For 2008, the Toyota Avalon gets some styling updates, interior upgrades and, perhaps most significantly, a new six-speed automatic transmission. Yet its calling card hasn't changed significantly. The Avalon remains a very quiet, comfortable, five-seat sedan that's easy to drive and great to travel in.
The Avalon rides like a magic carpet, almost impervious to the worst roads you'll travel. Its delivers good acceleration and good mileage for such a roomy car. Its automatic transmission is quick shifting and decisive. It's pleasant to drive for just about any purpose, and it won't fail you if you happen to be in a hurry.
The interior is finished with quality materials and equipped with ergonomically functional controls. The front seats are roomy and comfortable, the back seat downright spacious. Empty-nesters will appreciate Avalon for its flexibility, and families for its manageable base price, which includes a good stereo with CD changer and most of the features anyone really needs.
Still, the Avalon stands out most for smoothness and quiet operation. The tranquility is a function of many things, including its underlying design, vibration mitigating features and good build quality. Whatever the reasons, the Avalon is smoother and quieter than many sedans that cost a lot more. It offers solace in a busy world, and it helps minimize the stress and aggravation that are increasingly by-products of commuting and running errands on our crowded streets and highways.
Avalon is equipped with the latest safety technology, including a full complement of front, side and head-protection airbags. It scores well in government and insurance-industry crash tests. It also offers important active safety features that help drivers avoid accidents in the first place. However, its Vehicle Stability Control skid-management system is an option rather than standard equipment, and we recommend adding it to the bottom line.
The Avalon XL ($27,325) comes well equipped, with a full complement of power accessories and features such as an eight-way power driver's seat, dual-zone climate control with cabin air filter and audio and climate controls on the steering wheel. The nine-speaker audio system adds a six-CD changer for 2008. Cloth upholstery and 16-inch alloy wheels are standard.
The Avalon Touring model ($29,325) features a firmer suspension, 17-inch alloy wheels, high-intensity-discharge (HID) head lamps, fog lamps, and a rear deck spoiler. Touring also adds leather-trimmed seats with four-way power for the front passenger, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob and aluminum scuff plates on the door sills.
The Avalon XLS ($31,375) reverts to standard headlights and suspension, but it keeps the fog lamps, 17-inch wheels and leather trim. The XLS also adds a power moonroof, heated outside mirrors with electrochromic auto-dimming on the driver's side, an auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass and Homelink universal transceiver, and an anti-theft system.
The Avalon Limited ($34,065) upgrades with a 360-watt JBL Synthesis audio system with 12 speakers and Blue Tooth connectivity, a power rear sunshade, Toyota's Smart Key proximity key system, the HID headlamps, a wood-and-leather-trimmed shift knob and steering wheel, rain-sensing windshield wipers, and driver and passenger seat heaters and cooling fans.
Options include the power moonroof ($860) and anti-theft system ($220) for the base XL model. Touring models and above offer heated seats ($440), an eight-way power front passenger seat with heating ($740), the JBL Synthesis sound system ($840) and a navigation system ($2,000-$4,155, depending on the model). Dynamic laser-guided cruise control ($600) is optional only on the Limited.
Safety features: All Avalons get larger brakes for 2008, and all come with a full array of airbags, including front-impact airbags, a driver's knee airbag, seat-mounted side-impact airbags for front passengers, and curtain-style, head-protection airbags for outboard passengers front and rear. Other standard safety features include anti-lock brakes (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) and a tire-pressure monitoring system. Optional is Toyota's Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) system ($650); we recommend getting it because it can help the driver avoid an accident.
Overall, the Avalon is eight inches longer than Toyota's top-selling Camry sedan. By most exterior dimensions, Avalon is roughly the same size as the Ford Taurus, Chevrolet Impala, and Chrysler 300. Compared to European luxury sedans, it's larger than the mid-size Mercedes E-Class, but smaller than the full-size S-Class sedan.
The Avalon dates to 1995, and it underwent its third wheels-up overhaul for 2005. The 2008 model gets what the car industry calls a mid-cycle update, or noticeable styling tweaks that are as extensive as a car usually gets between complete redesigns. Those changes are most obvious in front, where Avalon sports a new bumper and grille with chrome-trimmed horizontal bars. The lower bumper features integrated fog lamps on Touring, XLS and Limited models.
In side view, subtle character lines below the windows and above the door sills add a hint of sculpting to the Avalon's flanks. For 2008, the Touring and XLS add chrome door handles previously reserved for the Limited. From the rear, the tall rear deck and big rear valance enhance the air of elegance and substance, while new smoked tail light lenses add a hint more flair. The Avalon Touring is distinguished by a low rear spoiler.
Lots of the Avalon's styling features have been optimized to reduce wind noise inside the car, including the shape of the windshield pillars and side mirrors and low placement of the wipers under the hood line. The Avalon Limited upgrades with unique, sound dampening glass in the windshield.
