Style And Comfort In A Family Way

Finally, there's a big, affordable Japanese car. Toyota has taken its benchmark Camry, stretched it and plumped it, and called it Avalon. This is a car for American families, with generous legroom, a gigantic trunk, and a front bench seat--it seats six, a first for Japanese cars. Specifically, it's designed for aging baby boomers hooked on their Camrys, Honda Accords, or Nissan Maximas. Until now, the step up to a bigger Japanese car was a giant one, to a $50,000 top-of-the-line Lexus or Infiniti. So instead, boomers defected to the likes of the Ford Taurus or Dodge Intrepid. Now, the Avalon can be had for as little as $22,758.

That's still a premium over American cars, but it buys you the refinement and engineering the Japanese are famous for. Everything is intuitive: Climate and radio controls are mounted high on the dash, with large, clearly marked knobs. Despite the space, nothing is a stretch or a grope. About the only confusion: Because there's no center console, the shift lever is mounted on the steering column, alongside stalks controlling the wipers and cruise control.

The Avalon's ride is softer than the Camry's, as it should be for a larger, more luxurious car. Still, this is no American luxo-barge: It doesn't dip and sway when you're changing lanes. Even though the Avalon is slightly heavier than the Camry, it's peppier and gets better fuel economy, at 20 mpg in city driving and 28 mpg on the highway (vs. 18 and 25 for the Camry V-6).

OPTION PLAYS. The XLS model, starting at $26,688, has all the luxury cues, including keyless entry, antilock brakes, automatic on/off climate control and headlights, and simulated wood on the dash. Even with all the options--leather seats, 12-compact-disk sound system, and power sunroof--the Avalon won't top $30,000. That's less than Toyota's smaller, entry-level Lexus ES 300.

If there is anything to dislike, it's the bland, anonymous styling; the car is difficult to pick out in a parking lot. At this stage in their lives, though, many boomers are looking for substance over style. And that's the Avalon, the quintessential American car, from the Japanese.

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