By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Here’s what’s cool about the new Avalon hybrid:
It’s a full-size car, with more spreading out room than other cars in its price range; it’s a fairly quick car (0-60 in about 7.5 seconds), it averages 40 MPG — and it costs a few hundred bucks less (to start) than its nearest direct competitor: the smaller, slower Lincoln MKZ hybrid.
It’s also no longer an Oldmobile — as the previous-generation Avalon was. The restyled ’13 looks 20 years younger than the previous Avalon.
It also might make sense — financial sense. That’s something that’s been iffy when it comes to many hybrids, whose steep up-front costs (relative to their non-hybrid equivalents) could take many years to work off in the form of lower monthly gas bills.
But the Avalon hybrid is priced only $2,360 more than a comparably equipped non-hybrid Avalon. At today’s fuel prices, that sum will buy about 674 gallons — or about 37 tank-fulls.
Given the hybrid Avalon is capable of returning twice the fuel economy, that $2k or so won’t take very long to make back.
After that, you’re going to be saving some real money. And you won’t be suffering The Slows along the way, either.
WHAT IT IS
The Avalon is Toyota’s largest sedan — significantly larger than Camry and also larger than every Lexus passenger car except the top-of-the-line LS, which (in standard wheelbase form) is only a few inches longer overall.
The hybrid version of the Avalon — subject of this review — offers the same interior spaciousness and near-Lexus amenities as the regular Avalon, along with much better fuel economy than the non-hybrid Avalon — with noticeably better performance for a bit less money (to start) than its main rival, the smaller inside, lethargic (though more fuel-efficient) Lincoln MKZ hybrid.
Base price for the hybrid Avalon XLE Premium is $35,555 — vs. $35,925 for the Lincoln MKZ hybrid.
A mid-trim Avalon Touring hybrid starts at $37,250 and a top-of-the-line Avalon Limited hybrid begins at $41,400.
Base price for this model is $35,555.
The 2013 Avalon has been thoroughly — and dramatically — restyled.
No longer just a big, comfortable car — it is now a sporty (looking and driving) big car as well as a car that could easily pass for a luxury car. Because for all practical purposes, it is a luxury car — in everything but name (and price tag).
The hybrid version joins the lineup just in time for summer road trips — and just in time to counter the potential threat posed by the also-new Lincoln MKZ hybrid.
No AARP sticker on the bumper.
Roomier — and quicker — than MKZ hybrid.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Not quite as fuel-sippy as 45 MPG-capable MKZ Hybrid.
Probably, you could haggle a better deal on the MKZ — because Lincoln is dying for customers while Toyota isn’t.
UNDER THE HOOD
The hybrid Avalon is a “full hybrid” — meaning that like the Prius, it can be driven on electric power alone at speeds up to about 30 MPH. The powertrain consists of a 2.5 liter four-cylinder gas engine teamed up with an electric motor and battery pack, with the combo producing 200 hp.
This is considerably less engine — and power — than the non-hybrid Avalon, which comes standard with a 3.5 liter, 268 hp V-6 engine. However, the hybrid Avalon’s in-city (and average) fuel economy is almost twice that of the V-6 powered car: 40 city and 39 highway — as opposed to 21 city — and 31 highway — for the non-hybrid.
It’s also more engine — and power/performance — than Lincoln provides in the MKZ hybrid, which comes with a smaller 2.0 liter gas engine/electric motor/battery drivetrain that, together, produce 188 hp.
Not surprisingly, the Avalon is the quicker of the two. It can reach 60 MPH in about 7.5 seconds vs. mid-eights for the Lincoln.
The Lincoln does beat the Toyota at the pump, though. Its 45 MPG rating — city, highway and average — is best-in-class (and not far off the performance of the best — period — Prius).
However, given the smaller engine (and lower hp) I wonder whether the MKZ’s real-world mileage will be lower. The MKZ’s drivetrain has to work harder just to get the car moving — let alone moving quickly. It might — like the Prius — struggle with uphill stretches; passing maneuvers might take everything it’s got. If it is in fact under-engined, that could negatively affect the car’s numbers. That has been my experience in the Prius, which always gave me mid-40s, not the EPA-advertised high 40s, low 50s.
