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2013 Toyota Avalon Limited: Prepare to be surprised

by: TOYOTA MOTOR SALES USA INC. - The redesigned 2013 Toyota Avalon is ready to take on all full-size challengers.With all the press attention given to the latest subcompact, compact and midsize cars, it's sometimes hard to remember that there's still a big market for the traditional family car — the reasonably priced full-size sedan.

Toyota certainly thinks so and has completely redesigned its five-passenger Avalon for 2013. The result is an impressive combination of styling, interior room and comfort, power and respectable fuel economy.

In fact, when you first see one, your second reaction is likely to be, "That's an Avalon?"

But if you're like me, your first reaction was probably, "Toyota makes a full-size car?"

Yes, they do, but it wasn't always so. In fact, Toyota first broke into the American market in the late 1960s and early 1970s with small cars that were the opposite of the full-size cars of the day. Most were made by the Detroit manufacturers and enjoyed tremendously popularity until the Arab Oil Embargo of the mid-1970s exposed their big weakness — terrible gas mileage, thanks to their enormous weights and huge V8 engines.

When gas prices soared and the U.S. government mandated every-other-day refills based on license plate numbers, a lot of Americans took the plunge and bought the much smaller but more fuel-efficient cars from Toyota and Datsun, as Nissan was then called. Many were pleasantly surprised to find they were well-equipped, surprisingly large inside, and fun to drive.

It took many years for Detroit to figure out how to make smaller cars that offered similar value. The first ones — like the AMC Gremlin, Chevy Vega, and Ford Pinto — only made the Toyotas and Datsuns look better. By the time Chrysler finally got it right with the K-car and its descendants in the mid-1980s, Japanese cars were beginning to grow, both in size and selection. Although none has ever gotten as big as the older American full-size cars, the Avalon is now close to the surviving full-size cars from Detroit, the Buick LaCrosse, the Chrysler 300, the Ford Taurus and the Chevy Impala, which was also completely redesigned for 2013.

For years Toyota designers have applied a corporate look to their compact Corolla, midsize Camry and full-size Avalon. Because of that, the Avalon looks like a larger version of the Camry, which was redesigned last year to be sleeker and sportier looking. The Avalon's lower grill is much wider than that on the Camry, but the aggressive air dam and muscular flanks are similar, imparting a sense of purpose and power not normally associated with reasonably-price family cars.

The Avalon's interior is a work of art. The dash is a collections of intertwining instrument and control clusters, trimmed in silver. Part of the design is almost art deco, while the rest is thoroughly contemporary. All of the controls were easy to fund and use, however.

The interior of our Limited edition was lined with leather, including the heated and cooled front bucket seats, which seemed specifically designed for the dimensions of real Americans, if you know what I mean.

On the road, our test Avalon was remarkably stable and quiet, almost approaching luxury car standards. The suspension was a little on the firm side but not jarring over rough pavement. Acceleration from the standard 3.5-liter V8 was better than the older big block V8 cars from Detroit — smoother, too, thanks to the impressive six-speed automatic transmission that included a manual shift mode with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

Although the Avalon handled well on winding roads, it did not completely live up the sport sedan styling. The suspension was not quite stiff enough to recover well from the hardest turns. But considering the Avalon is in fact a family car, the performance was still praise worthy.

The Avalon features three driving modes to maximize fuel economy or performance. The Eco mode dulls the throttle and transmission response but increases mileage, while the Sport mode tightens everything up. As expected, Norm is in the middle. Although I did much of my driving in the Sport mode, I still averaged over 20 miles per gallon.

But if mileage is your top concern, a slightly more expensive hybrid version of the Avalon is available. It is fitted with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine paired with an electric motor — the same package found in the new Camry Hybrid — and is EPA rated at around 40 miles per gallon.

Facts and figures (all models)

Model tested: 2013 Avalon Limited.

Manufacturer: Toyota.

Class: Full-size sedan.

Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

Style: Four-door car.

Engine: 3.5-liter V6 (268 hp, 248 lb-ft).

Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual shift mode and steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

EPA estimated city/highway/mileage: 21/31/25.

Price: Beginning at approximately $30,900 ($39,000 as tested).