Lunar mist reminds you of that silent, floating ball in the nighttime sky that waxes and wanes throughout the month, so slowly and quietly you hardly know it is there. Until someone, perhaps a small child or a true love, says, hey, look, look at that. And you turn your head up to the darkness, and there it is, glowing, silently keeping watch, always there, even if you don't take notice of it.
Our second-generation Toyota Avalon test car was not only Lunar Mist in color (a shade dubbed "at once subtle and refined" by our staff), but in personality as well. Remember, despite its quiet glow and apparent diminutiveness to the sun, the moon is powerful, steady, reliable and inspiring (just think of the full moon's purported influence, the crescent moon "holding water," and the moon's dominion of the tides).
Our first jaunt in the vehicle (in afternoon freeway traffic) was serene as a summer moonlit night we sat encapsulated in the plush full-sized sedan, classical tunes wafting from the superior sound system. When traffic broke, the accelerator responded effortlessly, taking us back to the office with verve before anyone started wondering where we were.
As you'd expect from a vehicle of this class, the engine is smooth, yet punchy, as one editor wrote, "Drop the hammer and this heavy sedan takes off." It can do this because of its improved 3.0-liter V6 with variable valve timing that generates more horsepower and torque than previous iterations (210 hp at 5,800 rpm and 220 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400 rpm), with better fuel economy and lower emissions.
Although the engine was praised, drivers weren't as keen on the Avalon's four-speed automatic transmission that Toyota calls "smooth shifting"; we found it to be a little rough. While one driver thought the car hesitated when downshifting, another wrote that the upshifts were too loud and effortful. However, with overdrive off, we did find there was plenty of power for hill climbing.
We explored those hills and valleys in the mountains surrounding Santa Barbara, and came back duly impressed with the full-size sedan's ability to canyon-carve. While it's not designed for hard, twisting roads, the Avalon handles decently for a large car. The car soaks up the bumps while allowing the driver to feel the road, the tires (Michelin Radial XSE P205/60R16) stick with virtually no squeal, and there is hardly an on-center dead spot. The steering is light yet responsive, with a tight turning radius and, as one editor put it, "no slop." He also said that, "Pontiac should take note on how it's done."
The Avalon's braking ability was decent, but not great. One of our drivers was perplexed that a car so heavy would not have stronger brakes to deal with the extra load; this driver also said it was a bit too easy to break into ABS mode. Also, the brake pedal was stiff, but the antilock brakes were dependable and consistent, with minimal dive.
The combination of these driving characteristics makes the Avalon an enjoyable car to drive. While not mind-blowing in its power, brakes, or suspension, the car is easy to pilot, gets up to speed easily, and handles better than many of its competitors.
Inside the Avalon, we found a spacious greenhouse providing excellent outward visibility. There are large side mirrors, however the rear view is slightly limiting if you're small of stature, given the large headrests and the Avalon's raised rear end.
The all-new 2000 Avalon is designed, engineered, and built in the United States, and Toyota is touting it as "a true American car." Jointly designed and engineered by Toyota Motor Corporation of Japan and Toyota Technical Center of America, the Avalon is wider than before (more than an inch), the front seat was moved up about an inch, the roof was raised about an inch, and rear-seat room has been increased in both height and legroom. "The backseat is more of a sofa than anything," remarked one on staff, also commenting that the three-point seatbelts are at the correct height and adjustable headrests in back are a welcome addition. Guess our bigger American bodies need the space. And the trunk is also enormous 15.4 cubic feet.
All of this room will come in handy if you've got a lot of people or stuff to carry, or suffer from claustrophobia. But if you're petite, be warned one of our drivers couldn't help feeling like she was piloting her papa's wheels, not only due to the size of the seats and the interior, but also given the interior dash display, of which was said, "there is a sense of vastness about it as if you've entered a hologram world."
This feeling is imparted from the huge screen in the center of the dash telling you the time, temperature, date, directed traveled, etc. While our staffer's parents and grandparents loved the display (good for those with far-sighted vision), younger folk found it unnecessary and a trifle distracting, with one on staff calling it "garish." But, since the Avalon's target audience is certainly not Gen-Xers, the dash display is probably a good one.
