If you didn't know better (but you do, since you're reading this review), you could easily be forgiven for assuming that we're pulling your leg by telling you the car pictured is a Toyota Avalon.
After all, the Avalon was conceived to be boring - early on, it was called an "American Buick" back when Buicks were six-seat snoozemobiles. Now, however, Buicks are more upmarket and desirable by the day. With the debut of the 2013 Avalon, it too became rather interesting indeed.
But there's some serious competition for the Avalon hailing from all across the globe. Has this nameplate been treated to more than just a spicy restyle? We decided to find out.
What is it?
Slotting in at the top of Toyota's sedan line, the Georgetown, Kentucky-built Avalon has a lot in common with the Toyota Camry and the Lexus ES 350. Underneath, it rides on a front-wheel-drive architecture shared with those two, and it's powered by the same 3.5-liter V6 mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox.
An Avalon Hybrid that uses - you guessed it - the Camry Hybrid and ES 300h powertrain is also available.
Gone is the frumpy style and six-seat layout of Avalons of yore. For this latest model, the Avalon has moved in a more vibrant, youthful direction - and not just in the way it looks. Dynamically, the big sedan's front-wheel-drive chassis has been engineered not to waft over bumps but to absorb them with a more European feel.
Two trim levels and a multitude of packages are available, starting with the nicely-equipped Avalon XLE before marching up to our to-the-gills Avalon Limited tester. Even the XLE comes with leather seats and a touchscreen audio system, but Limiteds bring to the table an equipment set more akin to a genuine luxury car.
Our tester was further kitted out with a $1,750 Technology Package with radar cruise control and a crash avoidance system that uses radar to warn drivers of an impending collision. If they don't react in time, the system automatically applies the brakes to mitigate the effects of a wreck.
What's it up against?
After languishing for what seemed like ages, the full-size sedan segment has become fiercely competitive. Avalon's main rivals range from the Chevrolet Impala and Dodge Charger to the Kia Cadenza and Hyundai Azera. We'd also throw in more premium-brand rivals like the Chrysler 300, Buick LaCrosse and Lincoln MKZ.
What does it look like?
With its gaping front grille and swept-back headlamps, the Avalon finally has a face of its own. Not only is it distinctive, it's rather good looking, if we do say so ourselves.
Up front, chrome accents around the fog lamps give it a snazzy look that's echoed at the rear by intricate swept-back tail lamps and a diffuser with a pair of integrated tail pipes. From the side, the Avalon's big greenhouse doesn't have the svelte look of some cars with high belt lines, but it pays off by providing passengers with a much clearer view out.
Our tester's Champagne Mica paint scheme did its curves no favor; bolder colors show it off much better. Regardless, one thing to note is that no Avalon - not even the least expensive XLE - looks "basic," unlike some rivals that appear downmarket unless pricey options are selected.
And on the inside?
You could be forgiven for assuming that Toyota hired an avant garde design firm to pen the Avalon's dashboard. As bold and jutting as Jay Leno's jaw line, the dashboard is as convenient as it is interesting to look at; only some secondary audio controls located a fairly long stretch from the driver detract from its ergonomics. From every angle, the Avalon's interior is intriguing but highly comfortable, feeling more intimate than a cabin this large should.
There's plenty of stretch-out room for all five passengers, but the front thrones deserve special mention - they're among the most comfortable we've ever experienced, although it was worth noting that the light "almond" shade of our tester's leather was beginning to show some wear.
The Avalon's interior is not only attractive, it's well thought out. We appreciated touches like a stitched center console small items storage bin cover that doubles as a high friction pad for loose items; it makes a nice home for a mobile phone or a pair of sunglasses.
Avalon uses two versions of Toyota's touchscreen Entune infotainment system; Limiteds feature a 7-inch screen and a generally logical interface. Unlike rival systems from several automakers, Entune proved virtually lag-free and it responded well to our voice inputs. But one downside is the screen - its fingerprint-resistant coating gave it a dull finish that isn't as pretty to look at as some high definition-style screens seen elsewhere.
Yes, the Avalon uses the same capacitive touch buttons on its dashboard that we've grumbled about in some rivals, but intuitive steering wheel controls, traditional volume and tuning knobs and a smattering of "real" buttons help. Moreover, the capacitive touch buttons feature small depressions to guide drivers without having to taking their eyes from the road. Sure, the buttons may not be quite as elegant as the featureless panels seen on some Ford products, but they work a lot better.
Most interior surfaces are covered in nice vinyl and plastic trim. What hard plastic can be found typically features a more stylish grain than the "fake leather" look we've grown accustomed to. That said, the Chevrolet Impala, in particular, imparts more of an "old world" solidity to the way its cabin materials look and feel than the Avalon. Then again, the admittedly larger Impala tips the scales at upwards of 300 lbs. more. That weight had to go somewhere.
But does it go?
Toyota's 3.5-liter V6 boasts variable valve timing but not direct injection or turbocharging, which makes it something of a low tech motor against certain rivals. However, we still love it - few engines on the market provide such a smooth rush of power.
Ultimately, with 268 horsepower and 248 lb-ft. of torque, Avalon is down a bit on grunt compared to rivals, but that deficit isn't noticeable in real world driving situations. From a stop, Avalon furnishes impressive grunt accompanied by a refined and distant growl underhood and its six-speed automatic fires off fast and smooth shifts.
We essentially matched our tester's EPA fuel economy figures, which stand officially at 21 mpg in the city, 31 mpg on the highway and 24 mpg combined. On a short road trip, we netted 33 mpg. Conversely, we couldn't top 20 mpg in the city.
A trio of buttons on the center console unleash Eco, Normal and Sport (on an Avalon, imagine that!) drive modes. Predictably, they alter items like throttle response and the electric power steering's heft. As odd as it might sound, we actually liked Eco's more progressive throttle since Sport tended toward too difficult to modulate.
In Eco and Normal modes, the Avalon's tiller is light and direct but essentially devoid of feel. Selecting Sport tightens things up, but delivers no additional communication from the front wheels. With its firm but still cosseting ride and polished feel over the road, the Avalon is vastly more pleasant to drive than before, although it still comes up well short of being truly "sporty." There's still some float to the ride, something generally better kept in check in the portlier Impala, but the Avalon is vastly more nimble, feeling more tossable on curvy roads.
Yet this four-door still excels as a highway cruiser, tracking arrow straight on the highway and essentially silent aside from some surprising wind rush over the side mirrors.
But against its competitive set, the Avalon is highly compelling for the first time, well, ever.
Leftlane's bottom line
How many ways can we say that the Toyota Avalon is one of the most surprising cars we've driven in recent memory?
No, it won't get your heart pounding, but the Avalon is polished and poised with an added dose of of style never before seen on a Toyota sedan.
2013 Toyota Avalon Limited
base price, $39,650. As tested, $42,195.
Technology Package, $1,750; Destination, $795.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.