Have you seen the TV commercials for the 2011 Toyota Avalon? One particular 30-second spot sticks out. It's shot through a 1960's filter and features an old-fashioned voiceover, cheesy elevator music and an airline pilot driving the big Toyota sedan on a cloud with a pretty flight attendant in the passenger seat. It's like something the Mad Men crew would create, minus the misogyny.
That Toyota's marketing team produced such a commercial proves they know exactly who buys the Avalon: people who were alive and watching television 50 years ago. Since a "jet-smooth ride" and "quiet cabin" don't set an enthusiast's soul ablaze, we're taking Toyota's hint and getting in the mood for our review of the updated Avalon by donning a cardigan, ordering a scotch and soda and developing a one-sided friendship with Alex Trebec. So let's phrase it in the form of a question: How good is the 2011 Toyota Avalon? Follow the jump to find out.
Photos copyright ©2010 Chris Shunk / AOL
These days, many automakers simplified the car buying process by bundling options in packages and spreading them across three or more different trim levels. The 2011 Toyota Avalon goes even simpler, offering just two trim levels and a bare minimum of available options. Toyota pulls this off by offering the most basic Avalon with a metric ton of standard equipment and a $32,000 base MSRP, while a Limited model adds even more and jumps to near luxury territory with a starting point of $35,485. Those prices are higher than competitors like the Ford Taurus or Buick LaCrosse, but the payoff is a confusion-free ordering process. Go for a Limited model like our tester and there is but one option to choose: a $1,450 navigation system. That singular option brings our tester's MSRP to $37,885 including delivery. There are plenty of available accessories from the dealer, but ordering from the factory couldn't be any simpler.
Simplicity seems to be the order of the day for the Avalon, especially when talking about the large sedan's freshly updated sheetmetal. The Avalon was reshaped and restyled for 2011, but if your eye is untrained in the art of automaker refreshes, you probably won't be able to distinguish a 2010 model from a 2011. The front fascia now features a wider grille and modern front projector beam headlights that give the Avalon's face more visual pop than the outgoing model. The rear is updated with conservative yet stylish LED taillamps, a clear upgrade over the 2010 model. Toyota designers round out changes for 2011 with additional chrome all around, revised rocker panels and updated wheel packages. Did somebody say more chrome? The sexagenarian inside us is tingling!
At first we wondered why Toyota would spend the dollars to update the Avalon without making it look much different than last year's model, but then we remembered the average Avalon owner is 64 years old. Think about your grandparents. At some point, their favorite music migrated to the oldies station. They like movies with slower plot lines. They remember when people wrote letters with a pen rather than a keyboard. At some point, all of us will start resisting change in favor of the familiar, and that goes for our cars, too. So Toyota has updated the Avalon to look more upscale without alienating those customers who have come to love the way this cushy sedan looks. It makes perfect sense, except the Avalon was never what you'd call a beautiful design, and that really hasn't changed for 2011.
Toyota continues the familiar-is-better theme inside the Avalon's spacious cabin. The interior design hasn't changed much compared to the outdoing model, and high quality soft touch materials abound everywhere you look and feel. Every Avalon comes standard with leather seating surfaces, and our Classic Silver Limited tester arrived equipped with standard heated and cooled front seats that make sure one's posterior is of the proper temperature no matter the season. And adjusting the Avalon's interior temperature couldn't be easier, thanks to dual climate controls with temperature readouts that are at least an inch in height. It doesn't take bifocals to read those digits.
Overall interior volume sits at a spacious 107 cubic feet, and passengers relegated to the back seat are greeted with an impressive 40.9 inches of leg room. That's nearly three inches more space than the larger Ford Taurus and 3.1 inches more room than the second row of a long-wheelbase Lexus LS460. Those passengers will also enjoy a cabin that luxury car levels of quiet, just like the commercial tells us. Trunk space is relatively small for a large car at 14.4 cubic feet, but Toyota's designers and engineers made room for a large trunk opening, making the available space far more usable.
So far, the Avalon has met our expectation of being a fine car for the 60-and-over set, and driving it feels exactly how we expected. In a word, smooth. Well, more like... smoooooooth. We're thinking Toyota was looking to make a better Oldsmobile 98 because that's exactly what the Avalon feels like. On fresh blacktop, it rides how we imagine a Landspeeder rides on the smooth sands of Tatooine (too modern a reference?). We couldn't find a pot hole large enough to upset the Avalon's MacPherson strut suspension with offset coil springs either, though we'd add that same suspension wasn't so accomplished when it came to curves.
The Avalon feels heavy and tall when thrown into a corner with anything approaching verve, a feeling that's amplified by the driver's seat lacking any manner of side bolstering. It's hard to argue with the Avalon's neutered driving dynamics when we look at it through the eyes of its target buyer, but we're pretty sure that drivers regardless of age are less than thrilled with torque steer, and the Avalon has more than its fair share. But going full throttle from a dead stop probably isn't a recurring habit for most 64-year-olds.
The Avalon matches its compliant but clumsy suspension setup with a smooth and sufficiently powerful 3.5-liter V6. Its 268 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque motivate the Avalon effortlessly and quietly, with no signs of rough throttle or exhaustive effort. The Avalon's six-speed automatic is also a suitable match for the 3.5-liter engine, with very smooth, almost imperceptible shifts. We managed 24.4 miles per gallon during our week with the Avalon, which is right smack in the middle of the Environmental Protection Agency's official rating 20 mpg city/29 mpg highway, and very solid for a vehicle of the Avalon's heft.
There is an old joke among soon-to-be extinct Mercury salespeople. When sizing up car buyer's by age, there's the youthful 16-24 demographic, the influential 25-34 group, the meat and potatoes 35-49 family types, the peak earnings 50-64 group and finally, can I interest you in a Grand Marquis? Funny? Maybe not, but damnit if it hasn't been true over the past 30 years. Thanks to modern medicine, Americans are living longer than ever before, but the Grand Marquis is a consensus number in the automotive death pool. Next consider that the Taurus, LaCrosse and Nissan Maxima are targeting (and getting) younger buyers, and all of a sudden it's very apparent there aren't many non-luxury large sedans targeting the Medicare crowd.
To be honest, we weren't all that excited to drive a big, cushy sedan all week, but the Avalon wasn't exactly built for us. We don't have to pull our pants up past our nipples to figure that out, and we're guessing your parents and grandparents don't have to either. While the rest of the auto industry focuses much of its research and development money wooing younger buyers, the 2011 Toyota Avalon continues to attract the aging customers it always has. And considering that this group of customers continues to grow by the day, other automakers should notice that the Avalon alone offers a modern option designed specifically for them, and does so unapologetically. That's something we'll raise our scotch and sodas to in 30 years, but until then, we're happy to let Grandpa drive.
Photos copyright ©2010 Chris Shunk / AOL