The ergonomics were called "Toyota easy," with the climate and stereo controls within arm's reach. The controls are digital, with lots of buttons to play with, and we appreciated the larger "CD," "tape" and "AM/FM" buttons. However, the HVAC system has so many buttons (combined with dual temperature controls) that its operation can be a bit intimidating upon first glance. But once you figure it out, it's not a problem; one staffer's mom, who is admittedly averse to electronics, had no problem operating the HVAC and stereo controls. The Avalon scored big with her for another ergonomic reason: the ignition, placed straight ahead on the dash (where one's right hand reaches easily) was far superior to the typical wheel-mounted ignition that causes one with less stout wrists too much contortion for comfort.
The center stack itself, where the HVAC and stereo controls reside, is nicely shaped, sloping downward toward the shifter, constructed with lots of plood and classy matte-finish buttons. However, we had a disturbing problem with our test car. An annoying and consistent squeak, much like a cricket's chirp, came from the center panel and drove our staff nuts. Regardless of the surface we traveled over, the chirp, chirp, chirp accompanied us, and it got worse when speeds increased. One determined staffer quieted the racket by holding the plastic trim surround where it meets the lower dash pad. But we were disconcerted. A car of this caliber should have no squeaks of this sort, and we were especially surprised since our last drive of an Avalon had no such build-quality issues. Perhaps this was a fluke with our test car, but we also found that when we took turns, the center console "shifted" easily and creaked. What's going on, Toyota? Is this the result of designing a "true American car"?
Our test car was optioned with the leather package that includes a JBL sound system, which provided outstanding sound for our drive up the coast and around town. The highs were crystal clear, and "bass is thunderous." One driver said, "This JBL system knocks the socks off most high-end home theater units." All drivers appreciated the convenient six-disc, in-dash CD changer as well.
Front-seat passengers of larger size found the seat better than average, with good lumbar support, but complained that the lateral bolsters were lacking. Our smaller driver complained that the center console was too far from her reach to rest her right elbow; likewise, the left door rest is usable only if you are bigger in size. Another gripe was that one driver had to adjust the steering wheel higher than normal in order to see the tops of the gauges; still another driver said the seats were "hard without being supportive."
Getting in and out of the Avalon is easy with its wide-swinging doors, and the low trunk liftover makes for easy loading and unloading of cargo. Also, the cargo net is an added benefit for hauling groceries in the enormous trunk.
Interior leather and plastic materials were well-matched, but one of our drivers thought the interior represented "wannabe luxury." She wasn't sure if the upholstery was cheap leather or vinyl, but either way she wasn't happy. The center storage bin and parts of the door panels were plasticky, the baseball-stitched shifter and steering wheel were covered in decent, but not superior, leather.
We liked the steering wheel-mounted cruise controls, finding their placement ergonomically sound and easy to use. The windshield-wipers were called "vicious" big and effective in their swiping any unwanted water that got in their way. Interior lighting was superb, as were the halogen headlights. We also enjoyed the one-touch open and close sunroof, multitudinous seat adjustments, and auto-locking doors. The front cupholders ratcheted, which was good, but they were raised so that your right elbow can (and will) hit the cup way too easily. But their side-by-side placement was functional, and the rear cupholders in the fold-down center storage bin were nice-sized.
Kudos went out to the vast assortment of storage cubbies, pockets, bins, and drawers (well, almost) in the front and rear. There are seat pockets, door pockets, and a huge center console in front and one in back (in the rear armrest). We also liked the storage space under the HVAC controls for pens and other junk, but you can store loads of stuff in the cavernous glove box as well. Also appreciated was the 12-volt power point in the center console.
From the outside, it looks as though the Avalon's designers took about five different body styles of various cars and lumped them all together. The front of the car, with its big, toothy grille, is quite Lincoln or Buick-esque. Meanwhile, the rear looks like a Mercedes S-Class square and narrow with triangular taillights. The car appears safe and slightly sporty, with attractive body-color door handles and raked windshield. While some on staff found the car's mixed personality "beautiful to look at" others were bored by its simple lines and unexceptional styling. Well, some people just don't appreciate a stellar beauty when they see it.
The Avalon is about 3 grand more than the Buick LeSabre Limited and Chrysler LHS. But when you buy a Toyota you are also paying for its reputation for reliability, and with the Avalon, a healthy dose of luxury comes standard. As one on staff said, "My grandparents have always bought a Cadillac or a Lincoln. Now, after checking out this Avalon, they're going to visit a Toyota dealer." Perhaps you'll do the same, perhaps not, or maybe your next voyage will be into that perpetual darkness, like the cow jumping over the