon powered by a 268 HP, 3.5 liter V6 is rated 21/31/24 MPG. The Avalon Hybrid briefly displays trip statistics in the instrument panel when the car is turned off, and I typically saw statistics in the range of 30-36 MPG when turning the car off, with a few trips in the low 40s. Unfortunately the Avalon displays those stats only per trip in that screen, and I was unable to find a readout of my overall fuel economy for the week. What I can tell you is that I’ve had no vehicles in recent memory aside from Nissan Versa Note which ever returned fuel economy figures at all in the 30s; this is even more impressive due to the Avalon Hybrid being a large sedan with luxury features.
The 2013 Avalon Hybrid is available in three trim levels: XLE Premium ($35,555), XLE Touring ($36,750), and Limited ($41,400) The Avalon Hybrid Limited we tested included standard equipment including (surprisingly) a three-zone electronic climate control (with back seat temperature control) and heated rears seats and a power-operated rear window sun shade; optional Technology Package ($1750 – Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, Automatic High Beam, and PreCollision System); Wireless charging capability ($200); First Aid Kit ($29); Carpet Floor Mats / trunk mat ($225); and Emergency Assistance Kit ($59). Including the $795 Delivery and Handling fee. Note that Hybrid models are around $2000 more expensive than non-hybrid models, depending on trim levels and equipment.
In the end, all of this discussion of the Avalon Hybrid losing its composure when driven aggressively is mostly academic. People shopping for a driver’s car will surely shop elsewhere. Typical (or stereotypical) buyers of the Avalon Hybrid are looking for a smooth, spacious car with comfort and luxury features which is is capable of delivering good fuel economy. The more sedately it is driven, the more satisfying is the experience with the Avalon Hybrid.
Toyota provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.