Cars

Toyota’s Avalon takes hybrid to the next level

The new Toyota Avalon hybrid isn’t hiding in the reeds; it’s ready for lots of driving.
The new Toyota Avalon hybrid isn’t hiding in the reeds; it’s ready for lots of driving.BILL GRIFFITH

One of the nicest things you can say about a test car is that you hate to see it “go away.”

So it is with today’s car, the 2013 Toyota Avalon Hybrid, and the key word here is hybrid. Toyota has taken its Hybrid Synergy Drive system to a new level with this mid-sized premium vehicle.

Toyota long has been at the front of the curve in melding electric and gas power, succeeding in making the Prius name synonymous not only with hybrid but also with fuel economy in the public’s perception.

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It’s taken most of us a decade to realize that hybrid also can add other components to the automotive equation: Performance and luxury. Now Toyota has created an ideal combination of power, economy, and luxury in a vehicle with all the comfort and technology a driver could seek.

The Avalon hybrid is rated at 40 miles per gallon in combined city/highway driving. For most of our week, the on-board computer in our test vehicle was reading above 40 mpg, usually between 43 and 45. Even if that were an overly optimistic number, the reality is that we were averaging north of 40 mpg and had an effective cruising range in excess of 650 miles.

When Toyota redesigned its Lexus ES 300 sedan, it was the first time I’d have chosen the hybrid over the traditional gasoline engine in a model that offered both power train options.

The Avalon falls into the same category. I’d pick the hybrid over the gas-only version … and it’s not a close call.

Not only are you looking at that 40 mpg but it’s done with regular unleaded fuel and the amazing torque of electric motors that give you strong acceleration off the line and in passing situations.

If I were a “Snowbird,” driving back and forth to the South several times a year, this would be a perfect car. The same would apply if I had a long daily commute or made weekend trips to a vacation home. Long-distance drivers want reliability, economy, and comfort. The Avalon gives all this and more.

It’s available in three trim levels—premium, touring, and limited. Our test version was a top-of-the-line Limited with an MSRP of $42,210 (including $810 destination fee). The technology package (automatic high beams, dynamic radar cruise control, and pre-collision features) added $1,750 and a preferred accessory group another $343 for a bottom line of $43,303.

It seems preposterous to say that amount represents a value proposition, but this Avalon comes as close as I can imagine to finding the perfect solution to the mid-sized equation.

There are plenty of nice little touches, the technology overall is as close to intuitive as we’ve experienced, and Toyota’s reliability helps make this vehicle a shining example of “The State of the Automotive Art.”

It even looks the part, being a bit shorter, lower, and wider than the previous Avalon model. Contemporary LED lighting front and rear adds to the upscale look as does the rounded roofline. The hybrid also is set off by blue badging.

Toyota not only is aiming the Avalon at a younger demographic, but also at the livery market, with special livery packages available. Considering that livery vehicles average between 40,000-50,000 miles per year over their first five years in service, Toyota is effectively saying that it expects long life for the hybrid systems as well as the fuel savings.

Sit in the new Avalon and you’ll immediately notice the wider and higher style and location of the traditional “center stack” of audio, navigation, and climate controls. It reminded us of the big “mixing” board at a rock concert. But things are clearly marked, and the buttons do what they say. And there’s even a knob for easier radio tuning.

The auto high beams are as good as we’ve experienced, detecting oncoming cars and dimming in good order. The same user-friendliness is apparent in the rain-sensing wipers, the three-zone climate control system, ease of setting up Bluetooth, finding-and-setting radio pre-sets, and using the navigation system.

A special “electronics tray” at the front of the center console (slightly under the dashboard in the space left by raising the center stack) has a non-skid surface and slides forward to reveal an array of plugs for charging and stowing power cords out of sight.

Rear legroom was ample and rear passengers had climate and heated-seat controls. The seats were well-bolstered and the available 12-way driver’s seat (eight-way passenger) made it easy to tweak lumbar support and driving position on longer drives.

The driver has an ergonomically comfortable steering wheel, with wheel-mounted controls, and a more useful gauge package than normal cars. The basically useless tachometer has been replaced by a useful economy gauge that shows “charging” when braking, “Eco” when driving economically, and “power” when pushing the vehicle.

There are three driving-mode settings: EV (electric), ECO, and Sport. Toyota says the Avalon can be driven about a mile at speeds up to 20 mph on electric power under ideal conditions. We experienced that several times, but also could make the EV indicator light up after accelerating to an anticipated cruising speed between 30 and 40 mph, then backing off the throttle and using minimal pressure on the gas pedal.

On the road, the electric power steering had a good feel and the revamped suspension—a bit on the firm side for Toyota—made for secure handling.

If you haven’t guessed already, the conclusion here is that the Avalon hybrid “is a keeper.”

2013 Toyota Avalon Hybrid Sedan Limited

THE BASICS

Price, base/as tested (with destination): $42,210 / $43,303. Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 40 city, 39 highway, 40 combined. Fuel economy, Globe observed: 43.8.

Drivetrain: 2.5-liter gas engine, 2 electric motors, CVT, front-wheel-drive. Body: 5-passenger sedan.

THE SPECIFICS

Horsepower: 156 (200 combined). Torque: 199 lb.-ft. (combined). Overall length: 195.2 in. Wheelbase: 111.0 in. Height: 57.5 in. Curb weight: 3,585 lbs.

THE GOOD: Styling, economy, performance, reliability.

THE BAD: Price, slight reduction in trunk space (for battery pack).

THE BOTTOM LINE: The state of the art in automotive manufacturing.

ALSO CONSIDER: Ford Fusion hybrid, Lincoln MKZ hybrid, Toyota Camry hybrid, Volkswagen Passat diesel.

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