Smooth operator: Toyota's Avalon blends style, safety

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Fresh on the heels of a facelift, Toyota's 2017 Avalon makes advances in safety, now coming with Toyota Safety Sense P.

Fresh on the heels of a facelift, Toyota's 2017 Avalon makes advances in safety, now coming with Toyota Safety Sense P. While that name may not have much pizzazz, what the now-standard technology package does have is automatic emergency braking (AEB).

AEB warns of impeding contact ahead and helps avoid rear-end collisions - or mitigates the impact - by initiating braking on its own. Even though the vehicle's cameras, lasers or radars are "watching" the road ahead, AEB is not an automatic pilot. Drivers are still responsible but get a helping foot from technology.

Though the Avalon may be ahead of the game, Toyota's flagship faces plenty of competition as the technology trickles down. Most vehicles sold in the U.S. will have AEB by 2022, so if you just took out a 60-month loan on a shiny new ride, console yourself knowing that your next car will be able to apply the brakes automatically.

TSS-P, as Toyota abbreviates the safety bundle, is not new. The technology was available but only as on option on the top-of-the-line 2016 Avalon Limited. Showing up on more and more Toyotas as standard fare, TSS-P also comes with dynamic radar cruise control, pre-collision with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert with steering nudging, and automatic high beams. Not surprisingly, the 2017 Avalon racked up top marks from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In the past, the Avalon's appearance was, at best, bland, but it's now as stylish as it is practical. With the V6-powered versions available in five grades and the hybrids in three, the Avalon is served up almost any way you like. That is, as long as you're OK with front-wheel-drive.

The powertrains are Toyota's tried-and-true 3.5-liter V6 with six-speed automatic or the workhorse 2.5-liter four/electric motor combo coupled to a continuously variable transmission. The 268-horsepower V6 is the only engine the Touring comes with and scored EPA fuel economy ratings of 21 mpg in the city and 30 on the highway, which works out to 4.2 gallons of regular gas per 100 miles. The hybrid comes in at 40 mpg city and 39 on the highway.

The Avalon appeals to consumers who want a little more plushness, a little more quiet and a little more room. Accordingly, every 2017 Avalon is decked out with acoustic noise-reducing windshield and front side glass, auto/on headlights, dual-zone climate control, leather steering wheels with paddle shifters, Bluetooth, electroluminescent gauges, and heated eight-way power leather-clad driver's seat and a four-way version for passenger. Other accouterments include power locks and windows pushbutton start and smart key.

The Avalon falls into the EPA's midsize category but its cabin feels like an overachiever. Which is why Toyota and others slot the sedan into the full-size class. The 2017 Avalon is set up to accommodate five occupants but four are ideal as the rear seat integrates a fold-down armrest and mini-console. The fourth-generation Avalon's 111.0-inch wheelbase translates to 42.1 inches of front legroom while the backseaters will have to make do with 39.2 - which happens to be 2.5 inches more than the Avalon's luxury-division cousin, the LS 460 L, the long-wheelbase version of Lexus' flagship.

On the flip side, headroom had to be slightly sacrificed to attain the Avalon's fashionable four-door coupe-like profile. Driver and front passenger have 37.6 inches of headroom; those in the back have a hair more: 37.9. The XLE, however, provides 0.9 inches more because it's the sole grade that doesn't come with a moonroof. The ample trunk, which has a low opening and is easy to load, has 16.0 cubic feet of storage.

The 2017 Avalon lineup starts with the XLE ($33,300, not including $895 destination charge); the XLE Plus ($35,050); XLE Premium ($36,500); Touring ($37,700) and Limited ($41,100). The hybrids run $37,300 for the XLE Plus, the XLE Premium starts at $38,750, and the priciest of the hybrid litter is the $42,600 Limited. (The 2018 Avalon is a carry-over model. The next-generation Avalon is likely to be based on the automaker's new modular architecture and sport updated powertrains. Starting prices on 2018 models have gone up about $200 across the lineup.)

The Avalon XLE and XLE Plus get 17-inch alloy wheels with a machined finish, a serviceable 7-inch screen and a tire pressure monitoring system that indicates the inflation pressure for each 215/55R17 tire. The XLE Plus sports a sliding/tilt moonroof. Occupants will rarely have to fight over who get to charge their mobile device. The Avalon has an illuminated compartment it dubs the eBin that accommodates two phones and has dual 12-volt outlets, an aux jack and a USB port. There's a second USB port in the center console.

All Avalons have heated, foldable side mirrors but stepping up to XLE Premium or above includes outside mirrors with memory and wireless charging for Qi-compatible smartphones. Toyota apparently reasoned that if you opt for an Avalon with wireless charging, you can get by with one 12-volt socket. But here's a big reason to go with the XLE Premium: it's the buy-in point for standard blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. The incredibly useful safety feature is not offered on XLE or XLE Plus Avalons. We're banking on trickle-down economics working and that blind-spot and RCTA will be standard on the lion's share of vehicles well before decade's end.

The Touring and XLE Premium are outfitted similarly, but the Touring has sport-tuned suspension, LED headlights and daytime running lights, a black grille, and its own steering wheel, interior trim, front fascia and 225/45R18 tires on dark gray alloy wheels.

The Limited has HID headlights, LED daytime running lights and adds 18-inch chrome alloys on V6 models and 17-inch chrome wheels on hybrids. This is where things become even more Lexus-like with ambient lighting, navigation, tri-zone climate control and premium perforated leather front seats with ventilation. Front occupants can do more fine-tuning to get into their comfort zones with a 10-way power driver's seat and an eight-way shotgun seat. The rear seats of the Limited are heated. On the other hand, if the sun makes things too toasty, Toyota has included a power rear sunshade. The body-color outside mirrors incorporate turn signals and puddle lights. (They also dim automatically but still fold manually.)

The 2017 Toyota Avalon Touring strikes a fine real-world balance of handling and feedback, without sacrificing the sedan's trademark composed ride.

2017 TOYOTA AVALON TOURING

TYPE: Full-size sedan

BASE PRICE: $37,770

AS TESTED, INCLUDING DESTINATION: $38,739

DRIVETRAIN: 3.5-liter V6; 6-speed auto; FWD

HORSEPOWER and TORQUE: 268 hp at 6,200 rpm / 248 lb.-ft. at 4,700 rpm

FUEL: gas, 87 octane; 17.2-gallon tank

EPA ESTIMATED MPG: 21 city / 30 highway

CURB WEIGHT: 3,461 to 3,538 lbs.

SAFETY: NHTSA, 5 stars; IIHS, Top Safety Pick Plus

WEB: www.toyota.com/avalon/

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