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Toyota pitches Avalon to younger buyers

April 22, 2005|by RICHARD RUSSELL/Wheelbase Communications

The Avalon has historically been the Toyota for older folks, a bigger and more gussied-up version of the Camry.

With hopes of reworking that image, Toyota has gone to great lengths to ensure the new third-generation 2005 Avalon is attractive to younger buyers, too.

A huge increase in power, a sharp price cut, added room and more aggressive styling are the main tools used to get the job done.

The '05 Avalon rides on a new platform that will serve as the basis for the next-generation Camry and Lexus ES (Lexus is Toyota's upscale division). It's longer, wider and taller and the wheels are farther apart - front-to-rear and side-to-side - for added stability and back-seat leg room.

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This is all good news because, so far, Toyota quality and reliability, formidable sales tools in anyone's books, have not been a big draw for the company's biggest car. A reduction in base price combined with lots of new standard equipment shows just how serious the company is about plotting a new course for the Avalon.

Thankfully, the new car has also benefited from a combination of appearance, content and engineering upgrades that all but obliterate the blandness of previous versions. The exterior styling can hardly be called ground-breaking, but it is at least slightly more edgy.

The interior, however, has come in for a major makeover. Sleek, modern and upscale from design to finish, it clearly distinguishes the Avalon from the Camry. The instrument panel is a model of class and legibility. The "Optitron" light-emitting-diode (LED) system replaces conventional bulb-style dash lighting and provides excellent illumination, day or night. As well, a pair of hinged panels conceal the audio and (optional) navigation controls for a tidier appearance.

Make no mistake, this is a big, comfortable, well-equipped luxury car with ample room for five big people. This, the third-generation Avalon, is 5.3 nches longer and the wheelbase has grown 3.9 inches with most of that finding its way into the rear seat area. The result? Limo-like legroom.

It's also incredibly quiet in any seating position thanks to a number of major improvements and touches such as felt-lined wheel wells to all but eliminate tire noise. The rear floor is actually flat with no tunnel intrusion.

The rear seat backs recline slightly, but do not fold down. This is in the interest of added structural integrity. Instead, a pass-through provision is incorporated into the panel connecting the rear suspension locating points.

Despite the increased overall size, the trunk is slightly smaller than that of the previous Avalon.

Under the hood, the Avalon now boasts 70 more horsepower thanks to a new-generation V-6. Fashioned after the 4.0-liter unit introduced in the new-for-2005 Tacoma, this one is smaller - 3.5 liters - and features variable valve timing. It also runs cleaner and uses less gas.

The 280-horsepower engine drives the front wheels through a new electronically controlled five-speed automatic transmission whereas the outgoing model had four forward gears. The combination of 33 percent more power and an extra gear, makes this the hottest Avalon, or Camry, ever.

It also is much more capable of tackling the turns, especially in Touring guise where the suspension is tuned for more response and less body lean.

The new Avalon is the most American of any Toyota on the market. It was designed here, it's built in Kentucky and will be sold only in North America. The first batch off the line boast more than 75 percent domestic content, and once the engines are built here as well, likely within the next year, that number will jump to more than 90 percent. "Our engineering group in Ann Arbor (Mich.) is proud of that distinction and the great responsibility that was given us for this project," Hiroshi Hatada, chief engineer, Toyota Technical Center, said during the Avalon's introduction. There's even an American-style dual exhaust, the first on a Toyota sold here. It's actually a pretend system with a single pipe running most of the distance before splitting into two, but the added effort and expense indicates the desire to appeal to North American tastes.

The 2005 Toyota Avalon has been improved, enlarged, refined and equipped with better performance. Will the slightly more aggressive style and higher value quotient attract more attention and sales from a new and wider group of buyers? With much more than high build quality and reliability to brag about, how could it not?

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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