I haven’t test-driven the MKZ hybrid yet, so I can’t say for certain. But I can tell you for certain what I averaged during the week I had the Avalon hybrid: 36.6 MPG. That’s also a bit below advertised, but then I drive a bit faster than advertised. I also live in a rural area and do not-much in the way of stop-and-go driving, the hybrid’s forte. Ascending 9 percent grades from 1,200 feet to 3,300 feet — and straight running on the open highway at 75-plus — these are not the hot ticket for best-case mileage in any car, hybrid or not. The fact I was able to average close to 37 MPG doing this sort of driving persuades me that driven in a less hybrid-unfriendly way, the Avalon could absolutely make good on that 40 MPG promise. Probably, you could 45-ish out of it in stop-and-go commuting.
In any case, 36.6 MPG average is easily 10 MPG better than anything else in this class with a gas-only engine. And even a few with some hybrid help. The Buick LaCrosse, for instance. It’s an otherwise comparable car. Big, swank, quiet, comfy. You can order it with an “eAssist” mild hybrid drivetrain. That means it has the ability to run on electric-only when it’s not actually moving — unlike the full hybrid Avalon (and Lincoln MKZ). Its gas mileage is rather pathetic: 25 city, 36 highway — only a handful of MPGs better than the non-hybrid V-6 powered Avalon.
The standard transmission in the Avalon hybrid is a continuously variable (CVT) automatic (regular Avalons have a conventional six-speed automatic) and there are three different driver-selectable modes for the powertain: electric (EV), Eco and Sport. EV mode is over-ridden automatically when the vehicle’s speed exceeds 30 MPH or when the driver’s foot demands faster acceleration. In Eco mode, the AC is dialed back a bit and throttle/transmission response is more muted — in order to maximize MPGs. In Sport, it’s the opposite: MPGs take a back seat to snappier drivetrain response.
Like the Lincoln MKZ hybrid, the Avalon hybrid is sold only in front-wheel-drive form (you can get AWD in the non-hybrid MKZ, but not the non-hybrid Avalon).
ON THE ROAD
The chief difference between the Avalon and a Prius (or the MKZ hybrid) is that the power/performance of the Avalon’s hybrid drivetrain is more than merely sufficient. That makes it comfortable to drive. Mid-sevens to 60 won’t threaten Corvettes, of course — but it is absolutely adequate to comfortably keep pace with the ebb and flow of traffic, to comfortably mere with traffic, to comfortably pass slower-moving traffic. The car almost never feels or seems to be getting winded nor (as my wife put it) does it make “unhappy noises” when the gas pedal is pushed down more than halfway to the floor. Many hybrids do. The Prius, for instance.
It may rate higher at the pump — but you pay for it in other ways. It is about three seconds slower to 60 — and that is an everyday difference you’ll feel every time you attempt to merge with high-speed traffic or pass slow-movers.
I suspect the MKZ hybrid has the same issue given its stats. And while it’s ok for a Prius — a car built around the idea of fuel economy uber alles — to take 10 seconds to get to 60, people expect more from a luxury car like the MKZ.
And the Avalon, too.
These are cars bought as much for their comfort as their economy. And it’s not comfortable to drive a car with no guts, that sounds like an over-revving sewing machine about to scatter parts all over the road whenever you try to pass someone or merge with traffic.
A car that can get to 60 in less than 8 seconds has the reserves on tap to get going at a reasonable rate without the driver having to call on every last horsepower to do it. The Avalon has this power to spare.
It’s not just about acceleration, either. Having that extra margin of power available means the car feels more relaxed. It’s quieter, too.
That’s the sell: A more realistic balance between absolute economy and iffy performance. It’s a balance you don’t get in a Prius nor, I suspect, in the less-than-speedy MKZ.
The all-new Avalon — hybrid and non-hybrid — also has a firmer/sportier ride and more dynamic handling than its geriatric-minded predecessor. It’s still got that “highway car” plushness, but without the squishiness (excessive body roll when cornering, overboosted power steering) that characterized the previous generation Avalon.
For a hybrid, the Avalon is also refreshingly light: 3,594 lbs (vs. 3,461 for the non-hybrid). Compare the hybrid Avalon’s curb weight with that of the MKZ hybrid: 3,828 lbs. Again, I haven’t yet driven the MKZ hybrid — but that additional 234 lbs. of unsprung mass is probably (like the slow-mo’ 0-60 time) something you’ll notice.
