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While checking out the 2013 Toyota Avalon models at the International LCT Show in February, an operator enthused about how it’s the perfect vehicle for chauffeured sedan service.
Except for one thing: It’s badged as a Toyota, he said. He told the representatives to remove the “Toyota” label from the car to widen its appeal in a luxury vehicle market.
Well, after a round of test drives, with one of us driving the 2013 Avalon XLE and the other the 2013 Avalon Hybrid Premium, we really don’t see the label problem. Toyota has refined its livery sedans to the point that they blend right into the black car luxury mix, inside and out. If the only problem with a high quality car is its symbol, or label, then that’s the type of issue you can work through.
Limousine operators experimenting with the Avalon report clients don’t care if it’s a Toyota. Maybe that’s because so much of America drives one or has driven one at some point. Or because we are entering a no-labels era, focusing instead on hard-core quality and value. Or because the dreadful recession and slow recovery have made us mature a little faster.
For LCT Magazine’s test drives, Editor Martin Romjue drove the Avalon XLE gasoline model, and [former] associate editor Michael Campos, the Southern California freeway commuter, was relieved to get the hybrid version.
Martin: 2013 Toyota Avalon XLE
The smooth, quiet ride, V-6 power, and the legroom reminded me of the Cadillac XTS, although the Avalon, priced at about $31,360, does not have all the tech gadgets found on an XTS, priced at $43,495.
Toyota is able to sell the Avalon at this price level because it focuses on the luxury basics. There’s no sunroof, built-in navigation, satellite radio, or gadgets that drive up the price. Its simple, clean lines on the redesigned body-style and tighter rear-end give the structure and shape the heft of a solid luxury sedan. Ample leg- and head-room in the right rear seat [with right front seat pitched forward] are suitable for any chauffeured client.
There’s plenty of power and presence on the road, with ample energy to accelerate. Cornering is irrelevant in a chauffeured vehicle, because the last thing a chauffeur should do is cause a client to lurch from fast swerves, sudden starts, and/or roaring entries onto the freeways. But in case a chauffeur needs to quickly get to the next client, just saying, the Avalon can zip and zoom.
The 16 cubic feet of trunk space provides enough room for two corporate luggage sets, each consisting of: Big roller suitcase, a small suitcase, and a carry-on bag/briefcase. [The hybrid model has 14 cubic feet of trunk space due to battery positioning in the rear of the vehicle].
Some minor areas to improve: Other versions of the Avalon, including one I test drove in 2011, have a partial recline feature for the back seats, allowing an additional 10% pitch. This should be added to future livery sedan models, as it directly enhances the client’s luxury experience. The car also could use some rear seat fan/AC controls to complement the rear-seat radio controls.
But don’t take my word for it. This all sounds better coming from real limousine operators, so I asked three of them how the Avalon has fared in their fleets.
Facts: 2013 Avalon XLE
Michael: 2013 Toyota Avalon Hybrid Premium
The volatility of fuel costs will always be a thorn in the side of chauffeured transportation operators because it eats directly into the bottom line. In an age where business costs keep rising, operators must think strategically to stanch cash drain while keeping service quality. The 2013 Toyota Avalon Hybrid Premium does both, with its efficient hybrid drivetrain and sleek contemporary design.
I test drove the 2013 Avalon Hybrid for one week through various levels of traffic on Los Angeles’ notorious freeways and Orange County’s suburban roads, sometimes alone and sometimes with passengers. So how did it perform?
The main reason a chauffeured transportation operator would consider a hybrid vehicle is to cut fuel costs; low-emission benefits tend to be welcome but secondary. Since I normally drive a gas-slurping V-6 Chevy Impala, it was a real pleasure to see the Avalon’s digital dashboard screen indicate above-40 average mpg throughout my test.
When driving at speeds below 25 mph, the vehicle runs in all-electric EV mode, provided there’s sufficient battery charge. I was able to retain EV mode up to 30 mph in some cases, after which the gasoline engine kicked in. When I applied my brakes, the EV mode kicked back on and the battery received a charge through the regenerative braking system, which captures the car’s momentum and turns it into electricity.
Drivers also can manually select EV mode with the push of a button. It will only activate if the speed is low enough. If the car is moving too fast, selecting EV mode will prompt an error message on the dashboard.
Here are the final numbers after my weeklong test:
Not once during the seven days and 400 miles of testing did I need to refuel. From an efficiency standpoint, the Avalon Hybrid exceeded my expectations.
