2008 Toyota Avalon

At one time the Toyota Avalon was the answer to a question only few asked – the cost increase over the Camry being the most questionable. The 2008 Avalon is a very different car from previous generations. Obviously, the finery – new front bumper, grille and headlights as well as some interior upgrades – and long list of amenities add sizzle to the size, but in this case it is the powertrain that seals the deal.

2008 Toyota Avalon

on both the intake and exhaust cams, spins out an effortless 268 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. This adds a surprisingly sporty kick to what is more boulevardier than sports car. Tromp the gas the Avalon romps through 100 km/h 6.5 seconds and bridges the 80-120-km/h gap in an equally impressive 5.8 seconds.

The new six-speed box (last year’s car had a five-speed box) helps matters by keeping the engine at its anonymous best (it really is eerily smooth) and by delivering at opposite ends of the driving spectrum. From a standstill, the low first gear brings a stronger launch, the rest of the gears keep the ride quiet – under anything but wide-open throttle the engine is never heard. The combination is also good enough to produce an average fuel economy of 9.9 L/100 km – remarkable given the size/opulence at play.

The lone hiccup is what happens whenever the shifter is moved from normal to sport mode – the box automatically shifts into fourth gear. Around town, it’s a non-issue because the speeds are such that the shift does not upset the engine/transmission harmony. When driving quickly (the very time the sport and manual modes are actually needed), the move initiates an unwelcome downshift, which bumps the engine’s rpm and brings too much engine braking if you lift off the gas. This strategy might work for a sports car – it’s out of place in the Avalon.

The handling is the other place the Avalon proved to be a pleasant surprise. Given the floating-on-a-cloud ride quality (in this regard it out-Buicks Buick) that sees all but the most major pothole slide by unnoticed, decent handling is not what’s expected. In the Avalon’s case the steering is nicely weighted and has good on-centre feel, body roll is limited to the handful of degrees before the suspension takes a set and understeer only surfaces when the car is pushed towards its outer edge. When things do begin to come unraveled, the standard stability control system quells the wayward tendency in a reassuring manner. The anti-lock equipped brakes also contribute to the surefooted feel – the stops from 100 km/h measure just 39.8-metres.

Inside, the Avalon is like a limo – a very nicely equipped one at that! The long 2,820-millimetre wheelbase and flat floor (the central tunnel is conspicuous by its absence) brings tons of stretch out space front and rear. The rear seat is also wide enough to accommodate three adults with ease and it boasts a roomy 14.4 cubic feet of trunk space. The attention to detail is equally obvious – the rear seat backs recline (although at the expense of the ability to fold them flat) and the trunk lid hinges are boxed and so do not crush the things inadvertently placed beneath them.

The rest of the interior is finished in a similar vein. There’s a whack of equipment including full leather, automatic climate control, power moonroof, one-touch up/down power windows with pinch protection, steering wheel-mounted cruise/audio/climate controls and voice recognition technology.

Throwing $6,795 at the Avalon adds the Premium package. It caps a pretty picture by adding DVD-based navigation, rain sensing wipers, a rear spoiler, power lumbar support adjustment (the ability to add contour to the otherwise flat seatback makes a world of difference) and a full-zoot JBL Synthesis audio system. The latter is kick-ass and includes everything from an 8-channel amplifier to 12 speakers and a sub-woofer. The superb sound it cranks out makes it almost worth the extra money alone.

The ergonomics are equally good. The climate controls are of the soft-touch variety and the digits in the driver information centre are large enough to read without needing reading glasses. The knocks are minor – the tilt and telescopic adjustments have separate levers rather than the simpler single stalk, and the seat heater button are a tiny take-your-gloves-off-on-a-cold-morning size, which kind of defeats the object.

The other oversight is more serious. Considering the Avalon’s overall dimensions, tall deck lid and buyer demographic, the lack of a back-up camera (ironically, the screen is already in place) is unforgivable. That aside, the Avalon is a rare car, as it blends equal measures of size, comfort and sportiness. In a market where the other contenders are decidedly pedestrian, this is a refreshing change.

Type of vehicle: Front-drive full-size sedan
Engine: 3.5L, DOHC, V6
Power: 268 @ 6,200 rpm, 248 lb-ft of torque @ 4,700 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manumatic
Brakes: Four-wheel discs with ABS
Tires: P215/55R17
Base price/as tested: $41,840/$48,635
Destination charge: $1,240
Fuel economy, L/100 km: 10.7 city; 7.0 highway
Equipment as tested: Dual-zone climate control with filtration, power locks, windows, mirrors, moonroof, 8-way driver’s/4-way passenger’s heated leather seats, cruise control, tilt/telescopic steering wheel adjustment, electro-chromatic interior/driver’s side mirrors, Optitron electronic instrumentation with information display, keyless entry/anti-theft system, garage door opener, fog lights
Options: Premium pack ($6,795 – JBL Synthesis audio with eight-channel amplifier, 12 speakers, sub-woofer, digital signal processor, Bluetooth connectivity, rain-sensing wipers, eight-way passenger’s seat, rear spoiler)