We didn't have high expectations for the Avalon. When Peter mentioned to a friend that he was driving the full-size Toyota, she replied, "Oh, my dad has one of those." Exactly. Call it the Daddy demographic, which invokes images of a big, bland sedan with a cushy ride and bargelike handling. But we were pleasantly surprised.
Appearance: The Avalon is no design exercise. Its clean lines are devoid of any pronounced creases — except for a subdued one that runs the length of the body. Toyota gave the grille and headlights a bolder facelift for 2011 and the taillights are now upswept LEDs. There's more chrome on the exterior but not enough to call attention to itself.
Performance: The 3.5-liter DOHC V-6 has adequate power for the 3,600-pound car, even on the interstate, and the 6-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission with sequential shift changes gears smoothly. The ride is controlled and comfortable, and the front-wheel-drive Avalon simply gobbles up bumps and uneven roads. The handling is steadfast, but we wouldn't exactly say the Avalon likes any sudden surprises.
Interior: In a word, plush. We had the top-of-the-line Limited trim, but the base Avalon comes with many upscale features. Lyra liked the elegant matte-wood finish on the doors, dash and steering wheel. (Peter found that finish on the steering wheel can be slippery where it's not covered in leather.) The quiet cabin is spacious and comfortable, with more than enough headroom and legroom. Peter especially liked that the rear seats recline — a bonus for taller passengers. The interior also features heated, ventilated leather seats with eight-way power adjustment for the driver and four-way adjustment for the passenger, as well as lumbar support for both. Our tester had the Limited's added gadgetry of push-button start, rain-sensing wipers, a power rear sunshade and the optional voice-activated touch-screen navigation. Standard are the backup camera and the Bluetooth phone connection. Open the rear armrest and there are two cup holders and a storage compartment, as well as a pass-through to the large trunk. One nit, which we also see in its Lexus cousins: The mirror adjustment controls are difficult to get to — this time they're on the dash behind the steering wheel instead of on the doors.
Our 3 favorites
Rear seats: They recline, which is a practical touch.
Drivability: The Avalon does well what it sets out to do.
Suspension: Even on rough roads, it is up to the task.
Tactile treat: Wood trim with a matte finish felt smooth to the touch; it was especially nice on the steering wheel.
Floaty ride: Like driving on a cloud.
Luxury: Feel of a Lexus, price of a Toyota.
The bottom line: For the driver of a certain age who likes plenty of comfort at a not-too-outrageous price, the Avalon offers a taste of luxury without having to pay the premium of its Lexus cousins.