The cars we loved.
It took almost 60 years to get to this point, but they did it. Toyota finally built a large car (under the Toyota brand) for sale in America. Sure, there was the Lexus LS 400 of 1989, but Toyota was certain Americans were not ready for a full sized car wearing the oval eclipse. The Toyota brand was fully entrenched in the minds of Americans as a builder of mid to smaller sized Corollas and Camrys, even though they had been building large sedans in the home market of Japan for decades. The Camry did wonders for Toyota’s bottom line, becoming a sales leader in a on and off three way race with Ford and Honda during the 80’s and 90’s. After out growing their Camrys what were buyers who wanted a larger Toyota sedan to do? They could go up market and buy a Lexus and pay a premium or jump over to Ford, Chrysler or Chevrolet, who had been building large semi-near luxury sedans for years.
Just before the Lexus brand was developed, Toyota had a larger sedan (by Japanese standards) in its US lineup called the Cressida. The Cressida was plush midsized rear wheel drive car powered by a straight 6 engine. When it was discontinued in 1992, the large car void from Toyota had been turned over to the then new Lexus brand. Toyota, realizing a need for a full sized sedan in the Toyota line up developed a new car that would appeal to American tastes.
The flagship Avalon would usher in a line of firsts for Toyota. It was assembled in Georgetown KY, from a stretched Canary platform and shipped to Canada, the Middle East and Japan. There was even a version sold and built in Australia. The Avalon featured a front bench seat and a column shifter, giving it a very American “your father’s Oldsmobile” feel, the only modern Toyota to have such. The modest interior was luxurious, but not overtly so, with a dash reminiscent of traditional American cars, but Japanese attention to detail. A full six passenger seating capacity, like the Chevrolet Caprice was one of its major selling points. Externally, the Avalon looked like a de-scaled Lexus LS 400, with lines reminiscent of both the Camry and its Lexus cousins. The Avalon had a fair amount of technology and luxury options available in the XLS versions. Some of its options like a DVD based navigation system were not typical of its direct competition from Detroit. The thinking might have been that the older buyers of Crown Vics and Caprices were not inclined to use electronic gadgets or fibble with too many buttons, where Toyota’s mostly tech savvy core market would.
Unlike its American rivals, the first generation Avalon featured only one engine, a 192 hp 3.0 liter V6. A smooth shifting 4 –speed automatic was also the only transmission choice. Less than 200 hp in a 3500 lb car meant that no one would ever confuse it for a sports sedan. This short coming was address with enhancements in 97 that pushed power to 200, but the Avalon was intended to be a comfortable cruiser, able to carry 5 people in comfort, not a sports sedan. A job it did exceedingly well. Consumer Reports consistently gave the Avalon Best Buy status. The automotive press, on the other hand, was not as impressed, only because the Avalon lacked any sporting pretense (does every car need to be 5 Series like?). A fully independent suspension and traction control offered a level of comfort and predictable handling on all road conditions. There were usually three models ranging from stripped down XL, to the fully optioned and Lexus like XLS. The Avalon had become a popular choice for those not wanting the seemingly old school sedans from Ford and Chevrolet that still used live rear axles shod with leaf spring suspensions. Although it had all the makings of a potential police or taxi car, it never took off as such. A Japanese branded police car would not have sat well in the Heartland, and the Avalon was never offered in any super duty or fleet versions.
The Avalon received major revisions in 2000 and has received styling updates, giving it more personality. It continues its role as Toyota’s large sedan, even as some of its full sized competition has faded away. As used cars, they are hard to come by as they seemed to have faded into the background in the Toyota lineup. Often overlooked and unspoiled by the pursuits of tuner happy younger adults, the Avalon makes a great used car purchase as resale values are not as high as that of the Camry or Corolla. Sort of an surprising legacy for the big Toyota that’s really a low end Lexus in disguise.