The Limited's mirrors also include a couple model specific features, starting with LED turn signals that are visible to other drivers in the glass. We like the bright LED lights under those mirrors, because they flood the ground below the doors with light as you approach in darkness.
Materials are generally good quality. A few trim pieces, such as silver-painted plastic parts and the housing around the steering column, demonstrate that Avalon is not an extra-expensive luxury car. But the fit of the various parts and panels is impeccable, and overall Avalon's interior feels like quality. Even the extra-glossy, wood-grain trim Toyota designers seem so fond of looks pretty good inside the Avalon.
The front seats are big, fairly flat and very comfortable. They don't have a lot of side bolstering enthusiasts like for hard cornering, but the relative flatness makes then easy to slide into, and there's enough strategic bolstering to keep lower backs and backsides from getting numb within a half hour or so. These seats will adjust for a wide range of drivers, and the controls make it easy to tailor your driving position. They're an excellent compromise between adequate adjustment and the overkill of too many things to fiddle with. The Avalon Limited features a fan in the seat cushion and seatback that blows air through the perforated leather trim to improve comfort.
The steering wheel tilts and telescopes over a substantial range, and it's wrapped with leather on all but the base Avalon XL. The wheel spokes have buttons to adjust audio and climate settings, and they're also a great compromise: big and easy to find, but not confusing. Wipers and lights follow Toyota's familiar pattern, with the light switch on the left stalk and wipers on the right. Everything, from window and mirror switches to armrest heights, is just as we like them: Again, it's one of Toyota's best arrangements.
Avalon's basic dashboard layout is clean and simple, but not simplistic. Its so-called Optitron gauges are large, crisp and easy to see through the top half of the steering wheel. The large LCD informational display is located right in the center of the dash, above the switch stack. It offers a wide range of information, like inside temperature settings, outside temperature, time, date and fuel range, in large, easy-to-read script.
A touch-release cover below the LCD screen lifts to expose the audio controls. Those most frequently adjusted, including the tuner and volume control, are bigger than the knobs in most other cars. The six-CD changer is standard in all Avalons for 2008, and so is an audio jack to connect iPods or other MP3 players. The upgrade JBL audio package adds Bluetooth capability and 360 watts of output. It sounds fantastic, though we could certainly live with the standard stereo.
The primary temperature, air flow and fan adjustment knobs are huge, located on either side of the stereo and prominently back-lit in pastel turquoise that reminds us of Miami Beach. They operate with a firm, steady action, and they're nearly impossible to miss when the driver reaches a hand from the steering wheel.
The sunroof button and overhead light switch are located above the rearview mirror, with a drop-down sunglasses holder. One omission inside the Avalon is its lack of individual reading lights for front seat passengers, and the omission glares more because the interior is generally so nice. Buttons for the seat warmers are dials offering a range of heat intensity, located on the center console next to the gear selector.
The center console itself is simple but effective, with three touch screen doors. One door exposes the cupholders, and the others, storage compartments. The larger compartment has two power points and the audio jack. There's also a felt-lined change bin.
Avalon's door pockets have no lining material, and the hard plastic allows items such as sunglasses to slide (and potentially scratch) easily. Still, those pockets are wide and deep, and we love how they swing open like a folder to allow an easy reach inside. The glove box will swallow a whole lot of gloves, along with a clutch or handbag.
The Limited model comes with a rear glass sunshade, operated by the driver. A new feature for 2008 automatically lowers the sunshade if it's up when the driver engages reverse, then lifts it again when the driver selects drive.
Avalon's rear seatbacks recline over a limited range (still a rare feature), and the feeling of roominess carries through in back. Leg room for rear passengers surpasses that in many taxis: With the driver's seat adjusted for a 5-foot, 9-inch driver, a 5-foot, 9-inch passenger had enough room to stretch legs fully, with feet pointed under the front seat. The rear bench's width is impressive, too. Three-across seating is no problem here, and accommodations are improved by the flat rear floor. Headroom comes in the shortest supply, but it's still adequate. That 5-foot, 9-inch passenger was brushing his close-cropped hair on the headliner with the rear seat back in its most upright position. Adjusting the rear seatback to maximum recline added an inch or two of headroom.
Individual reading lights are provided for both rear passengers, and two adjustable air vents on the rear of the center console. The rear door pockets don't fold open like those in front, but there are stretchy map pockets on the front seatbacks. Noting a fixed grab handle over each door and a folding armrest in middle of the seatback, we've covered the amenities in the rear half of the Avalon cabin. The rear armrest drops a little too low for our taste, and the shallow cupholders built into it are more like cup stabilization points. They are cupholders only if there is a hand helping hold the cup.
