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Published: 12/06/2012 - by Josh Jacquot, Senior Editor
That Toyota's 2013 Avalon Hybrid can plod us along in coddled comfort for 46.5 city miles on only one gallon of 87 octane fuel is a stunning technological achievement. No less so, say, than the fact that its cabin is utterly impenetrable to wind and road noise.
But there's more.
This isn't the polarizing gas-electric people pod that Toyota has wholly mastered. Nor is it just a more efficient version of your Aunt Ethel's Avalon. It's a genuinely decent driving car with room for five adults and a well-crafted interior.
The new 2013 Toyota Avalon Hybrid, then, is not only quiet and efficient — it has some dynamic ability and an upscale demeanor.
It is, quite simply, in a class by itself.
Or Is It?
Pinpointing direct competitors for the gasoline-powered Avalon is hard enough, but given its size and content, fringe luxury cars like the Buick LaCrosse and Hyundai Azera come to mind. The Avalon hybrid, however, lives in virtual isolation. Only the not-yet-available 2013 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid matches the Toyota in terms of luxury, size and projected efficiency.
Our top-of-the-line Limited model tester stickered at $43,945, including destination.
Buick's LaCrosse, which costs about $38,000 similarly equipped, comes in pseudo-hybrid form and benefits marginally from GM's eAssist motor/generator technology. But this mild hybrid — at 25 city/36 highway/29 combined mpg — can't compete with a full two-mode hybrid like the Avalon.
Volkswagen's top-of-line Passat TDI ($34,320) comes closer with its similar dimensions (a 110.4-inch wheelbase vs. Avalon's 111-inch wheelbase) and a frugal diesel power plant. When equipped with a dual-clutch transmission, the VW sedan earns EPA ratings of 30 city/40 highway and 34 combined, which more closely rivals the 2013 Toyota Avalon Hybrid's 40 city/39 highway/40 combined rating.
A Unique Blend
Those considerations aside, the reality of the Avalon's fuel-sipping effectiveness punched us straight in the face when this large, comfortable sedan laid down a 46.5 mpg average on our 106.1-mile city loop. During two weeks we covered a total of 1,050 miles of mixed driving and recorded a 38.3 mpg average. This is a genuinely fuel-efficient luxury sedan — period.
Credit for the frugality goes almost entirely to the powertrain that consists of a 2.5-liter four-cylinder coupled to a pair of electric motors — one for charging the hybrid batteries and starting the gas engine and another for propulsion. Combined output is 200 horsepower just like the Camry Hybrid which shares the same setup.
A planetary gearset blends electric and gasoline power and sends it to the drive wheels without the use of the belt as in most CVTs. Even so, the powertrain behaves very much like a conventional CVT. Wood the throttle entering a freeway and the gasoline engine whirs to a relatively high speed and eases off when the pedal is lifted. Electric-only operation is available using a light foot up to about 20 mph. Or, should you choose, you can lock the powertrain into EV mode for stop-and-go city driving, but it's overridden when load or speed demands.
Regardless of its source, acceleration reliably follows throttle input and there's always a smooth swell of torque on tap at lower speeds. It's relatively quick, too. Ours went from zero to 60 mph in 7.7 seconds (7.4 seconds with a 1-foot rollout as on a drag strip) and whirred through the quarter-mile in 15.7 seconds at 90.3 mph. That's only 0.2 second behind the 2012 Hyundai Azera, which is powered by a 293-hp 3.3-liter V6 and rated at 23 mpg combined.
Braking from 60 required 132 feet. That's about average for the segment, but the Avalon's pedal response is hard to judge to the extent that after a week driving the car we still found ourselves using too little pedal pressure when braking for a signal.
You Might Not Expect This
The Avalon is burdened with a degree of stigma like the Prius, although for entirely different reasons. Traditionally, the Avalon has been a soft-riding machine with dynamic traits that drew heavily from the smooth-riding preferences of its retirement-age buyers. Or so the argument goes.
This character is largely gone from the 2013 model — even the hybrid.
Where the old Avalon wallowed down the road like a '78 Buick Electra, the 2013 Toyota Avalon offers a controlled yet compliant ride. It's not stiff, but it lacks the floaty isolation of its predecessor. In contrast, though, steering effort is comically light at parking speeds and — whatever your speed — feedback is more Electra than Elise. But it's hard to fault the Avalon too much for this last trait. It isn't a sport sedan and it needn't pretend to be.
It still split our slalom cones at 62.5 mph, which ties it with the Buick LaCrosse and is 1.8 mph slower than the Ford Fusion Hybrid. A similar performance followed around the skid pad, where the big hybrid circled at 0.77g — marginally less than the Fusion Hybrid's 0.79g and the Buick's 0.80g performances.
Silent but Stately
Avalon engineers stole a move from the Lexus playbook by creating safe-room silence inside. At 59.8 decibels the Avalon recorded one of the lowest 70-mph cruise noise readings we've measured in any car in recent memory — including such costly equipment as the Bentley Continental GT (61.6 decibels) and the Audi A8 L (60.9 decibels).
Accordingly, there's a clear effort to move the Avalon above its segment mates in design and materials. Chrome bezels and accents dominate the detail work to the extent that you'll be thrilled to own a pair of polarized sunglasses for knocking down glare. Brightwork on this scale has never before graced a Toyota interior. Materials, too, are decidedly premium. Leather seats are standard across trim levels, while Limited models get perforated leather.
Stitched leather is present on the shifter, steering wheel and dash and there's a distinct absence of hard plastic surfaces. Overall interior quality looks and feels commensurate with the Avalon's price.
Touchpads replace buttons to control most audio and HVAC functions. Mercifully they emit an audible confirmation when activated. Two large knobs for volume and tuning are a welcome addition to the button-heavy design. But at night the volume knob hides behind the steering wheel. When fumbling to find it we accidentally activated the seek/track touchpad function on more than one occasion.
Otherwise, there's typically Toyota-like utility. Storage space is ample, with a large bin at the bottom of the center stack containing two 12-volt outlets, a USB plug and auxiliary jack. The center console is generously sized as well. Despite a compromise to accommodate batteries, trunk volume, at 14 cubic feet, is 2 cubes bigger than that of the Ford Fusion Hybrid.
Good-Bye, Stereotype; Hello, Reality
Whatever sales Toyota loses to the Avalon's newfound ride quality it will likely regain with buyers who prefer this car's fresh approach. Its characteristics are clearly a bid for younger buyers and we don't doubt they will come.
They will, however, pay a $4,565 premium for the added efficiency of the hybrid's powertrain over the V6-powered version. Assuming a 12,000-mile/year average and a fuel cost of $3.43/gallon, nearly 7.5 years are needed to recover the difference in purchase price between the two in fuel cost savings alone.
This is the same reality that plagues most hybrids — including the Prius — which is now leaving dealer lots at record rates in four different versions. So it's safe to assume this metric isn't a top consideration among hybrid buyers. But the Avalon isn't a Prius. It's a modern, competent luxury sedan that just happens to benefit from an effective hybrid powertrain. And in this regard it should draw buyers from both wells.
Yes, you'll pay more for the 2013 Toyota Avalon Hybrid than for some cars with which it loosely shares a segment. But when it comes to matching the Avalon's mix of efficiency, solitude and comfort, few will compete.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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