2011 Toyota Avalon: No respectFebruary 14, 2011: 12:27 PM ET
That's right, Toyota's Avalon gets no respect. Ever since it was introduced in 1994, it has been derided as a "Japanese Buick" -- and that was long before Buicks became fashionable.
Many auto writers, perhaps subconsciously recalling their pre-teen years as Go-Kart racers, joked about the obvious efforts made to appeal to mature buyers, like simplified, oversized controls and a suspension more tuned for comfort than control.
That ignores the fact that Avalon has been a huge commercial success. It is based on a stretched Camry platform and is built alongside the Camry at Toyota's manufacturing complex in Georgetown, Ky.
It has also been a strong seller, even passing the 100,000 mark in 2000. All told, Toyota has sold more than 700,000 Avalons.
The third-generation Avalon first appeared in 2005 and is now well past its salad days. Both the interior and exterior are due for an update.
But the basic ingredients that make the full-size Camry the flagship of the Toyota line remain intact: traditional passenger car styling, ultra-comfortable seating for four, and a bulletproof 3.5 liter V-6 that provides seamless power and phenomenal fuel economy for a car this size: 20 mpg city/29 mpg highway.
For 2011, the Avalon got some electronic updates. A backup camera is now standard, the navigation system has real-time traffic information, and a brake override system is added. No unintended acceleration for this car.
The zephyr blue metallic test car carried the appealing sticker price of $35,984. The lower of two trim levels, it was still well equipped, with leather-trimmed seats, power moonroof, and heated outdoor mirrors.
The price included $2,989 worth of optional equipment, including navigation system, 12 speaker audio system, and heated front seats.
Driving the Avalon inspires a great feeling of confidence. This is a car that waits to do what it is told -- and then does it with dispatch and without fuss. Its steering and handling are worlds apart from Buicks of yore, and the compliant suspension was much appreciated on the lumpy roads of the late-winter Northeast.
Despite its passive personality, the Avalon can hurry when it has to. Acceleration from zero to 60 mph has been measured at a brisk 6.6 seconds.
Competition in the full-size sedan segment has been heating up lately. The Avalon competes with three popular models that are all newer -- and have gotten better press lately: Buick's LaCrosse, Ford's Taurus, and the Hyundai Genesis. They also happen to be less expensive. But none matches the comfort and cosseting.
The average age of an Avalon buyer is 64. That used to be considered old, but now that the first baby-boomers have turned 65, Avalon may be coming into its own.
One of these days, it might start getting the respect it deserves.