At a glance, the Toyota Avalon looks dignified and understated, but closer inspection reveals some sophisticated styling themes that inspire a sense of elegance. Examined more closely, the Avalon almost looks French in its impressionistic impact.
Overall, the Avalon is eight inches longer than Toyota's top-selling Camry sedan. By most exterior dimensions, the 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.
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 mirrors also include a couple model specific features, starting with LED turn signals in the glass that are visible to other drivers. We like the bright puddle lamps under those mirrors, because they flood the ground below the doors with light as you approach in darkness.
In front, the grille and bumper are trimmed with horizontal chrome bars, with fog lamps integrated into the lower bumper on 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. From the rear, the tall deck and big rear valance enhance the air of elegance and substance, while smoked tail light lenses add a hint of flair.
The Avalon sedan offers one of Toyota's finest interior packages. It's quiet, well-crafted and more than spacious, and we'd rank it at the top of its class. The cabin contributes to the Avalon's serene ambience and, from the functional perspective, it's first rate.
Materials are generally good quality. A very few trim pieces, such as silver-painted plastic parts and the housing around the steering column, demonstrate that the Avalon is not an extra-expensive luxury car. But the fit of the various parts and panels is impeccable and, overall, the 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 comfortable. They don't have a lot of the side bolstering enthusiast drivers 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 becoming numb within a half hour or so. The seats will adjust for a wide range of drivers, and the controls make it easy to tailor your driving position; they are an excellent compromise between adequate adjustment and 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 those buttons are 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 positioned just as we like it.
The Avalon's 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, and so is an audio jack to connect iPods or 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 is the Avalon's lack of individual reading lights for front-seat passengers, and the omission is more glaring 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-release doors. One door exposes the cupholders, and the others reveal storage compartments. The larger compartment has two power points and the audio jack. There's also a felt-lined change bin.
The 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. The sunshade lowers automatically if it's up when the driver engages Reverse, then lifts it again when the driver selects Drive.
The 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 is somewhat short, but 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 seatback to maximum recline adds an inch or two of headroom.
Individual reading lights are provided for rear passengers, with 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. 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.
At 14.4 cubic feet, trunk capacity is less than in many similarly-sized competitors. There's still decent room for luggage or a serious shopping binge, but the Avalon trunk 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 open it, something many trunk lids don't do. Yet the trunk opening is smaller than that on other cars in the 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 the 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.