2013 Toyota Avalon Hybrid First Drive: Lexus Looks, Toyota Attitude
Toyota's livened up the Avalon with a hybrid powertrain and the latest in-car tech.
If you'd walked into a Toyota dealership when the Avalon first debuted back in 1995 and told potential buyers that the Avalon of the future could run on electricity, charge a phone without wires, and access the internet using voice recognition, you'd be politely ushered into the parking lot without so much as a free cup of coffee.
While the latest Avalon may be a vanguard of the latest in-car technology, some things remain the same: it's a large, comfortable sedan with luxurious touches and an understated presence. For 2013, it's better than ever before.
All new, all over.
The 2013 Avalon got total redesign throughout. That's only big news if you're an Avalon aficionado, though, since its pinched rear taillamps and large, trapezoidal air intake make it look like a sea of other cars on the road. When I first saw the car, I had trouble distinguishing it from a Ford Fusion, Jaguar XF, and Lexus ES, depending on the angle.
Inside, things are a bit more unique. The Avalon becomes one of the first cars to use capacitive touch controls, which allow for an almost entirely flat dashboard. It not only looks sleek and modern, but the controls are actually easy to use. Seriously. I promise. The secret to its success is hidden ridges beneath each button which allow for some tactile feedback, plus a sparsely populated control panel.
There's also the addition of a hybrid model, a first for the Avalon, which borrows Toyota Synergy Drive technology from the Camry Hybrid and Lexus ES300h. It ups fuel economy into the mid-30s, but most importantly, it helps keep this luxe cruiser quiet and composed. The car feels plenty powerful, and there aren't any issues with tradeoffs between gas and electric powertrains. If your last experience with a hybrid was a herky-jerky first-gen Prius, you'll be pleasantly surprised.
Young at heart
While previous Avalons attracted traditional-minded buyers in their mid-60s, the latest model is aimed squarely at younger shoppers who want a roomy sedan, and tech-savvy drivers of all ages. Considering that the Avalon was one of the last sedans to feature a bench seat and column shifter, that's a sea change.
The Avalon is now the first production car to feature a wireless charging mat for Qi-equipped devices in the center console (sadly, our tester was a very early production model where that feature was absent), and Toyota's excellent Entune cloud-connected infotainment system is available, as is dynamic cruise control. It's technology that's unobtrusive, but makes the driver's life easier. Want to listen to streaming audio for the duration of a long road trip? Just rest your phone on the charger, and let Entune do the rest.
But why not just buy a Lexus?
The new Avalon is built on the Lexus ES platform, and the hybrid shares styling and an engine with the ES300h. I got the chance to drive both, and found the difference in driving experience to be so minute that only the heroine of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale could discern it. The price difference isn't that vast, either: the Lex is about $3,000 more than the Avalon Hybrid with similar options, though it's impossible to make a direct comparison.
Market research firms and psychologists alike would have a field day determining just what kind of person would choose which car, and I've tried my hand at it as well. Among entry-luxury buyers, not everyone wants the loaded connotation of a badge like Lexus, particularly not public employees, leaders of nonprofit organizations, or managers who have had to lead a round of layoffs.
In Limited trim, the new Avalon Hybrid has nearly all the cool features of the ES300h, minus the luxury branding. It's the Monoprice cable, the Forever 21 skirt, or the American Apparel t-shirt. If Toyota's aiming this Avalon at a younger demographic, we think that's a step in the right direction.
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