In addition to the EV mode mentioned above, the Avalon Hybrid also has ECO and SPORT modes, both manually activated by a button near the gear shift. ECO mode automatically reduces throttle response and limits the climate-control system to emphasize more efficient driving. Mashing the accelerator while in ECO mode will not make the car go any faster.
SPORT mode, on the other hand, quickens throttle and transmission response, tightens the steering, and holds gears longer during deceleration.
When driven in normal mode, the Avalon Hybrid does not feel lacking in power, although during one instance when I drove three passengers, it felt strained at 60+ mph highway speeds. Switching to sport mode gave it a little kick, but the strain was still noticeable. I also experienced a mild “catch” when the vehicle progresses from electric motor to gasoline engine, usually when accelerating from a stop, regardless of how smooth the start.
Facts: 2013 Avalon Hybrid Premium
Facts: Standard equipment on both models
As we’ve often stated before, a vehicle is more than a pile of parts and mechanical processes. It makes a statement, offers meaning, and picks up perceptions as it traverses America’s massive automotive culture. You really are what you drive, even in places well beyond Southern California.
So what’s the bottom line for the Toyota Avalon’s future in the chauffeured transportation industry? Some trend lines and points that we offer to consider:
Speaking of Hollywood, if posturing celebs can step out of the smaller compact Toyota Priuses still in some chauffeured fleets, then wouldn’t a middle manager or executive client chauffeured in an Avalon Hybrid be even hipper to the times we live?
So, if you still have a problem with the Toyota Avalon, remember, it’s not the car. It’s you.
SIDEBAR: No Complaints, Bigger Profits
Scott Pizzo, President of Park Place Transportation in Fairport, N.Y., added a 2013 Avalon Hybrid to his fleet on Jan. 19. So far, no negative comments, no major issues. Pizzo makes sure he runs the Avalon on the longer client runs requiring more mileage.
“We have huge gas savings,” Pizzo said. “It’s more than adequate in the back seat. You do not get the Town Car quietness of full-size luxury, since you do hear some more road noise. But it’s not enough to have anyone make a comment.”
And while some chauffeurs have reported trouble getting in and out of the driver’s seat, the rear compartment is perfect for the passengers, Pizzo said. Clients who rode in the Avalon did not know of it in advance. No one objected or even commented.
Pizzo charges $65 for airport transfers, the same as for a Lincoln Town Car. He makes a bigger profit margin, as a result. He plans to add another one to his 16-vehicle fleet by next year. “The highway fuel economy has been 35 mpg and is helping improve our profit margin on long distance trips. In stop and go traffic, the hybrid can’t be beat.”
• • • • •
A Genuine Black Car
Sunshine Shuttle & Limousine of Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., owned by operator John Finch, plans to stick with its Avalon sedans, since it’s a winning formula — $30,000+ price tag, 300,000 miles longevity, and good fuel economy — has proven it to be a superior livery vehicle.
“We’re big fans of the car, plain and simple,” said Alan Roberts, sales and marketing director for Sunshine Shuttle & Limousine. “The price point and ride are far superior than what you’d expect for other vehicles in that range. Our guests have commented on it and frequently request it by name, something we rarely hear when booking our other cars. New riders are impressed with the legroom in the back, mostly because the length of the car conceals that amenity.”
Roberts finds amusing the view that the Avalon is not a genuine limo vehicle. “Never ones to follow trends, we intend to ignore those comments, and so far it’s been working out very well for us. We’re excited to continue using the Avalon.”
• • • • •
Ready for the Long Road
Alan M. Candeub, President of Park Avenue Limousine Inc. in Trevose, Penn., says that while he’s unsure if the Avalon will be his primary fleet vehicle, he will buy more. He likes the appearance, pricing, warranty and reputation. Candeub also has the benefit of experience with one Avalon already at 160,000 miles. At the time he bought it two years ago, he was taking a risk. “The vehicle was well received, especially considering the Town Car was still deeply rooted in the consumers mind.”
“My main concern was durability,” Candeub said. “The vehicle has only had routine service performed. To this point, service has been tremendous.”
Candeub bought a 2013 Avalon Hybrid this year after comparing the various models at trade shows and after running Lincolns, Mercedes-Benz and Chrysler models in his fleet. “This time, the mileage is in the 35-40 mpg range. The new appearance package as well as the ride and options has far exceeded our expectations. I believe the reception for the vehicle is far superior this time, due to the fact that the consumer has adjusted to the downsizing of the industry sedans. I do support the vehicle as a complement to our fleet.”
Vehicle Pick of the Week: The upscale van is laid out like a stretch, except with more room and amenities.
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