2013 Toyota Avalon Hybrid

People, us included, make a big stink about the importance of family sedans. There's no doubt they're critical – they represent a huge slice of the market's annual sales and profits. However, despite accounting for far fewer transactions than the midsize sedan segment, the fullsize sedan is getting attention from manufacturers now that our market's entire lineup of those (slightly) smaller four-doors has turned over in the last two years or so. As most of the fullsize segment's mainstays derive a fair bit of their platform and powertrain technologies from their midsize cousins, these larger four-doors offer the potential for fatter profit margins, too. And with the newly stylish duds found on many of the industry's most successful midsize sedans, it's only right that automakers no longer think about fullsizers as big, squishy, vanilla family haulers with flat seats, vague steering and a thin layer of 'luxury' in the form of faux wood trim.

As manufacturers have again started diving into large sedans feet-first, the cars themselves have become sharper. The interiors are now of a higher quality and loaded with tech, while the exteriors have become further extensions of each manufacturer's design language. There's perhaps no greater example of this than the Chevrolet Impala and Ford Taurus, two models that evolved from subpar offerings into market leaders. This segment-wide transformation happened quite quickly, whether because of coincidental timing or because manufacturers are trying to get more out of their big cars, recognizing they account for a small portion of overall sales (just 3.5 percent of the new-car market in the first half of 2013).

The 2013 Toyota Avalon Hybrid is one such vehicle. We remarked on the changes to the V6 variant last year, and while we previously had a quick steer of the gas-electric hybrid, we figured the new model was worth a closer week-long look.

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Toyota has avoided the urge to gussy up this hybrid model with eco-friendly tinsel.

While the Avalon's bass-mouth styling may be polarizing, it's at least consistent – Toyota has avoided the urge to gussy up this hybrid model with eco-friendly tinsel. A Hybrid Synergy Drive badge adorns the trunk lid, while a pair of Hybrid badges sit on the bottom of the front doors. Otherwise, this is essentially the same sleek sedan we saw debut at the 2012 New York Auto Show.

Like the exterior, the cabin is largely a carryover from the gas-powered model, aside from a trio of buttons behind the shifter that control the car's EV, Eco and Sport modes. The latter two alter the throttle mapping and pedal resistance, allowing for either a more responsive drive experience or a duller one in the name of improved fuel economy. EV mode, meanwhile, forces the Avalon Hybrid to run on battery power alone until the pack depletes. Following a similar theme as the exterior, our tester's cabin is far more fashion-conscious than the Avalon it replaces. Hard plastics are largely relegated to the lower dash, while the center stack is made of a finely textured plastic that, while not grade A, is a solid B. The dials are machined and feel suitably fine, while the dash and door panels feature leather with contrast stitching.

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The seats offer more support than the last-generation sedan without sacrificing the comfort expected of a big car like this. The steering wheel, as has become typical of Toyota (and Lexus in particular) as of late, feels a bit small for a vehicle of this size, yet it still sits well in hand. The minuscule buttons to the left and right of the directional pads are rather difficult to operate – particularly annoying as the left bank controls the audio system's volume.

The decision to only offer our tester with a 6.1-inch touchscreen in the center stack isn't a good move.

Toyota has opted for touch-capacitive controls for the infotainment and some of the climate controls, despite the poor critical response other brands have received for these 'buttonless' buttons. These controls strike us as curious in this vehicle. It's not that they don't work well, it's that the Avalon Hybrid has a traditionally older buying audience who may not be able to adjust to the new tech so easily, whether out of an unwillingness or an inability to learn.

The decision to only offer our tester with a 6.1-inch touchscreen in the center stack isn't a good move in our book. The display is responsive enough, but looks graphically inferior compared to the Retina, AMOLED and high-def screens we encounter on various devices throughout our day. It also looks undersized relative to the bulk of the dash. A larger, seven-inch screen is at least available on the top-flight Hybrid Limited.

