Special Coverage

Chicago Auto Show

Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.’s next-generation ‘11 Avalon, which bows today at the Chicago Auto Show and goes on sale this spring, features many updates from the outgoing model, including a reclining rear seat the auto maker says is a segment first.

“Evoking a time when travel was sophisticated, elegant and comfortable, the new Avalon possesses a distinctive new exterior style while offering a restyled interior rich with premium touch points and practical new technologies,” Toyota says in a statement.

The ’11 Avalon has the distinction of being the first Toyota vehicle whose development was led by an American-born chief engineer, Randy Stephens. The work was done at Toyota’s Calty Newport Beach, CA, studio and its technical center in Ann Arbor, MI.

The Avalon continues to be powered by Toyota’s 3.5L V-6 engine that produces 268 hp and is mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission.

Toyota says it was able to improve the new model’s fuel economy by 1 mpg (0.4 km/L) and the car now is estimated to achieve 20/29 mpg city/highway (11.8-8.1 L/100 km).

On the safety front, Toyota says the ’11 Avalon will feature a redesigned accelerator pedal and brake override technology. The current Avalon is involved in both Toyota recalls, covering accelerator pedals that can be sticky and/or snag on floor mats.

The ’11 Avalon has seven airbags; Toyota’s Star Safety technologies, including electronic stability control; and a tire-pressure sensor per wheel.

Design cues include a more squared shape, with a wider, larger grille, added chrome trim along the side and an Avalon logo above the license plate at the rear.

Headlights and taillights are a focus on the new model, with the car’s headlamps – multi-reflector halogen high beams with low beams that are halogen or high-intensity discharge – using “light pipes to create a signature, night-time appearance,” Toyota says.

The auto maker reshaped the Avalon’s taillights to lessen drag, improving its aerodynamics and also combined the stop, turn and side marker functions into one lamp.

Inside, the Avalon has matte wood-grain trim and easy-to-read Optitron gauges with graduated white illumination and white pointers set into smoked lenses, Toyota says.

The center armrest slides 4.7 ins. (119 cm) front-to-rear and is padded with “double density cushion material.”

In addition to reclining rear seats, passengers in the back row also get larger, more-supportive headrests and an electric sunshade to block out light and heat. The sunshade automatically rolls up when the car is shifted into reverse.

Avalon’s grades are whittled down from three in the ’10 model to two for ’11: Avalon and Limited.

The base Avalon grade has standard 8-way power leather driver’s seats, 17-in. alloy wheels, backup camera and moonroof. The Limited trim adds an 8-way power front-passenger seat with lumbar support, as well as cooled front seats.

Navigation is optional for both grades. A new database that is easier to search and input addresses and a computer-like on-screen keyboard are features of the system, Toyota says.

Bluetooth hands-free phone and audio streaming are standard on both grades, as are USB and MP3 ports. All available audio systems allow drivers and passengers to control MP3 players using steering-wheel switches.

The ’11 Avalon will continue to be assembled at Toyota’s Georgetown, KY, plant. Toyota sold 26,935 Avalons in the U.S. last year, 37.1% below year-ago volume, Ward’s data shows.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com