Toyota's Avalon is the most pure car in this comparison. It's certainly not pure in the sense of a wonderful driving experience defined by a man-machine connection hard to find in modern automobiles. It's pure in the sense that it successfully meets every expectation you'd have about this car. While our competitors all claim to offer both sport and luxury, the Toyota guarantees pure comfort.
Clean, but anonymous
The Toyota Avalon went through a major redesign in 2005. A mid-cycle refresh for 2008 modified the design with more shapely headlights and a bolder grille, yet the body shape and lines still leave it with fairly anonymous styling. However, it's certainly not unattractive, and even the all-new Genesis seems to mimic the Avalon's general shape and proportions in a slightly stouter package.
Simple luxury and comfort
Our XLS test car was one trim level below the range-topping Limited, but was still well equipped. Leather-trimmed seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, a moonroof, a power driver's seat, a six-disc CD changer, and an auxiliary audio input are all standard. Options on our car included power passenger seat, XM satellite radio, JBL 12-speaker audio system, and heated front seats.
The ivory interior is airy and spacious, with a dash that slopes away from the occupants. Climate controls saddle both sides of the plastic door that hides the radio interface, but steering wheel buttons allow the driver to command both the audio and HVAC systems. The seats are wide and comfortable and rear-seat space is excellent, even inviting, for two adults.
Smooth, and economical
The Avalon is motivated by a 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 268 hp and 248 lb-ft or torque. Power is routed to the front wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission, which replaces last year's five-speed. Shifts are slow, but very smooth. Mashing the gas pedal returns a satisfying and consistent acceleration throughout the entire rev range. The Avalon achieves the best fuel economy in our group, returning 19 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway.
Tuned to isolate you from the road
The strut-type suspension on all four corners of the Avalon is clearly engineered for comfort rather than performance. Mated to a rigid chassis, the car excels at damping out road irregularities of any size. Rolling down smoother roads at highway speeds, the car glides with a refinement that only rarely feels slightly too springy. Our car was optioned with stability control, traction control, and brake assist for $650, but 2009 models will come with stability control as standard.
Softer than an acoustic Coldplay set
Navigating the Michigan back roads between Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo, it's clear that the Avalon is the softest sedan in our comparison. The Toyota floats over straights and heels through high-speed turns. The Bridgestone Turanza tires begin screaming long before the other cars start to lose grip, and the featherweight steering makes it difficult to place the car precisely when snaking through curves.
Despite its performance shortcomings and the absence of fun-to-drive traits, the Avalon is a very good car. It's a large cruiser in the classic American style that delivers the comfort, quality, power, and subdued luxury that its buyers expect. The characteristics that make it so soft - the cushy suspension and low-effort steering - create a cabin that isolates the driver from the potholes, noise, and the general cacophony of a crowded highway. It's a package that would make commuting to a stressful job or tackling a long road trip very relaxed.
A fine car for comfortable cruising
The Avalon doesn't belong on an enthusiast's shopping list; the car ardently fights back when driven hard. But for those who want to arrive at point B in comfort, the Avalon's relaxed demeanor makes it great for surviving the suburbs and rush-hour freeways. At a price of $35,013 for our well-equipped test car, the Avalon also makes a great, affordable alternative to a Lexus, Infiniti, or Volvo.
2008 Toyota Avalon XLS
Base Price: $32,035
As Tested Price: $35,013
Engine: 3.5-liter DOHC 24-valve V-6
Horsepower: 268 hp @ 6200 rpm
Torque: 248 lb-ft @ 4700 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
L x W x H: 197.2 x 72.8 x 58.5 in
Legroom F/R: 41.3/40.9 in
Headroom F/R: 38.9/37.5 in
Cargo capacity: 14.4 cu ft
Curb weight: 3570 lb
EPA rating (city/highway): 19/28 mpg