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Avalon Gives Other Sedans a Run for Their Money


There is a simpatico, fresh, very casual California feel to this new and large sedan from Toyota.

* The sound system has sufficient suction to tug jazz, cool and Monterey smooth, to Woodland Hills from KLON in Long Beach.

* A sun roof adds God's light and the smell of warm beaches and coastal chowder joints to dawdling drives along Pacific Coast Highway.

* And they call this car Avalon in obvious tribute to the lolling, idyllic ways of Santa Catalina. (A pox on mythologists who might remember Avalon as King Arthur's fantasy island for his fallen knights. Club Med for the dead, as it were.)

Although long awaited, the 1995 Toyota Avalon isn't quite what most people were waiting for.

Tweaked by leaks, teased by spy photos, warped by our needle-sharp views on What Toyota Needs to Do to Sell Cars, we presumed a huge, six-passenger sedan from Japan ready to do a Dracula on the hydraulic jugulars of Ford's Crown Victoria or Buick's Roadmaster.

What we will be examining in showrooms next week is a cannily engineered sedan with the external dimensions of an American mid-size but the internal room of a large car. Large, that is, by Japanese standards--which is Infiniti Q45 or Lexus LS400 large.

Built on an extended Camry platform, the Avalon will have room for six travelers--although shoulder pads will scrunch and all will certainly be closer friends, possibly even engaged, by the end of long trips.

Shades of yore and polished polyester backsides, the Avalon will be sold with an optional bench front seat--a first for Asian sedans.

Although Toyota is betting 70% of new Avalowners will want cushioned buckets rather than little sofas that stir thoughts of the '50s and plaid seat covers in McTavish vinyl.

And instead of the 260-horsepower V-8 and rear-drive of a Detroit-built Belchfire GTO, the Avalon is powered by a 192-horsepower V-6--another transfer from the successful Camry--spinning the front wheels.

So much for Avalon's threat to the Oldsmobile Ninety Eight.

What it does menace is just about anything else with four doors in the American mainstream. Be it import or domestic; Maxima, Mazda or Toyota's own Camry. Be it Buick LeSabre, Pontiac Bonneville; even the new and lusty Concorde, Intrepid and Vision triplets from Chrysler.

For the Avalon performs the role of a fleet of cars.

Four inches longer, also a little wider and taller than the Camry, it has enough size for marrieds with children and doting grandparents. It will purr around town at peace with all, but has enough power and sophisticated handling to growl and snarl at the very thought of Mulholland. In traffic, with someone mischievous at the wheel, it is a whispering predator.

The car looks, feels and smells horribly expensive yet prices start at $22,758. Even when loaded with everything Beverly Hills might desire--including leather seats and a 12-disc CD player--the sticker stays below $30,000.

Construction and assembly are Japanese tight, which means optimum levels of comfort and security of ride; fit and finish is as good as it gets without spending $60,000 and speaking German; the technology of anti-lock brakes and the safety of dual air bags are available; and noise of travel, vibration and harshness are virtually nonexistent.

In an expression: This is a rare car that delivers everything without a driver ever being conscious of the mechanics that make it all happen.

There's also an interesting marketing dynamic involved here. Avalon finally gives a generation of 40-plusers raised on Japanese cars something Asian and sizable to leap up to.

In college they drove boxes fortune cookies came in. Usually yellow Honda 600s. Their first jobs brought zippy sports cars. Maybe a Datsun 240Z. Marriage, families and sedan years usually meant Nissan Maxima, Mazda 626, Toyota Camry or Honda Accord.

But where to go from there? Especially for those spoiled rotten by Japanese reliability, economy and general superiority of product.

Many swallowed pride and went shopping for an American cruiser, which probably helped Oldsmobile and Buick stay in business. Others munched the bullet, found a job for the spouse, canceled the kid's first semester at Stanford, and paid $35,000 or more for something sizable by Lexus, Infiniti or Acura.

But now comes Avalon, and with it the alternative of stepping up, moving back or pricing down to a full-size six-seater that wasn't whelped in Michigan. Although it should be noted that Avalon is built in another center dedicated to thoroughbred horsepower: Kentucky.

Aimed at those who place family values above Charles and Di and Camilla, styling of the Avalon is safe to the point of a stifled yawn. It will be mistaken for a Camry redux or a mid-range Lexus, but never a breakaway from today's dedication to wraparound this and flush-mounted that, with a high, short trunk and a longer, lower nose.

The interior is much lovelier.

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