Are You Sure This Isn't A Lexus?

The new Toyota Avalon sedan has surprising style -- and power

Aiming to offer the best traditional American sedan on the market, Toyota succeeded in out-Buicking Buick when it introduced the Avalon in 1995. The car was smooth, quiet, roomy -- and bland. This time around, Toyota has kicked up the excitement level. Forget Buick. The new 2005 Avalon brings a Lexus to mind.

The overhauled version no longer uses a Camry chassis, allowing it to stretch five inches longer to create a more spacious cabin. The 2005 model also boasts Toyota's new 3.5-liter, 280 horsepower, V6 engine for added power. Best of all, the car finally has some flair, with a more contemporary-looking exterior and a knockout of an instrument panel. At a starting price of $26,890, the new base model costs just $205 more than the outgoing version. Trick it out with all the luxury options, and you're pushing $40,000. That might sound steep for a family sedan. But consider that the least expensive Lexus, the ES 300, starts just below $33,000, without the space, power, and even some of the amenities of the comparably priced Avalon.

The first thing I noticed about the new Avalon is what wasn't there: a key. If the driver has the remote in a pocket or purse, the door unlocks automatically to a touch on the handle. Likewise, if the remote is present, pushing the ignition button on the dash starts the engine. Without the remote, the doors won't open, and the car won't start. It's a feature you'll find in some luxury cars, but it's relatively rare on mainstream models.

From the outside, the Avalon looks substantial and elegant. A product of Toyota's Newport Beach (Calif.) design studio, it has crisp lines and edges, giving it a more distinctive, modern look than its rounded predecessor. It's the Avalon's interior that really shines, however. The dashboard is accented by what appears to be a matte aluminum trim, but is actually painted plastic. The material is used in panels that glide open at a fingertip touch and conceal the radio and the heating and cooling controls, giving the dashboard a sleek, clean look.


With front door panels curving out above the armrests, there's a lot of elbow room -- literally. The one misfire on the interior of the pearl gray car I drove was the color scheme: pale gray with reddish burled walnut, which I found jarring.

In the back seat, a flat floor offers loads of legroom, and the cushy rear seats recline up to 10 degrees. Although the trunk is a bit smaller than its predecessor's, space is still ample, with a pass-through gap for skis.

This is not a sedan that makes you yearn to scream down open roads. That would be Chrysler's (DCX ) look-at-me, Hemi V8-powered 300C. The less flashy Avalon is the 300C's near-perfect complement: quietly stylish with more power than you'll need in everyday driving. It's the ideal car for chauffering friends to dinner or cruising cross-country in comfort.

By Kathleen Kerwin

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