First Drive: 2013 Toyota Avalon

Posted on: November 26th, 2012 by Daniel Sherman

Introduction

The all-new 2013 Avalon marks an important turning point for Toyota’s North American operations, as well as for globalization of the auto industry. This marks the first time a Toyota project has had an American “chief engineer”—in Japanese companies, the Presidential figure with final say on any decision. In addition, the Avalon is fully designed, engineered, manufactured, and marked in North America; it will only be exported to the Middle East and South Korea markets.

Even though Japan had virtually no influence on the Avalon, its platform is now shared with the Japanese-built Lexus ES. A longer, wider, stiffer version of the global Camry chassis, the Avalon is built on the same exact line as the Camry and shares floorpan stampings.

 

The Fullsize segment is a strange beast. Mainstream OEMs see it as an opportunity to create a flagship image for their brands. Buyers, however, are less elite—primarily rental fleets and the elderly. Below is a visual breakdown of used market buyer age by segment.

Toyota aims to lower its median age from 65 to 55 years old with the new generation. Aiding that goal, Avalon is also the first product developed under Akio Toyota’s mandate that all new Toyotas be more emotional and exciting.

Walkaround

The first evidence of Toyota’s new direction is in the sheetmetal, shaped solely by the CALTY studios in Newport Beach and Ann Arbor. Avalon’s proportions eschew the bloated look of competitors in favor of cues which bestow upon it a wide, low-slung stance. Below the goofy, requisite corporate fascia is a Fusion-sized grille. I’m not a fan of the sharp vertical crease flowing from headlight edge to foglight, but the front of this car makes an aggressive impression in person.

Despite Avalon’s long rear overhang, the rear ¾ shot is probably its best angle. The fastback-like C-pillar sweeps into a well-integrated, LED-lit rear fascia with a sporty-looking faux diffuser. This car looks a whole lot more elegant and modern than its Lexus cousin. The wheels look pretty good, but 17”-18” is a bit small for the segment.

Believe it or not, the Avalon is smaller in just about every dimension. This does hurt some of its roominess stats, particularly against ever-growing rivals. But thanks to a concave center stack and low beltline, the front row feels open and vast. Bright, too. Folding rear seats are conspicuously absent; only a center armrest pass-through allows any contact between passenger cabin and trunk. The cargo capacity is now 16 cu. ft., 1.6 larger than last generation. The hybrid is a bit smaller at 14 cu. ft., due to the NiMH batteries.

No doubt about it, this is the most impressive interior Toyota has ever designed. A borderline-sporty 3-spoke steering wheel is pleasant to both sight and touch. The center stack is covered with a superb metal-grain plastic. Padded, stitched leatherette can be found throughout the cabin. Toyota’s first implementation of IntelliTouch capacitive touch controls is fantastic, with lightning-quick responses to inputs, even with gloves or long fingernails. Of help are large, well-defined button areas and large text. Lexus-quality metal knobs still exist for volume and tuning.

A 6.1” touchscreen display with mediocre graphics is standard (Entune smartphone integration optional), whereas the Limited trim steps up to a more modern 7” navigation screen. The JBL audio system, on uplevel trims, is acceptable, but not as special as its specs would suggest. The E-bin stores and covers your electronic just fine, but it’s meant to hold a phone on its leatherette surface when closed—and it does a terrible, slippery job of it.

The Drive

The Avalon gains rigidity and sheds weight in this redesign (lightest in class at 3461 lbs). Fuel economy is slightly improved, from 19/28 to 21/31 MPG. Despite a relatively low power/torque rating, the carryover 3.5L V6 feels sprightlier, smoother, more linear, and more flexible than competitors. The 6-speed auto, dreadfully slow on the previous generation, is upgraded with throttle blipping downshifts, an “S” mode, and plastic paddle shifters on higher-spec models. New for MY13 are ECO, Normal, and Sport drive modes. The drive mode toggle buttons, prominently displayed on the center console, require awkward arm contortions to press. Sport yields higher effort steering and slightly more aggressive throttle pedal mapping (initial tip-in is exactly the same between the modes, which in my opinion is the best way to go about it). ECO dials back the throttle to the point of uselessness.

The new-for-2013 Avalon Hybrid (powertrain shared with Camry Hybrid and ES300H) provides adequate motivation, good driveability, and an involving hybrid experience which includes an electric flow meter in place of a tach—not to mention 40/39 mpg and up to 680 miles range.

Avalon was never a sportscar, and despite Akio’s mandate, it remains a cruiser. That being said, this new generation’s handling is competent and surprisingly flat when pushed to its relatively low limits. Contrary to past Avalons, as well as fullsize sedans in general, this one drives nothing like a boat. Ride is cushy—considerably more comfortable than a Camry—but never floaty. The new electronic power steering is a bit numb and overboosted, but it needs minimal corrections on the highway and naturally weights up in turns. Brake feel is slightly mushy, but easy to modulate smoothly. The low beltline yields superior visibility to bloated class rivals. Like its predecessors, this Avalon is quiet, smooth, and refined at all speeds.

The important takeaway here is that there is zero learning curve to the car’s dynamics; Avalon is button-and-go easy to drive.

Residual Outlook

Aside from the lack of split-folding rear seats, few things about the Avalon could prove a dealbreaker for potential buyers. It’s fantastically executed, and I hope that this approach is taken to future Toyota products.

The addition of the hybrid may not be beneficial for model line % residuals, as it carries a $1750-$2360 price premium over the V6.

Pricing, on paper, looks lower. It ranges from $31-$41k. This car seems to have a pricing edge on its rivals. Volume projections, however, are aspirational at 70k units, a target which Avalon hasn’t hit since MY06. MY11 volume, for reference, was <28k units. Hybrids—24% of the mix—may add a higher proportion of incremental units.

The marketing manager said that rental fleet pen, which some segment players have at up to 66%, would be kept low. Though she couldn’t give me a hard number, I asked if it would be <15%, and she said emphatically yes.

In the hope of taking a piece of the old Town Car pie, Toyota is offering both powerplants in black-on-black Livery trims, featuring rear heated seats and HVAC controls. They’re only hoping for 500-1000 units in the first year.

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