Toyota’s Avalon sedan has often been accused of being automotive Ambien – and not exactly unfairly. But a week behind the wheel of an Avalon Hybrid showed me that maybe there’s another side to the car – that maybe we in the automotive press have been too hard on the Avalon, since we all dream of manual-transmission station wagons with V-8 engines and brown paint jobs. Sometimes, a plain large sedan with a soothing ride and a fuel-range that outpaces a human’s bladder range can provide driving pleasure of a different sort.
The first thing I noticed is that the Avalon had no shift paddles behind the steering wheel – Toyota didn’t even bother with sporting pretensions. The entry-luxury Avalon, which shares components with the Toyota Camry and the Lexus ES 350, is meant to be a highway cruiser. And maybe I’m just getting old, but why should we punish it for not being sporty?
Sure, maybe it’s a tad on the boring side, but the Avalon Hybrid has two missions – provide a comfortable ride and provide plenty of MPGs. It accomplishes both.
The latter mission is accomplished via a hybrid system that pairs a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine with an electric motor. On its own, the gas engine makes 156 horsepower and 156 lb-ft of torque, with an overall system horsepower of 200. The system gets power to the front wheels via a continuously-variable automatic transmission (CVT).
The powertrain provides punch for passing and merging, but don’t expect much more. The Avalon handles slightly better than one might think, given its size and highway-cruiser mission, but even in Sport mode it’s not very engaging.
Where the car comes alive is on the interstate. I took the Avalon on a round-trip drive of about 300 miles, most of which were freeway and four-lane highway, and I found it to be a pleasant companion. The compliant ride and comfy seats made it a great road-tripper. Not to mention that the hybrid system promised a range of over 500 miles (I saw MPG ratings in the mid-40s, according to the trip computer), which means that day trips won’t require you to dip too deeply into your wallet to pay for gas. The hybrid’s battery does knock available trunk space down by two cubic feet, to 14.
There’s something to be said about cars that do nothing but fulfill their stated mission. The Avalon Hybrid may not be as stylish or sporty as the Nissan Maxima (its closest competitor, although the Maxima doesn’t offer a hybrid version), and it’s a little less luxurious that its corporate sibling, the Lexus ES 350 Hybrid, but it does what’s asked of it – provide interior comfort, provide a smooth ride on the highway, and pass as many gas stations as possible while so doing.
There’s not much new for this year – the highlight is that Toyota’s Safety System + suite of driver-assistance and safety tech features is now standard across the board – and the Avalon does feel a bit dated. There’s a paucity of new convenience tech such as Apple CarPlay or Android Auto smartphone integration, for example.
Interior and exterior styling is neither objectionable nor memorable – the outside has a sleek shape, yet it fades from memory fast. Inside, the controls are all easily reachable and nothing confuses, but the cabin won’t be confused for a work of art anytime soon. It’s automotive comfort food – nothing fancy or confusing.
Feature wise, the Avalon may be a year or two behind the cutting edge but that doesn’t mean its completely devoid of baubles. My Premium-trim tester (carpeted floor mats are the only option, at $224) came with Toyota’s Entune media suite, which includes a 7-inch screen, navigation, Pandora, USB connectivity, Bluetooth, and HD radio. It also had a back-up camera and a moonroof, along with wireless cell-phone charger.
Lane-departure alert with steering assist, pre-collision warning with pedestrian detection, and radar cruise control are among the available safety features that are included in the Toyota Safety System + package.
Overall, my tester based at $38,700 and between the floor mats and an $865 delivery fee, it had a total out the door cost of $39,789.
The Avalon won’t scratch any sporting itches, but if you’re looking for a comfortable sedan that blends in and allows you to pass the miles (and pass by gas stations) in peace, it just might fit the bill.