In its most loaded forms, the 2005 Toyota Avalon is really a luxury sedan in all but name.
Chasing "younger" buyers is an obsession in the auto business. Young people are fashionable, sexy and exciting. The trouble is, they're usually too poor to afford a decent new car. People in their 50s, on the other hand, have money and appreciate the comforts money can buy. That's why cars like the 2005 Toyota Avalon exist.
The new Avalon is the third generation of Toyota's large sedan, derived from the same mechanical underpinnings as the midsize Toyota Camry and the Lexus ES330 entry-level luxury sedan. Toyota put considerable effort into giving the new Avalon a more distinct identity. It's now larger and more luxurious than the Camry. It's also more powerful and roomier inside than the Lexus ES330.
The Avalon is part of a broader renaissance in the large, not-quite-luxury sedan market, which has suffered in recent years from competition with new, less expensive models from luxury brands and the broad shift from sedans to sport-utility vehicles and pickups.
The U.S. car market has assumed something of an hourglass shape-with growing sales for luxury brands at the top, increasing demand for cheap vehicles at the bottom, and tough times for brands and cars positioned in the upper middle. The logic: Why buy a Buick or a large Toyota sedan when for just a little more you can ride around in a BMW or a Mercedes, or perhaps a well-appointed SUV? One result was that the previous generation of Avalon buyers averaged 65 years old-a demographic sometimes known as "exit buyers" in the trade.
The Avalon, and new, competitive large sedans such as the recently launched Mercury Montego and new Buicks from GM, represent a bet that a significant slice of the aging baby boom generation will get tired of stiff-riding German cars and lumbering SUVs and come back to the comfort of big sedans, so long as they offer modern amenities and some style.
Comfort is the key word when it comes to the Avalon. Consider the accommodations in the backseat: The new Avalon is 5 inches longer than its predecessor, and by rerouting the exhaust pipes, Toyota engineers created a flat floor in the back and 40.9 inches of leg room, versus 35.6 inches in the Lexus ES330. For added comfort, the Avalon's rear seats recline by 10 degrees. Its target customers, people in their 50s, like to go out in foursomes, says Toyota car-marketing manager Sandi Kayse. The Avalon's design allows its owners to be proud hosts.
Drivers get plenty to appreciate in the new Avalon, starting with a new, 280-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine and a slick five-speed automatic transmission. The new powertrain does its job very, very quietly and moves the nearly 3,600-pound Avalon with surprising speed and authority.
The Avalon's interior has moved from pedestrian to top drawer. My test car, an XLS model with an optional voice-controlled DVD navigation system, had blond wood trim on the dash and doors, a welcome break from clichéd dark wood. The radio and navigation system controls in the center of the dash all hide behind doors that flip up at a touch. Cupholders lie under a door in the center console between the front seats.
Toyota expects that the XLS, the middle range between the basic XL and the loaded Limited, will be the bestselling variant of the Avalon. Its goal is to boost Avalon sales to 85,000 a year from about 35,000 last year-a target that seems ambitious until you consider that half of all new cars are purchased by people over 50.
My car had a total sticker price of $35,169, including such options as traction control, heated front seats and the $2,540 navigation system — which will display nearby restaurants if the driver says, "I'm hungry."
That's pricey for a Toyota. Still, the new Avalon's total package of power, safety features, style and roominess puts it at the head of this class, for now. For anyone considering the Lexus ES330, the 2005 Avalon currently looks like a better buy.