2013 Toyota Avalon Breaks Free of Its Past

The 2013 Toyota Avalon is an aggressive redesign over last year's model.

John Scott Lewinskiby John Scott Lewinski

Throughout its life in the Toyota family, the Avalon was always Grandma. She wasn’t a crazy, cat lady witch, but rather a gentle and cultured matron of advancing age – baking scones and wearing button-up lamb’s wool sweaters.

However, that old, quaint nana Avalon retired – replaced by a matriarch who demands a good deal more request.

The 2013 Avalon made its debut recently at a special event in Napa’s wine country. Toyota was eager to get auto journalists together out in the generous harvest season sunshine for what was advertised as an aggressive redesign for what was once considered – even according to Toyota execs – a safe, reliable but essentially boring car.

I drove the 2012 Avalon and decided that it was exactly what it was intended to be – what it needed to be – a cost friendly luxury sedan.

Starting around $32,000, the 2012 Avalon was a more affordable alternative to her powerhouse European predecessors like a BMW or a Mercedes-Benz. That Avalon was a professional man’s car wrapped up in leather, technology and toys – with ample seating and a welcoming trunk.

The only drawback to the 2012 version was its lack of overall “wow factor.” It was easy to drive, but not fun to drive. It was comfortable, but not exciting. Those are the issues Toyota attacked with the 2013 Avalon.

Remember my long reach for that “grandma/old lady” metaphor? We’ll swing back to that here for a second because old ladies get facelifts to sexy themselves up a bit. The same goes for the 2013 Avalon. It receives a new, more aggressive grill, 18 inch wheels, decorative dual exhaust ports (like the Lexus performance car club). Its overall lines are more angular and aggressive, shaking up the anonymous look of last year’s Avalon.

Once in the driver’s seat, you’ll find the new performance philosophy at your fingertips. The new Avalon offers a Sport Mode for tighter steering, firmer suspension and better acceleration. The in-dash monitor system was inspired by the $400,000+ Lexus supercar, the LFA. Paddle shifters in that Sport Mode offer the chance to interact with the road more tactilely – something the old Avalon didn’t provide.

Regardless of a driver’s chosen trim set-up, the 2013 Avalon comes with an Anti-Collision System, Blind Spot Monitor and Radar Cruise Control.

Not surprisingly, my favorite edition of the new Avalon is the 2013 Limited Edition with its maximum trim package and performance package. I would’ve had to hit last year’s Avalon with a wrecking ball to get any tire squeal out of her. But, one punch of the accelerator on the 2013 laid a little strip of burnt black and a sports car-worthy screech from the wider tires.

For the more eco-conscious drivers, the Avalon now comes in a fully hybrid version. A brief test drive demonstrated now reduction in performance or ride comfort in a 3,500 lb. hybrid sedan promising 40 mpg. Throwing those numbers together is no minor feat of engineering, and Toyota’s home team deserves one of those scones I mentioned earlier.

So, while it pasts every test, the 2013 Avalon does face one big question and a challenge from Toyota’s sister company. In short, if a driver is in the market for an approachable Japanese luxury sedan, why would he or she choose the Avalon over a lower level Lexus?

The answers are both practical and psychological. The 2013 Avalon will sell for a couple grand less than the Lexus ES, while offering similar performance. It becomes a question of how much snob appeal that driver wants. Does he or she want that slanted L on their grill? Is it necessary to have that “fancy” aura of the Lexus? Or, would a less expensive car with similar features and feel  suffice?

Would you prefer a lady of flash and style or of effectiveness and modesty? It all depends on what kind of grandma you like.