Just by looking at the all-new 2013 Toyota Avalon — a car with a swooping, coupelike roofline; a big, bold face; available 18-inch alloys; and sheetmetal shaped with real tension — it’s evident the car’s personality has shifted. Dramatically shifted. Indeed, this Avalon is unlike any before — it’s sexy, sporty, and engaging . The old Avalon cars were anything but, with dowdy three-box exteriors, softly sprung suspensions, and loosey-goosey steering. They were akin to a waterbed on wheels. But, man, were they comfy cruisers. And if you’ve ever been horizontal on a waterbed, you know there’s an endearing quality to the sloppiness. So while I welcome the new Avalon with open arms, part of me is sad to see the old one, and others like it, sail off into the horizon.
A few years ago, when we did a top-speed test at a Chrysler‘s proving ground in Kingman, Arizona, we put former Indy driver Didier Theys behind the wheel of four mega-horsepower supercars. The biggest surprise of the day for me wasn’t that Didier circled the oval at over 200 mph in a ZR1; no, it was that he arrived to the high-speed showdown in a Ford Crown Victoria. Huh? An Indy pilot drives a big-bruiser taxicab? His reasoning was simple: He got his fix of ridiculous speed and stiff suspensions in race cars; on the road, he wanted comfort, space, and the benefit of blending in. It dawned on me that it’s the mere mortals of the world, the ones not making a living on the track, who dream about driving sporty cars fast on public roads.
After that epiphany, I had a fresh perspective on the Crown Vics, Lincoln Town Cars, Chevy Impalas, Buick Lucernes, and Toyota Avalons of the automotive landscape. Sure, they were big and sloppy compared with legitimate sporty sedans — the kinds of road-hugging four-doors we tend to praise in this magazine — but they had legitimate merits of their own.
Take the Town Car. Lincoln’s announcement that it was ceasing production after the 2011 model year sent livery companies and large-car aficionados scrambling. A 2012 Automotive News story told how an Oklahoma City dealer traveled to California auctions every month to buy as many low-mileage Town Cars as possible — he purchased around 20 a month, and sold every one. Coincidentally, when I was on the press program for the new Avalon, my airport shuttle driver — a nice lady named Gretchen, who operates her own livery company and was transporting me in her new Chevy Suburban — told me the car she really wanted was a newer Town Car. But she couldn’t find one. With no other big, comfy options out there — at least not costing six figures — she opted for the Suburban. Lincoln’s new MKS and MKZ sedans were just too sporty compared with a Town Car, and the MKT crossover, the Town Car’s livery replacement, didn’t have a big enough back seat.
Chevy, too, is following this trend. Its 2014 Impala, a nameplate that used to signify a vast, cushy ride, shares nothing, notably its dynamics, with its predecessors. Detroit editor Todd Lassa took a spin in an 2014 LTZ test mule and said, “The large Chevy gets around moderately fast country road corners with well-controlled body roll for a 2-ton full-size sedan.” Think we ever wrote a line like that about the old Impala? Not a chance.
I enjoy and value the benefits of a sport sedan with a taut, responsive chassis that makes me feel safe, engaged, and connected to the road. Sometimes, though, I just want to detach and roll on a waterbed.