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The Avalon Hybrid faced closer scrutiny on the road than it did when we were checking out its cabin and tech. See, the third-generation model did well in its intended function as a big, comfortable barge, but it did so at the expense of things like feedback and involvement. While it was hardly any worse than its main rival, the Buick LaCrosse, its detached driving experience left us feeling lukewarm. And that was before any hybrid components were fitted to the model – Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive technology is new for the Avalon, and while it may be renowned for delivering big fuel economy gains, it isn't exactly known for adding dynamic verve.

We would come to leave our test car in Eco most of the time.

Predictably, then, this fourth-generation model is better in a few key areas, yet it struggles in others. At the Avalon and Avalon Hybrid's launch last October, Toyota touted a "specific emphasis on steering response and agility," which Senior Editor Jeremy Korzeniewski reported on in our original review of the Avalon V6. With the Avalon Hybrid, the new model is quite stable on center and easy to keep tracking straight and true, but its still-vague feedback and overboosted weighting makes for imprecise steering that can take time to adjust to.

The Avalon Hybrid's relaxed ergonomics mean that the pedals are well situated and there's enough adjustability in the steering column to avoid bumping knees while at work. The accelerator delivers linear and predictable power, regardless of whether Sport, Eco or the default driving mode is selected. We would come to leave our test car in Eco most of the time after finding that its retarded throttle response helps to accelerate more smoothly away from lights. By not dipping into the skinny pedal quite so eagerly, it's possible to enjoy a more serene ride and, as an added bonus, improved fuel economy.

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The brakes, meanwhile, remain an issue. Toyota still hasn't figured out how to deliver both regenerative braking and pleasing pedal modulation (although to be fair, it's hardly alone). The brakes – 11.7-inch discs up front and 11.1-inch in the rear – can feel overly grabby and difficult to modulate. That's due to both a lack of linearity in pedal effort and a frustratingly small range of travel.

Total system horsepower sits at 200 ponies, which isn't particularly great for such a big, heavy vehicle.

Opting for the Avalon Hybrid means accepting that drivers of conventionally powered full-sizers will arrive more quickly than you. The 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine packs 156 pound-feet of torque and 156 horsepower at 4,500 and 5,700 rpm, respectively. As that's not much for a 3,500-pound car, a nickel-metal hydride battery back stores juice for a 105-kilowatt electric motor, which in turn delivers 199 pound-feet of torque between zero and 1,500 rpm. Total system horsepower sits at 200 ponies, which again isn't particularly great for such a big, heavy vehicle. Ignoring the lack of power, Toyota's hybrid drivetrain is still a great item, delivering what power it has in a smooth, predictable manner. Low-speed acceleration is particularly pleasing thanks to the electric motor's groundswell of torque.

Paired up to an electronic CVT, the Avalon Hybrid offers smooth, uninterrupted (but limited) power. The transmission is responsive to sudden inputs and will happily kick the rpms up to the appropriate level. It also drops revs quickly, as the hybrid system is all too happy to turn the gas engine off entirely.

2013 Toyota Avalon Hybrid

If you're not used to a big sedan drive experience, the Avalon still feels quite soft, while the feedback on offer can be frustratingly limited. At the same time, the Avalon Hybrid is more composed on varied road surfaces. It doesn't porpoise down the road, but feels planted and composed on the straight and narrow. Of course, it still rolls quite a lot in corners, but it also doesn't slosh about like water in a bucket. There isn't really enough grunt to slam the car's weight onto the rear suspension, so acceleration squat isn't an issue, but it does have a tendency to dip its nose a bit too much under hard braking. Factoring in its vague pedal feel, jumping on the binders in the Avalon Hybrid is hardly a confidence-inducing experience. The 17-inch Bridgestone Turanza EL400 tires offer reasonable levels of grip commensurate with what can be expected of touring-biased all-season rubber, although we are surprised Toyota has opted out of specifying a low rolling-resistance tire, a standard industry trick for saving a bit more fuel on hybrid models.

