Toyota’s flagship sedan, the Avalon, not only got a complete makeover just last year; it also now includes a hybrid version for the first time -- using the same gasoline engine/electric motor combination as the Camry hybrid.The revised Avalon has the same underlying architecture as the newest generation of the midsize Camry sedan, which debuted a year earlier.Avalon prices for 2014 begin at $31,340 (plus $810 freight) for the base XLE V-6 gasoline model. Other gas-only versions are the XLE Premium ($33,195), XLE Touring ($35,000), and the top-of-the-line Limited ($39,650), which was our test vehicle for the week..Hybrid models begin at $35,555 for the XLE Premium. It has everything that the XLE Premium gasoline model has, but substitutes the 2.5-liter gasoline engine/electric-motor hybrid-drive system for the V-6 engine. This ends up adding $2,360 to the price.There are two other hybrid models: The XLE Touring ($36,750); and the Limited ($41,400), both of which are up $1,750 from their corresponding non-hybrid models. Toyota says the price differences between the gasoline-only and hybrid models are the lowest among the company’s growing hybrid fleet.Hybrid models are differentiated by blue-trimmed Toyota logos at the front and rear, hybrid badges on the trunk lid and front doors, and a hidden exhaust outlet. There are two special hybrid exterior colors: Moulin Rouge Mica and Champagne Mica. Three interior color themes are available: almond, light gray and black.EPA ratings for the gasoline models are 21 mpg city/31 highway/25 combined. All gas-only models, including our Limited tester, come with the 3.5-liter V-6 engine. It cranks out 268 horsepower and 248 foot-pounds of torque, and is connected to a six-speed automatic transmission.Hybrid mileage ratings are 40 city/39 highway/40 combined. The gasoline engine has 153 horsepower alone, but combined with the electric drive motor, there is a total of 200 horsepower. With the motor boosting the engine, the car can go from zero-60 mph in eight seconds, Toyota says.The hybrid uses a continuously variable automatic transmission, rather than the conventional six-speed used in the regular gasoline Avalon. Power for the electric motor comes from a compact 244.8-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery pack between the trunk and the rear seat; the car’s regular 12-volt battery is in the trunk, as well. The hybrid battery ends up taking away part of the trunk – the hybrid Avalon has 14 cubic feet of cargo space, while the non-hybrid model has a generous 16 cubic feet.While the hybrid’s overall horsepower is considerably less than that of the V-6 gasoline model, the car has the feel of a V-6. That’s because of the torque provided by the electric motor, which is designed to kick in extra power when needed, such as for passing or merging into traffic.Our V-6 gave our test vehicle plenty of pep, with seamless passing, merging and hill-climbing. We earlier tested the hybrid, as well, and found it to be nearly as powerful as the gasoline model when power was important, such as overtaking or merging onto a freeway from an uphill ramp.The ride was smooth, even over railroad crossings and some bumpy country roads, and at all times, the interior was very quiet.This is the "most American" Avalon yet, Toyota says. It was completely developed and designed in the United States to appeal to American consumer tastes, and it’s built in the same factory with the Camry in Kentucky. Design work was done at Toyota’s Calty centers in California and Michigan; engineering came from the Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Mich.Standard features on the entry XLE gasoline model include power-adjustable/heated leather front seats, 17-inch aluminum-alloy wheels, a touch-screen audio system, smart key with pushbutton start, and heated outside mirrors with integrated turn signals. This model is not offered with the hybrid system. The XLE Premium, which is the second model from the bottom for gasoline versions, and the base model for the hybrids, has all of the features of the XLE, but adds such extras as a backup camera and moon roof.With the XLE Touring model, add-ons include 18-inch alloy wheels, a display audio/navigation system with Toyota’s Entune system, a blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert, and steering-column paddle shifters for the automatic transmission (gasoline model only).Extras that came with our Limited model included heated/ventilated/perforated-leather front seats, a JBL premium hard-disk-drive audio system with satellite radio, Toyota’s Safety Connect (similar to GM’s OnStar), rear-seat heaters, a rear sunshade, three-zone automatic climate control, puddle lamps, high-intensity-discharge headlights, and LED daytime running lights.Up to five people can ride in the Avalon, four quite comfortably. I found the front bucket seats to be restful even on a long drive, and rear passengers had plenty of legroom even when the front seats were back far enough on their tracks to accommodate larger folks up front. Interior door panels are covered with synthetic leather.But the middle of the back seat is tight for an adult, mostly because the seatbelt receptacles limit the width of the position. There is a pull-down armrest that provides two cupholders, but with that folded up to accommodate a child seat or a passenger, there are no rear cupholders. The door pockets, front and rear, do not have bottle holders. There are map pockets in the backs of the front seats, though, which could hold a drink bottle. There are several storage areas, including a center console with an "eBin" tray, designed to hold two portable electronic devices side by side – his and hers cellphones, or a phone and an iPod, for instance.On our vehicle, the area included the optional wireless recharging system ($200) for phones that have that capability. There also were USB and auxiliary inputs and a 12-volt outlet in the tray, which has LED illumination. There is a storage box underneath where the devices can be hidden away.My iPhone linked easily to the audio system through the Bluetooth connection, bringing my music to the great speakers in the Avalon.Safety features include electronic stability control with traction control; four-wheel antilock disc brakes, with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist; Toyota’s Smart Stop brake-override system; blind-spot monitors on both sides of the car, along with a cross-traffic safety alert and backup camera; and front seat-mounted side air bags, front knee air bags, and roof-mounted side-curtain air bags for both rows.Other options on our tester included the Technology Package ($1,750), which brought the pre-collision system with adaptive (radar) cruise control, and automatic high beams; carpeted floor and trunk mats ($225); alloy-wheel locks ($81); and rear-bumper appliqué ($69).Total sticker price for our gasoline-only Avalon Limited was $42,785, including freight and options.
The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1994. Contact him at email@example.com.