Longer and sleeker

Friday, June 3, 2005

There are towns called "Avalon" in California, Georgia, Missouri, Mississippi, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, England and France, but the Toyota Avalon is not built in any of them. Georgetown, Ky., is home to Toyota's flagship sedan, which has been re-fashioned and re-engineered for 2005. Longer and sleeker, it's grown 5.3 inches in length, 3.9 inches in wheelbase, 1.2 inches in width, and 1.4 inches in height. It's not a fashion statement like the Chrysler 300, but it's a giant leap for Toyota, not known for exploring the fickle edges of style and fashion.

Toyota has been building automobiles since 1936, when its very first car was based on a Chevrolet chassis powered by a Japanese engine. That was a pretty safe bet when the undisputed leaders were American corporations with names like General Motors and Ford Motor Corporation. But Toyota no longer plays follow-the-leader. With its market-leading Camry mid-size and a full range of trucks and SUVs, the former Japanese loom-maker has its American competitors playing catch-up. Although GM is still No. 1, Toyota has come from zero to No. 2 in less than sixty years, and some observers say it will take the top spot before this decade closes.

Propelling it there are reliable cars like the new Avalon, itself propelled by an essentially all-new 3.5-liter engine, a short-stroke development of the 4.0-liter engine that powers the Tundra, Tacoma, and 4Runner. It's hardly a truck engine, though, with four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing, and roller followers that permit concave cam profiles (quickening valve opening and lengthening duration). This marvel of engineering produces power that just a few years ago was the province of big luxury brands with V-8 engines. Witness the Lincoln Continental's 32-valve V-8 that cranked out a tire-spinning 275 horsepower. Today's "little" Avalon V-6 spits out 285 horsepower! Coupled to a relatively light platform and a modern five-speed automatic transmission, it's a luxury vehicle that can gallop from zero-to-sixty in 6.5 seconds, and run the quarter mile in just 14.9 seconds. Consider that the impressive V-8 Hemi-engined Chrysler 300C is just three-tenths of a second faster in zero-sixty time!

Four trim levels are available: XL, Touring, XLS and Limited. I tested the XLS, which adds a power moonroof and a six-disc CD changer to the Touring's equipment list. Although the base version XL offers such amenities as a cabin air filter, a nine-speaker stereo, automatic climate control, tilt/telescoping wheel, power seat and 16-inch alloy wheels, the Touring model is noticeably sportier with firmer suspension, unique 17-inch wheels, leather seats and aluminum interior trim. The XLS and Limited are more upscale. The Limited includes such items as rain-sensing wipers, memory seats, wood trim, a power rear sunshade, a smart key system and a 12-speaker, 360-watt JBL stereo.

Side airbags for front-seat passengers are standard on all models, along with side curtain airbags for front and rear passengers and a driver-side knee airbag. Traction and stability control systems, along with Toyota's BrakeAssist system that detects emergency braking and applies maximum pressure to reduce stopping distances, are optional on the XLS and Limited only. The Avalon is a front-wheel-drive vehicle with four-wheel antilock disc brakes.

Although most automotive writers panned the old Avalon as a "boring" experience, the new version is rewarding to drive. Intended primarily as an interstate cruiser in the Buick fashion, I found it to be confident on the curvy back roads around my hometown, as well. The ride has the suppleness of the old Avalon, but it's now injected with a youthful spirit that the old one lacked. Not unlike a gray-haired gentleman who has just discovered Viagra, the Avalon can now keep up with the new kid on the block. Throw it into some curves, rack it around a couple of hairpins -- you'll wonder what happened to the familiar tire screeching of the old Avalon. Never feeling harsh, the Avalon now has a suspension that keeps body roll at bay and the front end pointed in the same direction as the front tires.

Take the Avalon up to interstate speed and you'll experience a cabin that remains quiet and an engine that loafs along with plenty of power for passing and merging. What it lacks in V-8 torque is compensated for nicely by the silky five-speed transmission that always knows what gear to be in.

I sat in the spacious back seat for more than 100 miles while my enthusiastic co-testers explored the Avalon's handling capabilities, and I can recommend it as a very pleasant place to spend time. It's the first sedan I've been in with reclining back seats, and the first in a very long time that allowed me room to sprawl with my legs crossed. The seatbacks don't recline as far as the front seats -- that would put you in the trunk -- but they do have a welcome adjustable 10-degree rake.

Speaking of the trunk, it's not large enough to give GM anything to worry about. At just 14 cubic feet, it's about two-thirds the size of the largest American trunks. But if interior room in a full-size sedan is more important to you than luggage space, the new, powerful, refined and luxurious Avalon is about as good as it gets.

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at sjr1@robertsonsphotography.com.

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