A popular social icebreaker is the question, "If you were stranded on a desert island, what three things would you bring?" Let's posit that question in an automotive way. "If you could drive only one vehicle for the rest of your life, what would it be?"
The Toyota Avalon, the company's most upscale sedan short of a Lexus, would not be a disappointing answer. It has a high-level of practicality, comfort, luxury, and even fuel efficiency that make it a compelling vehicle for those not caught up in badge snobbery.
Initially, yes, there was some disappointment when it arrived on my driveway. My first reaction was to dismiss it as another bland large sedan from a company that lately has been churning out bland products. It was a surprising mistake, because I had only one major complaint after a week behind the wheel: the rear seats don't fold down.
For 2011, the Avalon gets a wider, more substantial grille with projector beam headlights. More chrome trim, redesigned rocker panels, and glare-resistant outer mirrors with integrated turn signals enhance the profile. It's not going to turn your head or make little kids say "Cool!" when it passes by, but at least there's some genuine style.
Dual exhaust tailpipes are flush with the lower bumper and look modern (but probably mean more expensive repairs during a rear-end collision). Reshaped taillights reduce turbulence and combine stop, turn, and side marker lighting functions in one combined lamp. LED light pipes with dark aluminized sides and both clear and red lenses are a more up-to-date look.
While the rear seats don't fold down, that didn't stop me from getting a pop-up tent and two folding tables in the back (along with two booster seats). Two six-foot adults can comfortably sit side by side. The rear passengers don't get the optional cooled seats that those up front get, but there is a power rear sunshade to help cool things off. It doesn't hamper visibility but it does retract when the car is placed in reverse.
You can't ignore the Avalon's practicality. For six years running, Vincentric, a privately held automotive data compilation and analysis firm, has called the Avalon a "Best Value in America." The award rates eight different cost factors, and Toyota's typically high reliability, low maintenance, and better-than-average depreciation all help.
There are a few small complaints. You can't dial your phone while driving - a problem that may have been avoided if my iPhone's address book had synched to the Bluetooth system, but somehow, it refused. However, it dawned on me that I really shouldn't be making phone calls — even hands-free phone calls — while driving and just relied on the system for incoming calls.
The Avalon's driving experience is pleasant, with good steering input and enough pep from the 3.5-liter V-6 engine that is the workhorse of the Toyota/Lexus lineup. It produces 268 horsepower at 6,200 rpm, more than enough for its almost svelte 3,572 pounds (for all the room it provides) while achieving an EPA rated 20 mpg city and 29 mpg highway. In mostly around town driving (with some highway miles thrown in), fuel economy for the week was 22.1 mpg.
So, what does this desert island sedan run you? Our model had an MSRP of $32,995 including the destination charge of $750 (Toyota has since increased the price to $33,955). Throw in things like heated seats with cooling for $445, carpeted floor mats and a trunk mat for $199, and the navigation and premium audio that includes voice activated navigation, backup camera, 4-disc CD player (talk about a relic), MP3 capability, and 660-watt sound system for $2,350 and you get a bottom line of $35,984.
That begs the question: Why not buy a Lexus? Frankly, no compelling reason jumps out for purchasing a similarly priced ES. You could spend about $9,000 more to slide into the Lexus GS, but you only get an extra inch of wheelbase for a car that drives — surprise, surprise — like the new Avalon.
2011 Toyota Avalon
Price, base/as tested (with destination): $32,995 / $35,984.
Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 20 city / 29 highway.
Fuel economy, Globe observed: 22.1 mpg
Drivetrain: 3.5-liter V-6, six-speed automatic, front-wheel-drive.
Body: Four-door, five-passenger sedan.
Horsepower: 268 @ 6,200 rpm.
Torque: 248 lb.-ft. @ 4,700 rpm.
Wheelbase: 111.0 inches
Length: 197.6 inches
Width: 72.8 inches
Height: 58.5 inches
Curb weight: 3,572 lbs.
THE GOOD: Lexus luxury at a discount, roomy interior, decent style
THE BAD: Rear seats donít fold down, fussy Bluetooth system
THE BOTTOM LINE: If you had to live with one car forever, this would be it.
ALSO CONSIDER: Hyundai Genesis, Ford Taurus, Chevrolet Impala, Nissan Maxima
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About Boston Overdrive
|Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
|Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
|John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
|Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
|Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
|George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee