Pros: Excellent V6; huge back seat, quiet and comfortable ride, plenty of standard luxuries.
Cons: Bland exterior, not an athlete, small trunk, Entune mobile-app interface isn't available.
The 2012 Toyota Avalon reminds us of how American cars used to be. It's big, because back-seat passengers shouldn't have second-rate accommodations. Powerful, because a car should be able to get out of its own way. Luxurious, because that's what American drivers expect. Smooth and silent on the highway, because our peerless Interstate system is all about high-speed cruising.
Sure, the Avalon's produced by a Japanese company, but it's designed with Americans in mind and assembled at Toyota's plant in the Kentucky heartland. It's everything that the American car once stood for. The cast of Mad Men would love it.
But is the Avalon out of step with the times? A case could be made that it is. For example, Toyota has been pushing its new Entune touchscreen interface, which uses your smartphone's Internet connection to integrate mobile apps into the driving experience - and you can't even get it as an option in the Avalon. Moreover, while many luxury cars have turned to smaller-displacement engines to increase fuel economy, the Avalon still relies on Toyota's big 3.5-liter V6, an admittedly excellent engine that's nonetheless not exactly optimized for efficiency.
But some people still appreciate traditional values in their cars, and the Avalon may be just what their doctors would order. It's easy to get caught up in the technology wars these days, but the Avalon reminds us that there's something to be said for simply enjoying the drive.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 Toyota Avalon is offered in base or Limited trim. Even the base model comes loaded with 17-inch alloy wheels, a sunroof, leather upholstery, an eight-way power driver's seat, a nine-speaker stereo with iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity, a rear-view camera and dual-zone automatic climate control. If that's not enough, the Limited adds HID headlamps, wood interior trim, a JBL premium audio system (optional on the base model) and heated and cooled front seats with power adjustments and driver's-side memory.
The Avalon's front seats are like your favorite easy chair: you wouldn't call them snug or sporty, but they'll provide cushy comfort for hours on end. The back seat might be even more impressive, serving up the kind of legroom that's normally reserved for limousines. We especially appreciate the high bottom cushion, which ensures that even lanky passengers will have plenty of thigh support.
The Avalon's gauges are Lexus-like in clarity, and the dashboard materials are also luxury grade, even if the overall interior design is rather uninspired. Ergonomics are excellent; if you can't figure out how to operate the Avalon's controls at a glance, you probably shouldn't be driving.
If there's anything we don't like about the Avalon's innards, it's the trunk, which measures a paltry 14.4 cubic feet in a segment where some trunks approach 20 cubic feet. Still, you can squeeze a few golf bags in there.
We're pleasantly surprised that the Avalon comes standard with iPod/USB and Bluetooth integration, but otherwise there's not much going on in the technology department. The optional touchscreen navigation system is perfectly functional, but its graphics are a little outdated, and it's not hard drive based, so there's no digital music storage. On the bright side, the Bluetooth suite includes music streaming capability, so you can play music wirelessly from your smartphone.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The front-wheel-drive Avalon is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 good for 268 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque. The transmission is a six-speed automatic.
What can we say about Toyota's 3.5-liter V6 that hasn't already been said? It's a wonderful engine, one of the very best on the market. Refinement is exemplary, and acceleration is strong enough to invite comparisons with V8-powered American cruisers like the Chevrolet Impala SS from a few years back. The six-speed automatic is a nice piece, too, delivering prompt downshifts-sporty, even-that stand out in this age of conservative, efficiency-minded transmission programming.
Speaking of efficiency, the EPA rates the Avalon's fuel economy at 19 mpg city/28 mpg highway, which isn't bad for a full-size V6-powered sedan. If you want a big V6 under the hood, the Avalon's is about as eco-friendly as they get.
The Avalon's seven standard airbags include a knee airbag for the driver, although not for the passenger, and full-length side curtain airbags. Stability control and active front head restraints are also standard, as is a rear-view camera.
The Avalon hasn't been subjected to the government's latest crash test regimen, but the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Avalon its top rating of Good in every testing category.
Let's get this out of the way first: the Avalon doesn't like corners, not with its light, numb steering and exceptionally soft suspension. But if you're in the 99 percent of people who don't care about cornering like a Formula 1 driver, you'll likely find piloting the Avalon a real pleasure. Road and wind noise are almost nonexistent, and the ride is the automotive equivalent of a pillow-top mattress. Potholes? What potholes?
The Avalon is serenity on four wheels. It may not embody current luxury-sedan ideals, but those ideals have been influenced by silly German sport sedans with capabilities far beyond what most drivers need. This Toyota is a touring car in the grand American tradition, and we find that refreshing.
Other Cars to Consider
Chrysler 300 - Employing a rear-wheel-drive platform with Mercedes-Benz roots, the 300 is if anything a more faithful execution of the "big American cruiser" concept than the Avalon. It also handles better and offers an excellent touchscreen interface and optional V8 power.
Hyundai Azera/Genesis - Newly redesigned and bursting with features and flair, the front-wheel-drive Azera is the latest example of Hyundai's transformation into a maker of legitimate luxury cars. The rear-wheel-drive Genesis, meanwhile, continues to do a credible impression of high-buck luxury sedans for tens of thousands less.
Chevrolet Impala - Yeah, we know it evokes rental lots more than desirable luxury, but the full-size Impala has a new lease on life thanks to the introduction this year of GM's excellent 3.6-liter direct-injected V6. If you don't mind the anonymous styling and the rudimentary interior, you could save a lot of cash with the Chevy.
The base Avalon has an impressive roster of standard features, but for barely $3,000 more, our choice would be the ultra-luxurious Limited. Just make sure you try out the competition, too, as there are lots of desirable sedans for this kind of money.