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2013 Toyota Avalon XLE Touring Road Trip Review By Steve Purdy

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A Road Trip to Hilton Head Island
By Steve Purdy
Lead Photo By Jim Zachow
Michigan Bureau

We would like to help the good folks at Toyota dispel the notion that their full-size Avalon appeals primarily to a geriatric demographic. The perception lingers that buyers for this large, formerly tepid front-wheel drive sedan skew older than just about any other car. Last summer Toyota presented a substantially new, sleek, more upscale Avalon focused on broadening that demographic while retaining at least most of their base. To see how they’ve done we’re doing a road trip to Hilton Head Island in the new Avalon XLE Touring with my pretty wife’s bother and sister-in-law.

Even though three of the four of us get social security, we ain’t old yet. Brother Jim just retired from a career as an architect in Traverse City, my pretty wife just got her first Social Security payment taking it early and I took it early a few years ago as well. So, I guess we’re on the lower edge of that age group, but our automotive tastes are eclectic.

Covering the launch of the new Avalon last summer my initial impression was that it’s not your traditional Avalon (See my initial impressions HERE)

but this will be my first time to live with the car for significant time and miles – in this case a week and close to three thousand miles.

Hilton Head Island, a resort community on the coast of South Carolina, just across the estuary from Savanna, Georgia, is a good 16-hour drive from our Michigan base. We’ll do the drive in two legs on the way down and straight through on the way back. We’ve visited the island many times and love the 12 miles of beaches, great restaurants and unique culture. We’ll have no problem entertaining ourselves in that coastal community. More on that later.

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Avalon comes in a variety of iterations including hybrids. Our Avalon is the conventionally powered XLE Touring model, the third of four trim levels. Base price is $35,500 and is well equipped even with no options. We have dual-zone climate control, navigation, leather seating with power heated front seats, French stitching on the leather dash, 10 airbags, power slide and tilt sunroof, smart-key push button start, dual exhaust outlets, three driving modes and all the other stuff we expect in a modern sedan. If you’re comparing content to the many other full-size sedans in its class (Chrysler 300, Ford Taurus, Hyundai Azera and a half dozen others) you’ll find it competes well.

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We note right away that the Avalon is particularly well suited for a comfortable road trip. With generous seating space front and rear all four of us are comfortable in spite of two bags of food packed in with the girls in the back. They have a fold-down armrest with cup holders but no other amenities back there like HVAC controls, though a vent in the back of the front console allows them the option of controlling ventilation. Best of all, the cabin is so quiet we can have a four-way conversation without strain at even extra-legal speeds. And, the 16 cubic-foot trunk (about average for this size of car) is fully stuffed swallowing up all the extraneous stuff we wanted to take.

Southbound on I-75 we repeatedly ran into coagulating traffic, as we did on I-26 and again on I-95 from Charleston south to our Hilton Head exit. Perhaps it was just heavy weekend traffic. The new Avalon’s lower roofline made visibility to the right rear a bit difficult but with mirrors adjusted properly we had no trouble. The powertrain is held over from the past generation. The 3.5-liter V6 is up to the task and then some. We have a solid 268 horsepower with a six-speed automatic transmission that allowed us to dice with traffic confidently. Paddle shifters came in to play hustling through the I-75 morass in Cincinnati and the mountains west of Asheville. At the risk of giving my passengers motion sickness we pressed hard through those mountain roads finding the improved suspension and electric power steering gratifying. Certainly, no one would mistake this for one of the German sedans but Avalon customers are generally not looking for that kind of tight control.

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Some inspired thought went into the design of the interior. A good example is the small cubby at the base of the center stack inside of which are two DC outlets along with UCB and iPhone jacks. A little slot is built into the cover so two cords can emerge even with the cover closed tightly. What we used to think of as the ‘center stack’ where most of the controls reside faces upward for more convenient access. While a bit busy with perhaps too many shapes and different materials we found the functionality, fit and finish excellent and the aesthetics quite pleasing. No more ‘Plain Jane’ here.

It took us most of the trip before we realized we had a navigation system, otherwise the controls made sense. Most cars have a “Navigation” or “Map” or some other button or tab on the dash. The Avalon has none. We finally found it in the “Apps” screen. All in all it was not a particularly intuitive or comprehensive system and the screen is rather small, but served the purpose.

As usual, we were among the younger guests at the Marriott Resort in Shelter Cove. We saw two past-generation Avalons in parking lot near our new one. Visually, it’s not hard to see why I suggested in my previous review that it is one of the most improved players in that segment of the market; though with the new Impala coming soon and the recent redesigns of the Hyundai Azera and Nissan Maxima the competition is certainly stiffening.

Our week was filled with touring the area, a long walk on the lovely beach, enjoying sunsets, nature kayaking in the cove, bicycling, kayak fishing, a few day trips around the low country, lots of shopping for the ladies and restaurant explorations for us all.

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Hilton Head boasts dozens and dozens of fine eateries, mostly of the upscale variety but perhaps our most memorable meal of the week was of a distinctly downscale and unpretentious kind. Harold’s Diner occupies a small, homely building next to a gas station in as indistinctive a setting as you’ll find on the island. Just a dozen stools at the counter facing the grill and 4 tiny tables are all that accommodate customers who submit their orders on a check sheet. Three energetic young men dance around each other in the narrow space behind the counter while bantering familiarly with everyone. If ever this place is ‘discovered’ they’ll be in real trouble since they are able to feed so few at a time.

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A visit to Hilton Head would not be complete without a day trip to nearby Savannah. The back road through Bluffton winds among huge live oaks draped with Spanish moss and along tidal marshes leading to the big cable-staid suspension bridge across the Savannah River. We turn left to find the touristy waterfront where block after block of candy and t-shirt shops share space with eateries, a surprising honey vendor and native folks making flowers out of march grasses and palm fronds. Lovers of history will want to spend time exploring the rest of this charming, verdant city where mansions, galleries and parks tell the story of gracious southern life going back nearly three centuries. Much of the story can be gleaned from the plethora of historical markers around the city but we recommend first-timers take one of the inexpensive tours.

Later in the week we also squeezed in a day trip to Charleston, about two hours up the coast, where another coastal culture waits to be explored. Here is another historic commercial center where the art and architecture reflect the classic relationships between the ocean and the land – storms, wars, plantation lives, the ebbs and flows of commerce and nature.

Some of the roads along the coastal estuaries have been neglected and are a bit rough in areas, all the better to appreciate both the quiet cabin and the firm but compliant suspension. Design and geometry of the suspension is conventional but with the repositioning of the struts both front and rear the Toyota engineers have achieved a good balance between firm and precise handling and a comfortable ride.

Our nearly non-stop drive home took a bit over 15 hours. We stopped twice for eats and once for gas and bathroom break. Traffic was light the whole way making for a low-stress road trip. Having been behind the wheel the whole time I can say without equivocation that the Avalon is a pleasure to drive on a long road trip.

So, will the new Avalon continue to appeal to the oldest of demographics? Or will it appeal more to younger folks?

The answer to both questions is yes. Some potential customers will rue the loss of a front bench seat. Others will find the sleek modern styling a bit too much. Both of those groups of critics will be few. Most folks, young and old, will appreciate the size and comfort as well as the inclusion of all the electronic, infotainment and convenience features younger buyers demand in cars today. Those in the market for a full-size sedan will be wise to put this one on their shopping list.

Most important, the style and design of this new Avalon will garner the interest of many who would not have considered this car before because of its notorious stodginess. While it’s not a head-turner it’s fully modern and stylish.

ęSteve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved