Driving Impressions

By June 9, 2010

Driving the Toyota Avalon is a tranquil experience. This sedan approaches serene, but it isn't numbing in a way that allows a driver to forget he or she is operating a motor vehicle. In short, the Avalon is big, quiet and easy to operate. It makes commuting a more pleasant process, and it shortens long family trips.

The foundation for the Avalon's smoothness 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 the Avalon's 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 the 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 engine spinning near its redline. We discovered in the process that the Avalon can be something like a sport sedan, because the V6 is happy to run at high rpm.

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 the Avalon might lean noticeably in faster turns. Yet the body movement is well controlled, and the Avalon doesn't feel floating or disconnected. Its steering is on the light side, with a lot of power assist, but it responds directly to movement of the wheel. We might call the Avalon cushy but good. It holds its line nicely when driven reasonably quickly through a series of curves, whether the road surface is smooth or bumpy.

The Avalon's brakes are strong and they stop the car with authority. The brake pedal feels a little softer than we'd like, but it's linear in operation 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.

There's not much we don't like about the Avalon. Some driving enthusiasts would say it's too vanilla, but then it's doubtful that hard-core driving enthusiasts are interested in this car, anyway. We'd say it's competent, pleasant to drive in all circumstances, and never aggravating. That last point can be huge on hectic days.