The ride is firmer than expected and can't iron out potholes and imperfections quite so efficiently.

The cost of this more tolerable handling, though, isn't really worthwhile. The ride is firmer than expected and can't iron out potholes and imperfections quite so efficiently. The Avalon Hybrid is a stable car at speed, though, with different road surfaces having little influence on how the car tracks along the road. And while actual impacts aren't fully transmitted to the driver, the noises they produce are easy to pick out.

Indeed, impact noises from the firm ride are an issue, but hardly a full-time thing. Controlling straight-line tire roar and wind noise is far more important to a car's overall sense of refinement, and in this regard, the Avalon Hybrid does well. At and above typical highway speeds, there isn't an obnoxious amount of wind noise, with no noticeable air leaks from our tester's 6,000 hard miles of press fleet duty, either. Tire roar is very well controlled, too, likely a benefit of using conventional tires. Sonically, there isn't a lot to expect from a hybrid powertrain like this – the engine is inoffensive in its note but actually could stand to be muted a bit.

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With a bit more discipline, 40 mpg can be surpassed without much effort.

The Avalon Hybrid holds a unique place in the market, in that it's one of the only entries not to use some sort of six-cylinder or turbocharged four-cylinder engine (Buick's eAssist-equipped LaCrosse hybrid being the other). With its hybrid powertrain, it shouldn't come as a shock that it's the most efficient model in its class, netting 40 miles per gallon in the city and 39 mpg on the highway – 14 and 4 mpg better than its next closest competitor, the aforementioned Buick. What is surprising is just how easily it is to hit those numbers. Even with our moderately aggressive right foot, we recorded 38 miles per gallon in about 300 miles of mixed driving. We imagine that with a bit more discipline, 40 mpg can be surpassed without much effort.

Naturally, one of the Avalon Hybrid's biggest assets is its size. It's a large sedan, and it feels that way from every seat. Front-seat passengers are treated to plenty of headroom and a central armrest that is wide enough to avoid elbowing matches between driver and passenger. The back seats, even with the fronts as far back as possible, still leave enough legroom for short jaunts. Even with the driver's seat set for your narrator's six-foot, one-inch frame, there is plenty of room in the back for someone of equal or even greater size. Really, there's not a bad seat in the house. Even the trunk has an American vastness to it, with a solid 14 cubic feet of space. While that means it won't out-haul a Ford Taurus (20.1 cu ft) or Chevy Impala (18.8 cu ft), it handily outdoes the 10.8 cu ft in the LaCrosse eAssist.

2013 Toyota Avalon Hybrid

Unlike the four grades of the Avalon V6 (XLE, XLE Premium, XLE Touring and Limited), the Avalon Hybrid range only has three trims (XLE Premium, XLE Touring and Limited), with prices starting at $35,555 for the base car, $37,250 for the mid-level XLE Touring and $41,400 for the top-end Limited. Our XLE tester's sole factory-installed option consisted of its spiffy $395 Blizzard Pearl paint, but it was also fitted with a few dealer-installed accessories ($225 floor mats, a $69 protective rear bumper applique, a $499 remote-start system and $395 for InvisiShield-style paint protection). Its total as-tested price of $39,628 (including $795 destination charge) strikes us a bit high, but then again, hybrids cost more money to build.

Toyota's new Avalon goes far beyond a sleek new exterior and a fuel-efficient powertrain. This new vehicle is better to drive than its predecessor in most ways while offering the kind of technology buyers expect when paying this kind of money for a family sedan. The addition of this Hybrid model serves as a shot across the bow to other manufacturers, as it demonstrates that Toyota's fuel-sipping technology isn't just limited to the Prius and Camry. Even so, while we like the idea of a more efficient big sedan, it's unclear how many American buyers will be interested in ponying up for that efficiency, as there are more powerful and less costly offerings available – even from Toyota itself.