2015 Toyota Avalon

The Toyota Avalon has long been known as a "Japanese Buick" - a full-size sedan that offers a capacious cabin and a comfortable ride but little in the way of style or sportiness. However, that sedate image should become a thing of the past as news of the latest model spreads.

Recent Changes
For the latest model year, the Avalon gets a limited-edition version called XLE Touring Sport Edition. Limited to 2,500 examples, the special model celebrates the Avalon nameplate's 20th anniversary.

Overview
Looking to appeal to buyers outside of the Avalon's traditional septuagenarian base, Toyota recently gave the sedan a retuned suspension for more responsive handling, along with a thorough restyling that resulted in a newly distinctive look. Those qualities, in combination with refinement worthy of Toyota's Lexus luxury division, transform the Avalon into a highly competitive offering. The addition of a hybrid model further expands the sedan's appeal.

Outside, the Avalon features subtle, graceful touches like gently upswet character lines on the flanks, a gradually tapering roofline and understated rear quarter windows. Up front, a Camry-inspired upper grille contrasts with a massive trapezoidal lower intake that represents the car's most controversial element.

Life Aboard
While the Avalon is 2.7-inches shorter overall than its predecessor, its cabin is as spacious as ever. There's ample room for five to sit in stretch-out comfort, and trunk space is up 1.6 cubic inches to 16. The dashboard design is much more modern than before thanks to flowing lines and a standard 6.1-inch touch screen display that controls the entertainment system. There are numerous other upscale standard features, including leather upholstery, heated front seats and a proximity key.

A number of NVH-focused additions, such as new sound-quelling materials, acoustic glass and redesigned exterior mirrors help reduce road noise and give the Avalon a library-quiet interior.

The Avalon's suspension, which consists of struts up front and a dual-link setup at the rear, has been reworked to provide a better ride/handling balance. Though it still isn't a sport sedan, the Avalon now leans less in the corners and feels suitably responsive without a significant decrease in ride quality.

Under the Hood
One aspect of the Avalon that didn't change as part of the redesign is the powertrain, which is no bad thing. The carryover engine is a surprisingly powerful 3.5-liter V6 that produces 268 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque - that's enough to propel the big sedan from zero-to-60 mph in just over six seconds. A six-speed automatic transmission controlled by shift paddles helps the car return 21 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway.

Toyota also offers a gasoline-electric hybrid version of the Avalon that is powered by the same Hybrid Synergy Drive drivetrain found in the Camry Hybrid. The drivetrain is made up of a 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine that works with an electric motor to spin the front wheels via a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Combined, the two power sources generate 200 horsepower while enabling the Avalon to return 41 mpg in the city and 39 mpg on the highway.

Equipped with 244.8-volt nickel-metal hydride battery pack, the Avalon Hybrid is capable of covering up to one mile on electricity alone at speeds up to 25 mph.

Drivers can choose from three different drive modes: In EV mode, the car runs on electric power for as long as the battery level permits. Eco mode cuts down on fuel consumption by reducing throttle responsiveness and HVAC energy use. Finally, Sport mode livens up the driving experience with heightened throttle response and a more positive steering feel.

At 3,600 pounds, the Avalon Hybrid is only 124 pounds heavier than the standard model and on the very light side overall - many other full-size sedans weigh around 4,000 pounds.

Trim Level Breakdown
The Avalon is offered in XLE, XLE Premium, XLE Touring and Limited trim levels.

Not available on the hybrid model, the entry-level XLE trim comes with leather upholstery, heated and power-adjustable front seats, a 6.1-inch touchscreen display, an eight-speaker AM/FM/CD sound system with AUX and USB inputs, Bluetooth connectivity with audio streaming capability, dual zone automatic climate control, a proximity key, rain-sensing windshield wipers and 17-inch alloy wheels.

To those features, the XLE Premium adds or substitutes a backup camera, remote start, a sunroof, an auto-dimming rearview mirror with a compass and a Homelink universal tranciever.

The XLE Touring brings a navigation system, an upgraded audio system with XM radio and HD radio, steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, blind-spot monitoring with rear traffic alert, memory functionality for the driver's seat and exterior mirrors, fog lights and 18-inch alloy wheels.

The Limited adds a premium HDD navigation system, a premium JBL audio system, heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, rear seat climate controls, HID headlights and LED running lights.

The XLE Touring and Limited trims come with Entune, a multimedia system that offer apps like Bing search services, iheartradio.com and Pandora music and concierge services like OpenTable and movietickets.com.

An optional technology package includes dynamic radar cruise control, automatic high-beams and a pre-collision system that sense impending collisions and tightens the seatbelts, primes the brakes and can actually increase brake pressure to help mitigate a crash.

Avalon Touring Sport Edition
Toyota is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Avalon nameplate with a limited-edition model called XLE Touring Sport Edition.

Outside, the Touring Sport Edition stands out from a stock Avalon thanks to an Attitude Black paint job, automatic HID headlights as well as model-specific emblems on both front doors. The finishing touch is a set of machine-finished 18-inch alloy wheels wrapped by Michelin tires.

The interior has been spruced up with heated front seats upholstered in premium perforated leather with blue contrast stitching, dark blue trim on the dashboard and the center console, aluminum door sills and custom floor mats. The sedan comes standard with an eight-way power-adjustable front seat and a four-way passenger seat.

Just 2,500 examples of the Touring Sport will be built, with the last one scheduled to roll off the assembly line in March of 2015.

Occupant Safety
The Avalon comes standard with an impressive contingent of airbags, including dual front, front side, rear side, front knee and full-length side curtain airbags. Traction and stability control systems and a tire-pressure monitoring system are also standard.

Optional safety fare including a blind spot warning system with rear cross traffic alert and a pre-collision system.

Key Competitors
The Avalon competes against full-size sedans such as the Hyundai Azera, the Ford Taurus, the Buick Lacrosse and the Chrysler 300.

Aside from the Avalon Hybrid, the only other mainstream full-size sedan with a hybrid powertrain is the Buick LaCrosse eAssist, which is less expensive but much less efficient than the Toyota. Other options include smaller four-doors like the Ford Fusion Hybrid and pricier luxury machines such as the BMW ActiveHybrid 5.