Preliminary intelligence on the Toyota Avalon suggested this car would: (A) share the same chassis as the Camry, and (B) be little more than a high luxury version of that popular midsize sedan.
Well, the Avalon is here. And here's how our intelligence reports graded out.
A: Correct. The Avalon rides on a Camry chassis, with a stretched wheelbase. It also shares the Camry assembly line in Georgetown, Kentucky.
B: Incorrect. Although the Avalon uses the same engine as the Camry V6, tweaked for a bit more power, as well as the same smooth 4-speed automatic transmission, it's essentially an all-new car. It doesn't look like the Camry, and the two cars don't share any exterior pieces. The Avalon is also roomier, particularly in the rear-seat area, it's a little more agile and, of course, it's more expensive.
The Avalon is designed to compete with bigger front-wheel-drive domestic cars such as the Dodge Intrepid, Pontiac Bonneville, Chevrolet Lumina and Ford Taurus. It replaces the stodgy old rear-drive Toyota Cressida, which disappeared from the lineup in 1993, and it's the biggest passenger car ever to wear the Toyota emblem in the United States.
Let's put this car's size in perspective. The Avalon's wheelbase is 4 inches longer than the Camry's, and the body is 2.4 inches longer, as well as a tad wider. Compared with the domestic makes, it's closest to the Taurus in size, while smaller than the others, particularly the big Intrepid. But exterior dimensions can be deceptive, and the Avalon's surprising rear-seat roominess is a case in point.
Although the Avalon may not share any body panels with the Camry, no one is likely to accuse Toyota of taking big chances with its styling. Vaguely reminiscent of the Lexus GS 300, which was styled in Italy, the Avalon is aerodynamically clean and thoroughly innocuous.
In contrast to its distinctive coupes and sports cars, Toyota's sedan styling policy seems to hinge on coming up with a design that doesn't offend anyone. Judging by the success of the Camry, this seems to work, and the Avalon fits right in.
However, the exterior is functional. Flush glass, flush door handles and smooth contours add up to aerodynamic efficiency and reduced wind noise.
The Avalon will be offered in two editions: the not-so-basic XL and the more luxurious XLS. Both use the excellent 3.0-liter Camry V6 engine, though tuned for more horsepower (192 hp versus 188 hp), and both are available only with an automatic transmission.
We logged extensive mileage in both models, but we'll report on the XLS here.
Roominess is one of the most impressive features of the Avalon. How much room? Oodles sums it up - in every direction. It's particularly noticeable in the backseat, where the legroom dimensions are close to the Intrepid's, and are more generous than in the Taurus or the Lumina.
Anticipating use by large families, Toyota offers a choice of 3-across front seating - the old standard American sedan configuration - or the more common front buckets.
Our test car had leather bucket seats with power-adjustable features, which make them not so common. In keeping with this big sedan's emphasis on sedate, comfortable motoring, the seats are roomy, with modest side support. Toyota doesn't expect Avalon drivers to be at-tacking mountain switchbacks, so keeping the driver centered behind the wheel isn't as important as making sure the driver is comfortable.
The dashboard layout will look familiar to Camry owners, though not identical. Control location is similar, and the analog instruments are easy to read at a glance. All in all, elements of interior fit-and-finish are typically Toyota - smooth, subdued and virtually flawless.
Standard XL comfort and convenience features include an AM/FM/cassette sound system, air conditioning, power windows and door locks, cruise control and a nifty anti-lockout feature that won't let you lock the car with the key in the ignition. XL prices start at $23,155.
The XLS starts at $27,085, and gives you a choice between the bench or buckets at no extra charge. Additional XLS standard features include a higher-grade sound system, automatic climate control, alloy wheels, leather-wrapped steering wheel, shift knob and a theft-deterrent system.
Our test car also included leather upholstery and a power moonroof, which lifted the total to $29,065.
If you add the ultra-premium sound system - with seven speakers and a 12-disc CD changer - and the mudguards, you can coax the total north of $30,000. That's where the current industry luxury-car borderline falls.
The Avalon's safety features rate as contemporary, including dual airbags, side impact protection that meets the '97 federal standards, 3-point seatbelts at both front and all three rear-seat positions, and front and rear head restraints.
Anti-lock brakes (ABS) were standard on our XLS test car, but they're optional on the XL. For a car of this quality and price, we think ABS should be standard on all models.
Because this new sedan outranks the Camry, we expected it to be smooth, quiet and competent. And it was. But we had a couple of surprises.
The first had to do with noise. Although the Avalon is supremely quiet up front, we found that a bit of tire noise was audible to rear-seat passengers. Not much noise, but any in a Toyota qualifies as a surprise.
The second surprise was a pleasant one. Although it's a bigger car, the Avalon provides distinctly better handling than the Camry. There's less resistance to quick steering maneuvers, and a greater sense of control in hard cornering.
The variable-assist power steering system delivers a slightly better sense of what the front wheels are doing, and the car's overall responsiveness makes it a pleasure to drive.
There are no surprises with the Avalon's ride quality, which is superb. In fact, some drivers might find it preferable to the Lexus GS 300, as well as the Intrepid and Bonneville.
Engine performance was what we had expected. This is one of the industry's better V6 engines - smooth, quiet and powerful. Because the Avalon weighs little more than a Camry and has four more horsepower, its acceleration is about the same, which is to say peppy.
You can get more muscle from the Bonneville's supercharged V6 or the Taurus 3.0-liter SHO V6, but we think the Avalon's performance will be more than satisfactory to most.
The same can be said for fuel economy, which we think is very good for a vehicle in this size class.
An important intangible in any new-car purchase is the manufacturer's reputation for quality. Toyota leads the entire industry in this regard, and doesn't show any signs of relinquishing that lead.
The Camry has been a consistent winner in J.D. Power quality surveys, and because the Avalon shares some Camry components, as well as the same assembly line, we have no reason to expect any less of this new car. Our initial test drive strengthens this expectation.
However, there's no getting around the fact that this is an expensive car. Any of the others we've mentioned here would save you money.
So it gets to be a question of what kind of premium you're willing to pay for top quality, a premium that's likely to pay dividends at resale time.
The new Avalon won't turn heads with its styling, but it's an excellent car in every other respect. High prices notwithstanding, we expect it to be a winner.