Avalon packs luxury - and power

With a Toyota like this, who needs the luxury Lexus division? That's probably not the line of thinking the automaker meant to inspire when it unveiled the 2005 Avalon - the third generation of its flagship sedan.

But that thought might occur as you slide into this formidable car, Toyota's most serious attempt to attract grown-up drivers who just want to cruise in extreme comfort.

Bonus for patriots as July 4 nears: The new Avalon is the first Toyota completely designed and engineered in the United States - its look conceived in California, platform and powerplant developed in Michigan.

The original mid-'90s model - built then, as now, in Kentucky - resembled a roomier sibling of the reliable if stylistically boring Camry. A subsequent redesign gave Avalon the inelegant lines of a pop-up camper.

Today, this formidable sedan evokes those heavyweight German cruisers for which you move meekly out of the passing lane.

And you might not need to move over. In motion, Avalon is anything but meek. Merging from on-ramp to interstate with Billy Idol blaring (a little incongruously) on the sound system and a Peterbilt truck bearing down, the Avalon quietly surges forward, thanks to a 3.5-liter, 280-h.p. V6 engine. (It undoubtedly does so with a classical station tuned in, too.)

A five-speed automatic transmission includes a sequential-shift option, as many cars now do, for drivers who want to choose their gear and control r.p.m. You notch the shift lever left to get out of "drive" and choose between clutchless gears one-through-five. Unlike some other Tiptronic-type shifters, the motion is fore-and-aft, not side-to-side, which feels more intuitive.

In fact, everything about Avalon's interior feels right. Gauges are bold, the dashboard uncluttered and made even more so by a retractable cover that turns the audio-control area into a clean panel.

The cabin is expansive. The distance from the bottom of the windshield to the bottom of the rear window measures more than 10 feet. After that comes a respectable trunk: 14.4 cubic feet. Rear legroom - even directly behind a driver who favors a straight-armed stretch for the steering wheel - feels almost limo-like. Five can ride in comfort indefinitely, and with very few stops for fuel.

Toyota claims 31 m.p.g. on the highway. That's probably right. The Monitor test car, a leather-lined touring edition in phantom gray, averaged in the mid-20s during a week that included city commuting and some exploration of the car's top-end performance.

About $30,000 as configured, Avalon comes in three other trim lines, XL (a step below Touring), XLS, and Limited, still priced under $40,000.

In the touring edition, a driver encounters welcome signs of intelligent planning. The steering wheel adjusts seven ways. When a lightweight child hops into the front passenger seat, the passenger-side air-bag indicator reads "off" before the operator can complain that he doesn't know where to find the switch.

With a "dynamic laser cruise control" option that we read about but could not test - it's available only in the Limited - Avalon's speed adjusts in traffic while in cruise-control mode, which sounds promising. The cautionary disclaimers take up two full pages in the manual, however. (They suggest that dirty reflectors on the car you're following could befuddle the system, and that luggage in your trunk could lift the Avalon's nose such that your laser won't get an accurate reading.) In other words, you'll still have to drive - at least a little. Still, it's a wonderful concept. And a benchmark sedan.

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