There was a time when a large sedan was a common sight in American driveways, but lately the full-size four-door is more likely to be an unplanned upgrade at the Hertz counter than a deliberate dealership purchase. The Toyota Avalon continues to bang the drum for its tribe, despite similar models such as the Buick LaCrosse, the Chevrolet Impala, and the Kia Cadenza all bowing out of contention.
Although most of its competitors have been discontinued, Toyota continues to enhance the Avalon lineup. For 2021, Toyota adds optional all-wheel drive for those of us whose floormats are stained with salt. Unfortunately for those of us who like acceleration, the all-wheel-drive version is only available with a 2.5-liter four with 202 horsepower instead of the front-drive Avalon’s 301-hp V-6. The all-wheel-drive system is always sending torque to the front wheels, but if the front tires begin to lose traction, an electronically controlled coupling engages to send up to half of the engine’s torque to the rear.
Around town, acceleration is merely adequate. In our instrumented testing, the Avalon Limited needed 7.7 seconds to reach 60 mph and 15.9 seconds to complete the quarter-mile at 89 mph. That’s well behind the V-6-powered Avalon Touring’s 6.0-second sprint to 60 mph and 14.8-second quarter-mile time. The Arteon, Volkswagen’s answer to the all-wheel-drive Avalon, can hit 60 mph in 6.4 seconds and run the quarter-mile in 14.7 seconds. The Volkswagen’s turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder pumps out a whopping 66 more ponies than the Avalon’s 2.5-liter and is far more refined throughout its rev range. Good fuel economy remains an Avalon hallmark. Our test vehicle matched the Avalon V-6 model’s 34 mpg in our 75-mph highway fuel-economy test. In EPA testing, the four-cylinder version returns 28 mpg combined to the V-6’s 26 mpg.
Our Limited test vehicle came in at $44,699 and included the $1150 Advanced Safety package (including a 360-degree exterior camera, parking sensors, and rear automated emergency braking) as well as $379 illuminated door sills. All-wheel drive is also offered on the $6300 less-expensive XLE trim, but spending more for the Limited model takes the Avalon upmarket into the Lexus-sphere. The Limited brings adaptive headlamps, wood interior trim (sourced from Yamaha), a sunroof, leather upholstery, a 14-speaker JBL audio system, and a wireless smartphone charging pad.
Those high-end features and finishes give Toyota the evidence to credibly claim that the Avalon is a luxury car—or at least a contender in the middle ground between the mainstream and premium market segments. All-wheel drive will undoubtedly help widen the Avalon’s appeal to buyers who value that extra bit of traction under acceleration in snowy or rainy weather, but the four-cylinder sacrifices power and smoothness compared to the V-6.
If we had to choose—and until Toyota revises its lineup, we do—we’d get an Avalon with the V-6 and front-wheel drive. Because if you really want all-wheel drive in a roomy sedan and don’t want an Arteon, there are a number of luxury-brand sedans with all-wheel drive, turbocharged engines, and only slightly less rear-seat space. Sedans like the Acura TLX, the Audi A4, and the Volvo S60 aren’t quite as large as the Avalon, but they offer more refinement and performance for the same price as our Limited. All-wheel drive has its appeal, but the 2.5-liter four is a mismatch in a car as slick and comfortable as the Avalon.
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