Trunk capacity is substantially less than, at 14.4 cubic feet, than in similarly sized competitors such as the Ford Taurus (21.2 cubic feet), Chrysler 300 (19.7), and Chevrolet Impala (18.6), and less than in Toyota's smaller Camry sedan (15.5).
That 14.4 cubic feet still provides a lot of room for luggage or a serious shopping binge, but Avalon is further hampered by its basic shape. The trunk is long but relatively narrow, with much of the available space stretching forward toward the rear seatback, under the rear glass and shelf. The trunk lid raises itself once you pop it, something many trunk lids don't do. The trunk opening is smaller than that on other cars in Avalon's class and small relative to the trunk's volume, so large items that might fit in the trunk may not fit through the opening.
A locking pass-through allows longer items such as skis to slide into the cabin between the outboard rear passengers, though Avalon does not offer the folding rear seatbacks available on some competitors. A standard, removable cargo net hangs within easy reach across the trunk opening to keep items such as plastic grocery bags from dumping or sliding around during transport.
The foundation for Avalon's smooth demeanor is its powertrain. On paper, its 3.5-liter V6 engine might seem a bit small for a relatively large car. In fact, the Avalon is surprisingly peppy. The dual overhead-cam V6 generates a substantial 268 horsepower and 248 pound feet of torque, and it moves the Avalon with authority. Moreover, 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 6200-rpm limit, whether you're accelerating casually from a stop sign or flooring the gas pedal to merge onto a crowded freeway.
The V6 has enough torque to create a bit of torque steer when you floor it from a slow speed. Torque steer usually manifests itself as a slight tug on the steering wheel under hard acceleration. 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 powerful piece under the hood. The Avalon will easily 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.
Fuel economy is among the best in its class, with an EPA-estimated 19/28 City/Highway mpg. Those numbers are more than respectable in a car this big and roomy. This is thanks in part to its six-speed automatic transmission.
The six-speed automatic uses the latest electronic controls and a unique mounting system designed to minimize the transfer of shift shock into Avalon's cabin. It does a great job of 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 tried the transmission's manual shift feature on a swoopy two-lane road, tapping the sequential shift lever between second and third and keeping the spinning up near its redline. We discovered in the process that Avalon can be almost sporty to drive.
Still, this sedan is built primarily for comfort, and that's obvious in the 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 wants to lean over in faster turns. Yet the body movement is well controlled, and the Avalon doesn't feel floating or disconnected. Its steering falls on the light side, with a lot of power assist, but it responds directly to movement of the wheel. We might call Avalon cushy but good. It's well balanced front to rear, and it holds its line nicely when driven reasonably quickly through a series of curves, whether the road surface is smooth or bumpy.
The Touring model is equipped with firmer shocks and springs than the other models, with stickier (and stiffer) tires. It has the quickest reflexes. It turns into a corner more aggressively, and its front tires aren't as quick to start sliding. Still, the handling comes at the expense of some ride comfort and noise control (the tires again). If you're not sure which suspension you want, then you probably don't want the Touring. If you think the Avalon might not be sporty enough for you, check out the Touring model.
The Avalon's brakes are stronger than ever, thanks to an increase in the size of the brake rotors and calipers for 2008, and they stop the car with authority. The brake pedal feels a little softer than we'd like, but it's linear in operating and it makes it easy for a driver to smoothly apply stopping force. Its effective anti-lock brake system keeps Avalon on an even keel during panic stops and allows the driver to maintain steering control.
In short, the Avalon is up to whatever the typical driver might encounter or dish out. Yet its trademark might be the peaceful stillness inside. At a stoplight in the city center, the whirring hubbub outside the Avalon sounds like a muted purr to its driver and passengers. At 75 mph on the expressway, about the only sound you'll hear 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, you'll feel less vibration through the steering column, seat bottoms or floorboards than you would in some luxury cars that cost $20,000 more.
The optional Vehicle Stability Control system, which includes Traction Control and Brake Assist, is an active car-control system that hovers in the background until computers and sensors detect a problem, measured by sliding tires. VSC can help keep a skidding vehicle on the road by instantly braking one or more wheels, individually. We were able to activate the traction control by hammering the throttle from a standing start, with one front wheel on pavement and the other on a sandy shoulder. Sure enough, no wheelspin and no wiggling. Just a smooth departure. Real world data suggest such systems reduce highway injuries by reducing the number of collisions to begin with. We can't imagine an Avalon buyer who wouldn't want or need VSC, and similar electronic stability programs are increasingly included in the base price on cars that cost substantially less than Avalon. We urge Avalon buyers to choose VSC, even though Toyota wants extra for it.
There's not much we don't like about Avalon. It makes commuting a more pleasant process, and if shortens long family trips.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent J.P. Vettraino reported from Detroit. John Stewart contributed to this report from Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.