- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2005

Few flagships fly farther under the radar than Avalon. Toyota’s top offering has carved a refined line through the market as a low-key Lexus. Now, with the debut of the third-generation Avalon, Toyota makes it known that it would like to turn up the volume — at least a little.

The new Avalon is markedly longer (5.3 inches) and wider (1.2 inches) than before. While the tale of the tape shows that Toyota has let out the seams, Avalon shows no visible middle-age spread. Styling is conservatively chiseled. The outside extension allows for an inside expansion: Avalon picks up 1.3 cubic feet of space in the cabin. The interior shows a further blurring of the lines between Lexus and Toyota, with Optitron gauges crossing over from the former to the latter. The central dashboards in most flagships are as busy as Grand Central Station, part of the baggage that goes with complex, onboard electronics.

Toyota made the task of connecting with the controls simpler here, adding redundant switchgear on the steering wheel and grouping like controls together behind concealing panels. Add the optional navigation system on Avalon and you get a readable, 7-inch screen, housed high in mid-dash. Your eyes don’t have to wander too far from the road to find it. The center console lid does double duty, sliding forward to become the inside armrest. Bench seats are no longer an option. This, and the migration of the shift lever from steering column to floor, are part of a quiet, concerted effort to skew Avalon’s median buyer age (currently 66) slightly younger. Interior room is generous — Avalon seats five adults without excuse or complaint. Rear-seat passengers can kick back to the tune of a 10-degree recline.

Four series are offered — XL, XLS, Touring and Limited, with sticker prices ranging from $ 26,350 to $33,540. Ride quality and interior noise levels are exemplary and will do quite nicely for the majority of the target market. But, for the percentage of Avalon buyers who put cornering in their car-buying equation, the Touring model is the pick. Tweaks to suspension stiffness give the Touring versions a sportier feel without losing their trip-worthy comfort levels.

All Avalon models benefit from a resounding power boost this year, thanks to a new engine. The 3.5-liter V-6 posts 280 horsepower and 260 foot-pounds of torque. That is a gain of 70 horsepower. Linked to the five-speed automatic transmission, the powertrain has a fluid feel and spirits the big Toyota down the road effortlessly. Toyota claims a 0-60 best of 6.6 seconds — downright quick and light years ahead of the car it replaces (8.4 seconds).

Despite the power boost, Avalon maintains respectable numbers for gas mileage. EPA rates the 2005 at 22 miles per gallon city, 31 highway.

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