- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2006

Almost from the time of its 1995 introduction in the United States, the Toyota Avalon has been tagged with the label, “Japanese Buick.”

The term was meant to convey the idea that the manufacturer’s flagship would appeal primarily to an older generation of American buyers whose priorities are a full-size sedan with roominess, comfort, convenience features and a supple ride. Distinctive styling and sporty driving characteristics would not be required.

Throughout the first two generations of the Avalon, Toyota executives were happy to produce a sedan that met those particular requirements.

But for the third generation, now about a year old, the parameters have been widened and the original label really does not apply. After all, the car was designed in Newport Beach, Calif.; engineered in Ann Arbor, Mich.; and built in Georgetown, Ken.

Traditional buyers need not worry. They still will find the core Avalon values they covet, only in a package that is roomier, more stylish and a lot more powerful than the previous generations.

But that’s not the end of the story. Toyota has added a Touring edition to the Avalon lineup in the hopes that it will appeal to younger buyers seeking a little more driving enjoyment in a sedan that will meet the needs of a family.

The major mechanical differences are few - a stiffening of the independent suspension’s springs and shock absorbers, standard 17-inch wheels and performance-oriented all-season tires - but the results are significant.

Take this car for a fast run along the twisty back roads or, perhaps more likely, turn off an interstate on to a decreasing-radius exit ramp and the Avalon Touring will respond crisply to the driver’s commands. The body leans a bit, but the Avalon holds its line without undue disruption to the passengers inside the cabin.

Importantly, the handling improvements do not come at any serious sacrifice to ride quality. Sure, the passengers will feel the bumps and ruts of a road cratered by the ravages of winter, but a journey along unblemished surfaces is nearly fall-asleep comfortable. And, typical of Toyota, this Avalon feels solid and well built over all surfaces.

A new, 3.5-liter V-6 engine - standard in all Avalons - features four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing and a dual-stage variable intake manifold. It generates 268 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque.

Those who might be scratching their heads at those numbers should know they have been revised downward from the original 280/260 only because of a change in standardized testing procedures.

They do nothing to change the engine’s eager performance, which is a welcome complement to the Avalon Touring’s enhanced agility. The sprint to 60 mph will take a mere 6.6 seconds. Passing power, especially in the all-important 30-50 mph and 50-70 mph passing situations, is confidence inspiring.

But the most lasting impression is of an engine that is smooth, quiet and uncomplaining, willing to take its cue from an impatient right foot with nothing more than a muted growl under heavy acceleration. Even torque steer, the bugaboo of powerful front-drive cars, is muted.

The five-speed automatic transmission shifts unobtrusively, but those hoping to enhance their driving experience with the manual override may be disappointed. It will let the driver control shift points, but only until it disagrees with a decision. Then, it takes over.

The EPA lists fuel efficiency at 22 miles per gallon of regular gasoline in the city and 31 on the highway. I managed only 20 to 28 mpg, still not bad for a full-size sedan.

Aggressive drivers will be glad to know that nicely modulated antilock disc brakes are on tap at all four wheels to bring things to a halt quickly and - new for 2006 on the Touring edition - an optional stability and traction control system will do its best to keep an overly enthusiastic driver on course.

If there is a weak link in the Touring edition’s driving experience it is the rack-and-pinion steering. Identical in all Avalons, the steering is precise but over-assisted at highway speeds.

There is little on the outside of the Touring sedan to distinguish it from other models. A keen observer of the brand will notice a small, unobtrusive rear spoiler, but that’s about it. Inside, faux aluminum trim replaces the simulated wood trim on other models.

What anyone who steps foot inside the car will notice is the exceptional roominess. Two front-seat passengers of almost any size will be comfortable and, thanks to the 41 inches of rear legroom, can fully extend their buckets without cramping back-seat occupants. The rear-seat riders will travel in near limousine comfort, resting against a seatback that can recline up to 10 degrees. Even the middle passenger will not suffer unduly, thanks to a driveline tunnel that is nearly flat.

The Avalon Touring has a base price of $29,415, including delivery charge. But that price includes charcoal leather upholstery, power seats for driver and front passenger, nine-speaker sound system, dual-zone automatic climate control, cruise control and a multi-function information screen mounted on the center of the dashboard.

The price climbs to $31,992 with options that include a sunroof; upgraded sound system; and a package that groups heated front seats with the stability and traction control.

With the new Avalon, Toyota has created a nearly flawless full-size sedan lineup that rivals cars costing many thousands of dollars more in competence, content, comfort and quality.

But it’s the Touring edition, second from bottom on the price ladder, that’s the most fun.

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