By Mark Elias
Tuesday, Nov 6th, 2012 @ 11:45 am
 

Now in its fourth generation, the 2013 Toyota Avalon leaves its boxy demeanor behind with a new swoopy exterior that was conceptualized, designed, engineered and manufactured in the United States for this market.

Long a favorite of the more mature set, the new Avalon looks like it's ready to make a jailbreak from the confines of Century Village, Sun City and other so-called retirement communities.

Only the name remains the same

Which made us ponder, why not change the name entirely, especially since it now has a rather global reach: The car will be built at a Toyota plant in Georgetown, Kentucky, from which it will be exported for retail sales in the Middle East, and in an effort to bring the battle to the front porch of a key competitor, South Korea.

Familiarization under the skin

The new Avalon shares powertrains and platforms with its little sister, the Toyota Camry, and its cousin, the Lexus ES 350. From that point, the three take distinctly different paths towards creature comforts, design, and allure.

Designed at Toyota's Calty Design Center in Newport Beach, California and Ann Arbor, Michigan, the goal for the Avalon was to be something "more vibrant and youthful." To that end, designers penned a more agile design that features an athleticism that has been missing from the brand. Contemporary in its makeup, it even has looks that mimic the recently introduced Ford Fusion when viewed in profile, all the way to the upside down trapezoidal grill. After examining it for a while, we think it's the sexiest Avalon ever, although that might be damning this rather good looking car with faint praise

In an effort to simplify packaging, this newest Toyota will be ordered in four gas trim levels and three hybrid styles, the latter of which is a new powertrain for this vehicle. At that point, there should be something for everyone. The lineup includes the base XLE, the XLE Premium, XLE Touring and the top-of-the-line Limited. The Hybrid is available in XLE Premium, XLE Touring and Limited models.

Motivations

From the gas side of the equation, Toyota's ubiquitous petrol-burning 3.5-liter V6 engine shows up underhood here, with its standard electronic fuel injection. Toyota officials cite the lack of an overwhelming benefit of direct-injection systems and their associated costs as seen in its competitors like the Hyundai Azera, Buick LaCrosse and Lincoln MKZ.

A hydraulic six-speed automatic transmission moves the front-drive sedan with a sequential shift function for spirited driving. Smooth shifting, it is adjustable through three drive selections, namely Normal, ECO and Sport modes, which gear the Avalon in a normally measured pace, a fuel-saving efficiency mode or an aggressive quick shifting, rev-matching, throttle remapping mode, respectively.

Toyota estimates a best-in-segment mileage rating of 21/31 mpg, with 25 mpg combined.

For the first time, a Hybrid Avalon joins the mix, using a 2.5-liter Atkinson Cycle system as seen in the Camry and the Lexus ES. The gasoline engine is good for 156 horsepower at 5,700 rpm, and 156 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm. Combine that with the Hybrid electric generator's 105 kW at 4,500 rpm and 199 lb-ft of torque from 0-1,500 rpm, and using the new math, it's good for 200 horsepower overall. Power is transmitted to the wheels with a hybrid transaxle in place of the standard six-speed automatic.

It's a completely impressive package that goes from 0-60 in 8.0-seconds and comes complete with a range of 680 miles per tank full. Slotting in at 120 lbs. lighter than the previous Avalon and 540 lbs. lighter than its Detroit competition, it's easy to see how a 40/39 mpg and 40 combined mileage rating comes into play.

But for the purpose of this First Drive, we focused on the standard gas-only model, which should comprise the majority of sales.

It's a looker

The 2013 Avalon is a case of life imitating art. Toward that end, the final model seems to mimic the target renderings almost perfectly. Designers have used what they have awkwardly named "Keen Look" (what were they thinking?) design language that comes from Calty Design. In addition to the swoopy sidelines, it appears, in profile, to be drop-waisted, versus competitors that appear to be heading towards full-blown slab-sidedness. (Paging Chrysler 300!)

The C-pillar has been extended rearward to give a more swept-back finish, while the frontal area was designed with double-eyes projector beam headlights. The large floating lower grille, struck us as an upside down version of the look seen on the 2013 Ford Fusion. The rear three quarter view is strikingly lean, low, and sculptural.

Interior enhancements

The new Avalon features what hopefully will become the new interior look for the brand. From upmarket single needle tailoring across the dashboard to leather wrapped steering wheels and elegantly covered leather seats, the Avalon has received a badly needed shot in the arm. Along the way, they have utilized underfloor panels and more importantly an acoustically designed windshield and laminated front side glass to keep exterior road noise at bay.

Interior accouterments include a first-for-the-brand three-toned color scheme. Toyota officials describe the interior as being elegant and athletic with 103.6 cubic feet of personal space and openness designed inside. A choice of 6.1-inch or 7-inch color touchscreen displays are available, offering varying degrees of functionality. A base 140-watt sound system is standard and can be supplanted by the 490-watt JBL Synthesis Audio system and its seven-inch touchscreen display. HVAC controls include capacitive switches, which slide under a finger's touch. Finally, a cubbyhole at the base of the center stack offers a place to hold and charge a smartphone. The rear seat area provides accommodations for three, although some testers claimed a certain hardness in the middle seat. There are 16-cubic feet of trunk space in the standard model, while the battery pack reduces the Hybrid's capacity to 14-cubic feet, a reasonable compromise compared to some rivals.

The Avalon is now available with various options that depend on the trim level of the vehicle selected. They include such items as a Dynamic Radar Cruise Control and pre-collision, which pre-charges brakes and seat belts before a potential shunt. A blind-spot monitoring system and rear cross traffic alert supplant the Toyota Safety Connect system, which is similar to General Motor's OnStar program.

Toyota estimates Avalon sales to hit 70,000 copies in the first full year, with the V6 engine accounting for 80-percent of those, while the hybrid will account for the remaining 20-percent. In an effort to draw down the median age of buyers, Toyota is making a new push toward younger, more affluent urban customers not interested in the way the outgoing model traveled "Avalon Class."

Drive time

The electric power-assisted rack and pinion setup made for very direct steering in this Avalon. The car doesn't wallow when moving from left to right. The Sport mode allowed us to slap the shift lever, or use the available paddle shift levers that are part and parcel of the Touring package with its more aggressive looks and attitude (from an Avalon?!). The functional center stack offered access to the controls once you became very familiar with it. We were in a Touring version, which featured the smaller screen but still included the company's Apps functionality. In previous Toyota models, the navigation system was accessed through a button that was simply labeled "Map." Now, drivers have to navigate through several menus of Apps before finding the navigation system, a move that had us taking our eyes off of the road for longer than we prefer.

Acceleration was stout for a family sedan that was previously not known for such performance. Though the 268 ponies might seem modest when some rivals' V6s crank out more than 300 horsepower, the manageable 3,461 lbs. of mass makes the Avalon rather sprightly.

Cycling through the three drive modes, we quickly found our favorite: Sport, which sharpens throttle response and "re-gears" the electric power steering for a firmer and more steady road feel. Tossed into a corner, the MacPherson front struts delivered agile handling and a much stiffer, more planted feel than the outgoing model. At back, the counter-wound coil setup increased straight-line stability, while rebound springs kept things flat in the curves.

Leftlane's bottom line:

Toyota designed the new 2013 Avalon to be a passionate rather than rational purchase.

Could the days of Toyota as a mobility appliance be behind us? We're not quite ready to call Toyota the new Ultimate Driving Machine manufacturer, but this Avalon is a huge step in the right direction.

2013 Toyota Avalon base price range, $30,990 to $39,650.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.