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March 29, 2013

Biggest Toyota sedan gets major changes

It's odd that Toyota uses words like "exciting," "dynamic," "emotional" and "potent" to describe its all-new 2013 Avalon.

Why is that weird? Because the Avalon has become a huge hit by doing just the opposite of those things.

The Avalon was originally designed as an alternative to the classic, all-American full-size sedans like the Ford Crown Victoria, Buick Park Avenue and Pontiac Bonneville — those spacious, softly sprung cars that made up the meat and potatoes of the American car market for decades.

Toyota did such a good job designing the Avalon — and, in fairness, the American car makers did such a lousy job updating their own large sedans — that today, the Avalon basically stands on its own in this class. The others have all died off.

The Avalon also faces the headwind of a changing marketplace. Today's buyers who want a spacious family car are more likely to look at crossovers than full-size sedans, so the newest Avalon had to add some spice to keep things interesting. One of the biggest departures is with the body.

While the last Avalon had styling that was so dull it was hardly even noticeable, the new one has more visual appeal. It's almost muscular, chiseled and athletic, the kind of flowing, sloped shape you would expect to find on a sports sedan but not something this large.

Inside, it gets even better. For a frame of reference, Toyota hasn't led the fit-and-finish races for car cabins lately. The American and Korean brands have upped their game enough to outshine some of Toyota's models in the past couple of years, and the Avalon — while feeling solid — had an interior that was just as bland as the rest of the car.

In the new, "dynamic" Avalon, though, things have changed in a big way. This cabin is now the best work Toyota's interior designers have ever done.

Not only is the new generation car more interesting on the inside than last year's model — with fascinating textures and shapes — but it's also reaching the kind of quality feel that Toyota pulled off so successfully years ago.

The new interior design looks more three-dimensional rather than flat, with a separate panel centered around the driver and soft-touch materials that are stitched by hand.  The Avalon has always been a premium car, as opposed to luxury, but this design comes awfully close to what you would expect in a Lexus.

From the driver's perspective, the Avalon formula hasn't changed all that much. It's still very much about the quiet, smooth experience.

The biggest difference is in fuel economy. For the first time ever, the Avalon is available as a hybrid model that is rated for 40 mpg in combined city and highway driving — an impressive number for a car this size. The ordinary Avalon is more efficient, too, earning a 31-mpg highway rating

Derek Price is a automotive columnist for CNHI News Service. Contact him at carcolumn@gmail.com.

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