Years ago, Buick had a great tagline for its ads, that being, “When better cars are built, Buick will build them.” Toyota could now, if it was so inclined, restate that and say, “When better Buicks are built, Toyota will build them.”
Sized like Buick automobiles have traditionally been, at 195.2 inches in length and with a 110 inch wheelbase, the Avalon sedan, especially the hybrid edition, is the car that Buick – or some American manufacturer – should have built. The exterior is the most aggressive-looking design worn by the Avalon. The air intake upfront has a look to it that’s akin to a jet engine intake and a Ferrari Enzo. This is a case of form-following-function, as much as anything.
While the Avalon can be equipped with a 3.5 liter, double-overhead camshaft V6 producing 268 horsepower and 248 lb/ft of torque, the big news is a hybrid edition that allows 40 miles-per-gallon in the city or 40 mpg on the highway, according to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), for an average of 40 mpg.
The Avalon hybrid uses the same 2.5-liter, Atkinson-cycle, four-cylinder engine, as the Camry. It is joined, in the engine bay, by a power-control unit which houses an inverter, a DC-DC converter, a step-up converter (raises voltage to a maximum of 650 volts) and the hybrid-drive ECU, which governs the seamless operation of electric-motor power application and regenerative braking. The power control unit also relies on liquid cooling to maintain an efficient temperature.
Underneath the hood of the Avalon hybrid there's a four-cylinder internal combustion engine (left) and an inverter, a DC-to-DC converter, a step-up converter and a hybrid drive ECU (electronic control unit). (Photo by Terry Parkhurst)
Two electric motors are located in the back, inside the transaxle; one motor charges the hybrid electric batteries and starts the four-cylinder engine, while the other provides propulsion.
A 244.8-volt nickel-metal hydride battery pack is located underneath the rear seat; thus allowing for maximum trunk space. Rear seat space is reduced, down three cubic feet to 49, from the previous generation.
The internal combustion engine puts out 156 horsepower and 156 lb/ft of torque. The two electric motors produce 141 horsepower and 199 lb/ft of torque. Coupled together, all three produces 200 horsepower.
The drag coefficient of the body is 0.28, the same as the Scion coupe. It’s not so much sculpted as devised by a wind tunnel. Fuel economy mandates have ensured that.
The interior is also redesigned. It's reminiscent of an airplane cockpit. At night, lights glow at the base of the dashboard and instrument legibility gives the impression that this is more a driver's car, than the previous editions.
Leather seats are standard; if the car is equipped with a tan or gray interior, there are contrasting colors throughout the cabin. The dashboard is vinyl but of durable enough material that it could also pass for leather. The center console has a back-up camera that comes automatically into play when the driver shifts into reverse. A nice feature of the console is the eBin; it has a non-slip surface for a cell phone, two 12 volt power outlets, an auxiliary audio jack and a USB port.
Equipped with a six-speed automatic CVT, which can be shifted, via a manumatic gate off to the left of the shifter stalk, acceleration was brisk and smooth. The Avalon hybrid can go from a standing start to 60 miles-per-hour in about seven seconds. (The tested car's mettle was calibrated, traditionally if somewhat inaccurately, with a stop-watch.) The top speed is somewhere between 120 and 130 mph. (That was not verified, since the tested car was not driven on a race track.)
A planetary gear-set blends electric and gas power, sending both to the rear wheels without the use of belts, as is done with most CVTs. Nonetheless, the transmission behaves much like a conventional CVT; uptake is smooth and seamless.
Electric-only operation is available using a light foot, up to about 20 miles-per-hour. You can lock the power-train into an electric-vehicle mode with an EV setting for stop-and-go city driving; but it’s overridden, when speed or load demands. There are other settings the driver can use, in the center console, for Eco or Sport driving. The ECO drive mode engages the gasoline motor, but reduces throttle response and HVAC output to help improve overall efficiency. The Sport mode takes full advantage of the new Avalon’s dynamic character, improved chassis, and enhanced suspension by altering the engine’s throttle response and enhancing steering feel.
Underneath the new Avalon is a fully independent suspension, with settings that are stiffer than the previous generation. A tight right hand turn, on a four-mile loop that took us from northbound Highway 99 in Seattle, back down towards Lake Union, demonstrated how much improved the handling is, from even the most previous model. There was little body roll and the car was well positioned to accelerate, after braking and downshifting into the turn – preferred stance for a front-wheel drive car.
Steering feel of the electrically-actuated, power steering is as good as can be expected from such a set-up; however, it is responsive. Additionally, the regenerative braking, which allows charge to be put back into the battery pack, still allows enough pedal feel to differ little noticeably from a conventional braking system.
The hybrid version of the Avalon sells for about $4,600 more than a conventional Avalon; base price for the tested hybrid Avalon was $35,555.00. After adding in the destination fee of $795.00, a rear bumper appliqué at $69.00 and all weather floor and cargo mats at $200.00, the final price was $36,619.00.
Overall, the new Avalon hybrid feels as competent as any German luxury car, but should give most competition to its corporate cousins, the Toyota Camry and the Lexus LS. Built on the same platform as both, and priced about $7,500 less than the Lexus hybrid, it’s probably finally going to achieve the goal Toyota has, of expanding the market for the Avalon to a new demographic. – Photos (save for one noted) and text © Terry Parkhurst