2010 Toyota Avalon Limited – Toyota's Flagship Sedan

When Toyota first launched its luxury brand Lexus, the roles of each nameplate were clearly defined: Toyota offered vehicles for the average consumer, and Lexus catered to the more upscale buyer. Now, almost 20 years later, the lines between Toyota and Lexus have become less clear. Toyota's Avalon, a near-luxury, full-size sedan is a perfect example of that blur.

Base-priced at $ 27,945 for the entry-level Avalon XL and $ 35,285 for the top-end Avalon Limited tested here, Toyota's flagship sedan is so competent, it's more than qualified to cannibalize sales of the ES 350 in the company's upscale Lexus division. The Avalon features a 111-inch wheelbase (1.7 inches longer than cousin Camry), a potent 268-horsepower 3.5-liter dual VVT-i 24-valve V6, and enough electronic advancements to satisfy premium buyers. The only place it misses true bliss is in interior quietness, which is compromised by wind noise at higher cruising speeds and by tire noise over rough surfaces.

The Avalon is impressive design-wise, especially in profile where its arched roofline and high beltline, and wheels pushed toward the corners, suggest Lexus and even Mercedes-Benz sedans. However the interior is distinctly muted in contrast to the rich-appearing finishing touches of luxury cars. Doubtlessly this is to keep the Toyota's price in check, and to keep it from challenging Lexus too strongly.

A primary benefit of the Avalon's stretched wheelbase is expanded rear legroom: At 40.9 inches, it's 2.6 inches more than the Camry and within millimeters of the $ 80,300 BMW 750i. The front seats are quite comfortable and feature eight-way power adjustments with power-adjustable lumbar support, a driver's seat cushion extension, and front-seat ventilation and heating. A couple of minor ergonomic complaints: The driver's knee airbag panel and the corner of the navigation-system door contacted our (admittedly lanky) knees in normal driving.

We put our bags into the Avalon's enormous 15 cubic-foot trunk and headed from Los Angeles to Monterey, Calif. for the annual summer Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance and collector-car auctions. Running a bit behind schedule at first, Toyota's navigation system (a $ 2,000 option that also includes a JBL sound system) worked reassuringly behind the scenes to guide us along with the quickest route while providing estimated travel time. At 70 mph the Avalon's engine turns a relaxed 2100 rpm, its VVT-i system adjusting the valve timing for maximum torque and efficiency. And when booting it to squirt around a lumbering truck, the power build was so seamless as to be undetectable, unlike on some other competitors' variable valve-timing systems. In fact, the Avalon's robust performance, low engine NVH, and passable fuel economy (we observed 25.3 mpg) make its powertrain a genuine standout.

Quietly efficient was the Avalon's six-speed automatic transmission. Operating just about as smoothly as a CVT, the transmission truly has a gear for every need, and its shift algorithms are right on target. As well, a Sequential Shift feature allows manual shifting for added control on winding roads, hills – or just for fun.

Additional premium features include a Smart Key system that replaces the traditional ignition key with a transponder that doubles as a remote door lock / unlock fob. As a result, one never needs to physically operate the fob to unlock the car or start the engine – the driver's door unlocks when you approach it, and simply pressing the Start button on the instrument panel (while applying the brakes) gets you going. Additional useful safety and convenience functions include crisp HID headlights with auto-leveling, rain-sensing wipers, and a power rear sunshade.

While these features have been in the industry for some time, the Avalon Limited boasts one newer technology in its dynamic laser cruise control (a $ 600 option), which uses a laser and special computer programming to keep pace with the vehicle ahead. Say you're booking along at 75 in the fast lane on dynamic laser cruise. As you gradually close on a slower vehicle, the system automatically reduces engine output to keep a safe following distance (a very long one at that) then resumes your previous pace when the other vehicle changes lanes or speeds up. So what if someone suddenly cuts in front of you? The system goes into save-your-bacon mode, reducing engine power, applying the brakes, and sounding an attention-grabbing beeper.

Fifty years ago, American cars almost promised us interstellar adventure with their space-age tailfins, V8 power and flashy interiors. The 2010 Avalon Limited has none of these, but with features like GPS navigation and dynamic laser cruise control, it's actually a whole lot closer to delivering just that.