There's isn't much about the Toyota Avalon that we don't like. Some driving enthusiasts might say it's too vanilla, but there's a certain excitement in Avalon's overall competence, and it's a car we look forward to driving. It's pleasant to drive in all circumstances, and never aggravating. The value of that last point should not be underestimated because we see many luxury cars nowadays that are aggravating.
For 2011, the Avalon has been mildly re-styled and updated inside. None of the changes alter its driving dynamics, though there is one operational benefit. Slight improvements to this big sedan's aerodynamic efficiency raise its already impressive EPA fuel economy ratings by 1 mpg, city and highway.
Driving the Avalon truly is a tranquil experience. This sedan approaches serene, but it isn't numbing in a way that allows a driver to forget he or she is operating a motor vehicle. There's a linear, consistent feel to its controls, and it doesn't come across as sloppy.
The Avalon's powertrain provides the foundation for its impressively smooth operation. On paper, its 3.5-liter V6 engine might seem a bit small for a fairly large, heavy car. In fact, the Avalon can be almost peppy, and it certainly isn't underpowered. Its secret is two-fold.
For starters, its dual overhead-cam V6 generates an adequate 268 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. And thanks to variable valve timing and a dual-stage variable intake manifold, the power isn't the least bit peaky. It flows smoothly and evenly from idle to the engine's redline, whether you're accelerating casually from a stop sign or flooring the gas pedal to merge onto a crowded freeway.
The second contributor is Avalon's well-tuned 6-speed automatic transmission. This transmission uses a unique mounting system designed to minimize the transfer of shift-shock into the Avalon's cabin. It does an excellent job tapping the horsepower available, and it almost always knows the best time to shift, whether it's up or down. The shifts are reasonably quick, but they're also exceptionally smooth, even at full throttle. Light-throttle upshifts are barely noticeable. The top gear is a tall overdrive, so the Avalon cruises in relaxed fashion on the freeway, with the engine spinning quietly at relatively low speed.
We tested the transmission's manual shift feature on a curving river road, tapping the sequential shift lever between second and third and keeping the engine spinning near its redline. In such circumstances, the Avalon can be something like a sports sedan, because the V6 is happy to run at high rpm. There's enough torque to create a bit of torque steer when you floor it from a slow speed, manifesting itself as a slight tug on the steering wheel. In the Avalon, it's nothing that will disturb the typical driver, but it's enough to let that driver know that there's a strong engine under the hood.
The Avalon will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than eight seconds and, while that's no longer sports car performance, it's anything but lethargic, especially in a large car that carries five people and their luggage with lots of room to breathe inside. Or one with the Avalon's mileage ratings.
Delivering 20 mpg city and 29 highway, according to the federal government, the Avalon's fuel economy is impressive for a sedan its size. Those figures are among the best in class, and better than the ratings for many smaller, mid-size V6 sedans, including the Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion and Nissan Altima. They equal the ratings for Toyota's smaller Camry sedan.
Mileage ratings or lively acceleration aside, the Avalon is built primarily for comfort, and that's obvious in its suspension settings. The ride is silky smooth in nearly all circumstances, and rarely does a road shock ruffle the occupants. The softly tuned suspension means Avalon can lean noticeably when taking turns aggressively.
Still, this body sway is progressively controlled, and the Avalon doesn't feel mushy or disconnected. Its steering is on the light side, but it responds directly to movement of the wheel. We'd call the Avalon cushy but good. It holds its line nicely when driven reasonably quickly through a series of curves, whether the road surface is smooth or bumpy. A sharp lane change or a deep jab on the brake pedal won't scare the dickens out of its driver.
The brakes are strong enough to stop the Avalon with authority. The pedal feels a little softer than we'd like, but it's linear in operation and it makes it easy for the driver to smoothly apply the stopping force. The well-managed anti-lock brake system keeps Avalon on an even keel during panic stops.
The Avalon is up to whatever the typical driver might encounter or dish out. Yet its trademark remains the peaceful stillness inside. At a stoplight in the city, the hubbub outside the Avalon sounds like a muted purr to its driver and passengers. At 75 mph on the expressway, about the only sound is a soft crack from the tires as they slap over pavement joints, and 15 percent volume with some soft music will take care of that. The Avalon is exceptionally smooth, too, especially for its price. At freeway speeds, there's less vibration through the steering column, seat bottoms or floorboards than one feels in some luxury cars that cost $30,000 more.