Sunday, October 13, 2013

Toyota Avalon Hybrid - Luxury Plus High MPG

Millions of people drive Toyota Camrys, but what if you're looking for something a little more premium, but not quite a Lexus? Well, the Avalon has been around for nearly twenty years offering an alternative.

The 2013 model marks the fourth generation of Toyota's premium midsizer, and it is about as all-new as a car could be. Criticized for blandness, Toyota's designers now are seeking more evocative styling in all their products, so the new Avalon wears the corporate regalia in its entirety. The face has a slim band of chrome up top, sort of an eagle face, with a large mouth below to bring in the air needed to feed either a 3.5-liter V6 or a 2.5-liter 4 for the Hybrid model. The sides wear a definite ridge that grows out of the extended headlamp pods and proceeds all the way back to meet the slim taillamps. Nothing is flat or boring or subtle here. It's arguably the best looking Avalon ever.

Inside, you can't help but notice the significant serving of chrome-looking plastic that surrounds the dash screens. Compared to Lexus models, this is almost gaudy, but I'll have to admit that it grew on me during the week-long test of my Magnetic Gray Metallic test car, with its black interior. Almond and gray are alternative interior shades that are meant to evoke different moods (sounds a little like Audi).

Something new about this Avalon is the nearly button-free interior. That means that most functions on the center console are touch-sensitive spots rather than moving plastic rectangles or circles. I first noticed this trend in the Chevrolet Volt and  it's proliferating. It makes interacting with the car more like using a cell phone. As long as you tap the right spot, you're good. You still get good old-fashioned knobs for volume and tuning the sound system, although once you're used to the steering wheel controls you rarely use them.

You can pick the regular Avalon in four levels, or, to save significantly on fuel, the Hybrid. It comes in three levels: XLE Premium, XLE Touring, and Limited. My Hybrid Limited tester had everything a person could want, from a powerful JBL audio system to three-zone climate control (rear passengers can choose their own settings), to the premium leather seating that was soft in a good way and felt like an old Mercedes--plush but broken-in.

The real deal with hybrids is how they integrate a smaller engine with an electric motor. In this case, Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system combines an Atkinson Cycle 156-horsepower four-cylinder engine with the motor to generate 200 total horsepower. The Atkinson Cycle postpones closure of the engine's intake valves, which delays the compression cycle, improving engine efficiency.

Compared to the Prius, which is purely a hybrid and is not meant as a luxury car, the Avalon is heavier (3,585 pounds) so you won't get 50 mpg. But, the EPA gives the car 40 City, 39 Highway, for 40 combined. I got 37.9 mpg during a busy week with lots of trips, so it's not that far off. The system reports your mileage for each trip when you turn off the car, so I noted commutes where I went over 40 mpg. It's nice to know that you can get to work using 3/4 gallon of gas.

The Avalon uses Toyotas sharp, colorful display screens, so I was able to track when the car was using the motor or the engine--or both. And, you can see when it's charging the battery, which a good hybrid always does when you slow down or brake. This kind of information helps you drive more efficiently.

You can select the ECO setting to enhance your fuel conservation, but it makes the accelerator pedal less responsive and reduces air conditioner cooling to do it. Conversely, select the Sport setting and throw economy to the wind and have fun. This setting even tightens up the steering response. I tended to leave it in the normal setting. Select EV Mode at low speeds and you may even drive full electric for up to a mile (great in parking lots).

Of course, the EPA likes Hybrids. The Avalon gets a 7 for Smog--that 2.5-liter gas engine does need to run at least part of the time--but the Greenhouse Gas score is a perfect 10.

The Avalon has been significantly upgraded in numerous ways this year to make it handle and feel better on the road. This includes things like a 12-percent stiffer unibody and improving the feel of the electronic steering system. The overall effect from the driver's seat is a very smooth, quiet and pleasant trip wherever you're going. From a non-technical point of view, the car simply goes where you point it and soon you forget about it.

The very enjoyable JBL sound system, easily accessed either though the touch screen or the steering wheel controls, keeps your mood up in the daily commute. When there's a break in traffic, you can get from zero to 60 in about 8 seconds--not bad for a car with a small engine and a motor.

The Avalon is packed with high-tech features, suiting its top tier position in Toyota's lineup. For example, it not only has a Blind Spot Monitor to let you know about cars you can't see in your mirrors, but it also features the Rear Cross Traffic Alert. The car warns you of other vehicles approaching from the side behind you. This is great when you're backing out of your driveway or leaving a parking spot in a public garage. I definitely heard  beeping when I was doing this--so it works.

Prices can be scary for hybrid vehicles, especially ones that are loaded with everything imaginable. They start at $36,350 for the XLE Premium and top out at $42,195 for the Limited (including shipping). My tester also included the Technology Package, which enhanced the already loaded vehicle with radar cruise control (follow the car in front), automatic high beams, and a pre-collision system. The latter warns you if you're approaching another car or object too quickly. Bottom line--$44,199 for my car.

It's great to see Toyotas get better looking and inclusive of every possible feature. However, you could shop the Lexus showroom too for $44,000. I tested a Lexus 300h Hybrid after the Toyota and, for about the same money, it offered a different experience, although it was a bit smaller. Toyota may be competing with itself here, but you win either way.

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