According to my fifth-grade daughter, the rear seats on the redesigned 2011 Toyota Avalon are so comfortable that they "make me want to take a nap"'”I think that's what Shakespeare calls to "damn with faint praise." As for Toyota itself, even the automaker's party line is that the goal of the full-size sedan is "Evoking a time when travel was sophisticated, elegant and comfortable."
Reading between the lines here, it's clear from the get-go that the Avalon'”like the one the folks at Toyota lent me for a week'”is ceding any pretensions about being a "driver's car" to the competition. But here's what's interesting: Doing so is actually to the Avalon's advantage. There aren't many cars left that still cater to the stereotypical luxobarge crowd, yet the demand for these vehicles is still relatively high. In fact, it's probably a lot higher than automakers realize'”well, let me fine-tune that sentence a bit. It's not that there's a lot of people out there proactively shopping for cars with floaty soft handling and cloud-light steering; it's just that, for many customers, that kind of "driving" experience simply doesn't factor into the purchase decision. As long as the car in question delivers in other areas, they're more than happy to buy it.
Full Speed Behind
First, a little detour: There was a time when full-size sedans made up a core segment in the U.S. marketplace and an integral part of the Big Three's lineups. They were the family haulers of choice and, as is obvious from the nomenclature involved, set the standard for what a "normal" car should be. After all, that's really what "full-size" means, right? It's like buying a full-size set of golf clubs or a full-size refrigerator or what have you.
But the gas crisis of the 1970s started changing the ol' paradigm here, and by the time automakers started building big vehicles again in the 1990s, they had changed their focus to SUVs and pickups. For these and other reasons, the basic car hierarchy gradually shifted so that the subcompact/compact/midsize progression became the norm instead of something closer to compact/midsize/full-size. The effect of this was to unlink the full-sizers from most company's high-volume expectations, so that many of the current big sedans, like the Avalon or Ford Taurus, are now configured with premium amenities, premium price tags and the kind of low-ish annual sales numbers usually reserved for premium vehicles.
The only full-size sedan to crack six-figures in annual sales last year was the Chevrolet Impala, which did so courtesy of fleet buyers. The Ford Taurus sold 68,859 units last year, the Avalon just 28,390.
To put that into context, in February, the Corolla found 25,860 new buyers and the Camry rang up 27,212 sales'”in other words, Toyota's top sellers each garnered about the same number of customers in the shortest month of this year than the Avalon did for all of 2010.
Evaluating the Updating
Of course, one of the reasons so few Avalon customers showed up last year was that the car was in the last few months of its life cycle, with Toyota launching the updated 2011 model late in 2010. Thus, through February, the new Avalon has seen sales jump up by 128 percent, although this represents just 3,821 customers. The two-month totals for the Corolla and Camry are at 46,441 and 45,357, respectively.
To me, the solution is a simple one and can be accomplished through some savvy repositioning: As the U.S. market's most luxurious Toyota, the Avalon has outlived its usefulness'”and lost its place to the Lexus lineup. But considered a full-size complement to the Camry and Corolla, it retains plenty of potential for growth.
As those smaller cars have proven year after year after year, there are hundreds of thousands of buyers who put other vehicle characteristics ahead of driving dynamics and exterior design flair, which are the two weakest parts of the Avalon package. Against "true" luxury vehicles, or even products like the Buick LaCrosse or Chrysler 300, those deficiencies can look like deal breakers.
But as a bigger, nicer Camry, the Avalon would be likely to see bigger, nicer sales numbers, too.