Toyota aims sleeker Avalon at younger buyers

Toyota announced today the base model of the 2013 Avalon will be priced at $31,785, which includes a $795 destination charge.
UPDATED: 10/30/12 2:57 pm ET - adds pricing announcement

NAPA, Calif. -- The moribund full-sized sedan segment gets a shot in the arm with the arrival of the redesigned 2013 Toyota Avalon in early December.

The new version of the U.S.-built Avalon has a sleeker silhouette and a more dynamic front fascia than its staid forerunner. A hybrid version gets 40 mpg.

The basics: While the Avalon's wheelbase remains the same, its overall length has been shaved by more than 2 inches.

The direct-injection, 3.5-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission are carryovers, although added paddle shifters trigger engine rpm blips on downshifts. The Avalon has a speedy 6.7-second 0-to-60 time after shedding 120 pounds.

In sport mode, the throttle opening, gearshifts and steering response are more immediate. In eco mode, the throttle opening is retarded, and air conditioning is dialed back.

The hybrid model uses the same 2.5-liter four-cylinder Atkinson cycle engine as the Camry Hybrid but gets slightly less fuel economy at 40-mpg city/39-mpg highway. The hybrid can go 680 miles on a full tank of gasoline and travel at up to 25 mph in EV mode.

Notable features: Avalon chief engineer Randy Stephens is a suspension engineer by trade, and his car shows it. The old Avalon wallowed like an overloaded swordfish boat in a typhoon. The redesigned version has stiffer front lower-arm bushings and rear stabilizer bar, and added rebound springs, resulting in a firmer drive with less jounce to the driver.

A partition bracket behind the rear seats makes the chassis stiffer, but the rear seats can no longer fold forward.

As with the Cadillac Cue system, the touch pad on the Avalon's center console uses "capacitive" sensors to detect a user's touch and interpret the finger swipes. But while the Cadillac's can be unresponsive, the Avalon's factory settings seem overly sensitive.

The trunk gains a small amount of cubic footage and has a lower liftover height.

Standard features include SmartKey; acoustic windshield and front window glass; a 140-watt stereo with CD, USB, Bluetooth and Pandora; heated leather seats; cruise control; 10 airbags; and 17-inch wheels.

What Toyota says: "It was time to alter the present course and revitalize Avalon's rather conservative image to something more vibrant and youthful," said Kevin Hunter, president of Toyota's Calty design studio in California. "Compared to our competitors that have a rather tall, flat and bulky presence, we wanted Avalon to be lean, low and sculptural."

Compromises and shortcomings: To drop the base price by $2,205, Toyota deleted some standard features, such as a sunroof that many owners said they didn't need. (Toyota announced pricing for the model today. Click here for more.)

The old three-across rear bench seat has been replaced with seats that are better bolstered, making the middle seat suitable only for children. The reclining rear seat was discontinued to make room for side airbags. Front headroom is a bit tight for a 6-footer when the sunroof option is included.

The base and mid-grade telematics screen is too small, and its maps are unreadable; the user interface is balky and unintuitive.

The market: Toyota expects annual sales to more than double from its current level to about 70,000, with an 80-20 sales split between the V-6 and the hybrid models. Toyota hopes to increase the proportion of leases from 5 percent to 25 percent of sales.

The current Avalon has a median customer age of 67, the oldest in the segment. But after the new version was unveiled a few months ago, Toyota heard from more than 100,000 hand-raisers with a median age in the low 50s.

The skinny: With more modern styling and scads of technology, the new Avalon may succeed in finding a wider and younger universe of buyers.

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