And not in a good way.
In the Avalon, you don’t notice it at all.
AT THE CURB
The Oldmobile is history.
No offense meant to previous Oldmobile — er, Avalon — owners. I like big, cushy, quiet cars, too. And the ’95-’12 Avalon was perhaps the best ’87 Buick Century ever built by the Japanese.
But, time passes. The 1990s-2000s-era 60-somethings who bought up Avalons are entering their Golden Years — and beginning to do the inevitable MacArthurian fading away. They’re not going to be buying many more new cars — Avalons or otherwise. It’s today’s 40 and 50s who are the Avalon’s future. And today’s 40 and 50-somethings are younger-feeling/thinking/acting — and buying.
They don’t want an Oldmobile — which is why the new Avalon isn’t one.
Take a gander at the Jag XF-looking rear clip and sail panels. From the side, it could be a new Lexus — or at least, you could park this car in the Lexus showroom and it would not be as out of place as Piers Morgan in a biker bar.
The proportions have been tightened up — it’s about two inches shorter overall now (195.3 inches vs. 197.6 before) and the roofline has been cut down by an inch (57.5 inches vs. 58.5 before) but the same limo-like 111-inch wheelbase remains — and there’s slightly more front seat legroom now (42.1 inches vs. 41.3 inches previously) as well as a much larger 16 cubic foot trunk (vs. 14 cubic feet before).
There has been a slight reduction in headroom due to the sexier, lower-cut roofline — it’s now 38.5 inches in front vs. 38.9 inches in the ’12 — but rearseat headroom is actually slightly improved (37.9 inches now vs. 37.5 inches previously).
The Lincoln MKZ hybrid has a bit less front seat headroom (37.9) inches, a bit more front seat legroom (44.3 inches) and significantly less backseat legroom (37 inches). It also has a much smaller trunk: 11.6 cubic feet vs. 14 for the Avalon.
This is a roller — a nice, big car — with more space inside than a number of high-priced luxury sedans, including the current Benz E-Class (and Lexus GS) and now, in addition to the utilitarian appeal, aesthetic appeal as well.
Tactile appeal, too.
The secondary controls are set before you almost iPad style on a forward canted and slightly upturned dashboard face — with “tap and touch” sensitive buttons. This type of control interface is becoming common and has several advantages, including no worries about dust or spilled stuff getting into the cracks between the buttons — because there aren’t any cracks between the buttons. Just a single sheet of plastic with touch-sensitive pads. The only thing I worry about is down-the-road repair costs, a potential issue with any new technology/system.
The interior itself is sumptuous. Individually fitted/leather-stitched sections (including a slick-looking retractable cover toward the front of the center console) give this car a Lexus-ish ambiance that might have some buyers asking why buy a Lexus? It really is that nice. Even the cupholders are surrounded by form-fitted leather. You can get all the rest, too: LED headlights, three-zone climate control, power sunshade, adaptive cruise control, ultra-premium 11 speaker JBL audio system, GPS system with 7 inch LCD monitor.
Like Sarah Palin used to say — you betcha!
There are some hybrid-specific issues to consider.
First, the small stuff: I discovered there’s no pass-through from the trunk to the passenger area, which means you will have a harder time carting home things like a couple of 1x4x8 boards. The reason for the absence of the pass-through is the presence of some of the hybrid componentry in the trunk. No biggie.
You’ll also pay more — $2,360 more — to get into a hybrid Avalon vs. the non-hybrid Avalon XLE Premium ($33,195). But — as mentioned earlier — this is a small jump given the cost of gas today (not to mention what gas might cost tomorrow) and also given the superb fuel efficiency this car delivers. The break-even point is not far-off and besides, this car isn’t a chore (or a bore) to drive. The Prius makes you suffer to get 40-something MPG. This, on the other hand, is a beautifully driving — and downright beautiful — car.
No Al Gore (or old man) stigma.
Which may turn out to be the new Avalon’s biggest problem.
Well, Toyota’s problem.
Because up to now, the interesting stuff — the good-looking stuff — the really nice stuff — has always been Lexus stuff.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Color me impressed.
I bet you will be, too.