Atlanta can be somewhat of a rental car wasteland. Less than two years ago, the lots were still primarily populated by a sea of dingy Mercury Grand Marquises. (Yeah, yeah, Panther Love, whatever.) Nowadays, the unhappy renter-to-be is usually confronted by seemingly endless rows of 2.5S Altimas and Jeep Compasses. Shudder. So it was with this expectation that I entered the ATL garage again, and I was not disappointed — zero-option Altimas as far as the eye could see, with a Silverado pickup mixed in here and there. A fellow business traveler walked up to the rental car company rep as I was surveying the landscape and moaned, “Is this really all you have?”
While he was complaining, I was hunting. Obscured by the hulking mass of a Silvy was a brand-spanking new, moderately-redesigned-for-2013, black Toyota Avalon — in XLE spec, no less! I damn near RAN over to it, opened the door, and jumped inside before Mr. Complainer knew what hit him.
“Not bad,” I said to myself as I surveyed the psuedo-leather and plasti-wood of the dash. The seats seemed comfortable, if not terribly supportive. The large screen of the infotainment system was impressive (for now, anyway). Plenty of room in the back seat for whatever (or whomever). I tossed my Tumi carry-on in the back, plugged my phone in via the USB jack, and push-button started my way out of the garage.
That’s roughly where my enjoyment of the car ended.
Let’s start with the infotainment system. It was awful. It was neither feature-rich enough to be interesting nor simple enough to be useful. Bark’s rule of car stereo systems goes like this-if I have to read a manual to use it, I’m already over it like Katherine McPhee. There was a bizarre coupling of touchscreen-only functions and dedicated “real” controls, none of which did what you think they would. Some of the trip computer information appeared here, and some of it appeared in the instrument cluster, with no rhyme or reason as to why. Bluetooth pairing was relatively painless, which was good because the car refused to recognize that anything was plugged into the USB port, despite the fact that my phone was receiving a charge from said port.
Audio quality ranged from “Poor” to “Lousy” on the Karaoke Revolution grading scale. Turning up the bass (which requires a degree in electrical engineering, a solid evening in the company of the owners’ manual, or a willingness to press ALL the buttons in EVERY possible order) had no effect whatsoever on the Avalon’s ability to thump out Party Rock. Luckily, this also meant that no apologies would be required.
Next up on my list of annoyances-the lumbar support system. One four-direction button that controlled upper and lower back lumbar support. I never did get this one right. I think one button released all the air from all three areas at once and the other three pushed air into them one at a time. This made for an infuriating experience-if I got one of the three just a little bit wrong, I had to start all over again (#firstworldproblems). Eventually, I just decided to deflate the entire seat and go without.
Visibility from the driver’s seat of an Avalon can be described as “Camaro-like.” The windshield has a very steep and un-Toyota-like slope, which meant that there was a very narrow seat height sweet spot where I could see over the steering wheel without brushing my head on the ceiling. I’m 5’9″, which has to be within the average height of Avalon “intenders”, so this amounts to sloppy engineering.
There was, however, one thing about the Avalon that I absolutely loved. Some rather bizarre circumstances that would seem more appropriate to be related in the “Sunday Not Entirely Fiction Stories” section of this website meant that I was going to have to put a LOT of miles on the Toyota. As I racked up mile after mile on the odometer, the gas needle just never seemed to move. When I made my first stop after one hundred eighty miles, I needed less than five gallons. Apparently, the Avalon had been not-quite-party-rocking along the highway at eighty miles per hour to the tune of about thirty-five miles a gallon, even better than the EPA highway estimate of 31 MPG. In fact, after I actually figured out how the trip computer worked, I was able to surmise at the end of the trip I had averaged 32.2 MPG of blended driving over three days. Big mileage numbers for a big car like this, no matter how you look at it.
The driving experience of this car can best be described as numb. Road noise is at a minimum, feedback through the pedals is vague at best, lateral grip is underwhelming and pushy. While it’s perfect for, say, a seven-hour cruise control drive down I-95 that starts at 0100 hours, it’s not going to light anybody on fire when compared to several of the other options at this price point, such as a Dodge Charger R/T.
Which leads one to ask: what exactly is the Toyota Avalon, and who on Earth is supposed to buy it? It’s part of that no-man’s land of “not-quite-flagship FWD sedans,” like the Buick LaCrosse, Hyundai Azera, Chevy Impala…I’m sorry, I fell asleep there for a second. It has a 268 HP, 3.5 liter V6 with a manufacturer’s stated 0-60 time of 6.1 seconds, which is considerably faster than a lot of performance cars (like Toyota’s own FR-S), but it certainly doesn’t feel anywhere near that quick behind the wheel. In rental-car trim, it stickers out at $31,800, but can be optioned up for press-tester Limited trim at $42K plus, dangerously close to cars that are much, much more interesting (Super Bee, anyone?). The Avalon has long had a reputation as being this retiree generation’s Buick-safe, reliable, and completely boring. I’m sorry to say that, despite much improved sales numbers, this Avalon won’t do much to change that impression.
When I dropped the Avalon off at the rental car garage, I felt much like Pierce Brosnan’s version of James Bond in The World is Not Enough did when he placed his PPK against Renard’s bullet-scarred head — in other words, I felt nothing. No anger at the car, no joy in having experienced it, no remorse in having to leave it behind. If that’s how you’d like to feel about making a $500+ car payment every month, the 2013 Toyota Avalon is for you. If you’d like to feel something, go another direction.