2015 Toyota Avalon Hybrid XLE Touring: A comfortable, thrifty cruiser, but…

Once upon a time, automakers and the media conferred the “flagship” label on the biggest sedans – from the medium-priced Ford LTD to the luxurious Oldsmobile 98. Toyota’s Avalon, a large 4-door sedan, might have qualified for the label in an earlier time, but the market has moved on. Flagship status belongs to high-end SUVs and luxury crossovers.

In many respects, the long, wide, spacious Avalon is a throwback to those big Fords and Oldsmobiles. It accommodates five adults in comfort, rides smoothly and quietly, and comes with many desirable standard features. Its handling is crisp and predictable, considering its girth, and it has ample power despite numbers that would seem to suggest otherwise – at least in the hybrid version.

That’s the one we drove for a week in early August. Equipped with a 4-cylinder engine and electric motor rated at a combined total of 200 horsepower, it had a base price of $37,800 and was rated at 40 mpg city, 39 highway. Although not yet broken in, it delivered on the advertised fuel economy.

The Avalon is available only as a four-door sedan with front-wheel drive. The base model, equipped with a 268-horsepower V-6, is priced at $32,285.

For the additional $5,000, hybrid buyers get a higher level of standard equipment, as well as 8 to 19 more mpg. Our “Ooh La La Rouge Mica” Avalon Hybrid XLE Touring featured blind-spot monitor, cross-traffic alert, backup camera, dual-zone climate control, Entune premium audio with satellite radio, leather upholstery, power front seats with heaters, and push-button start. Body side moldings, carpeted floor mats and a few other items added $552 to the price.

The Avalon has been around for 20 years, and it’s known for a cushy ride that’s reminiscent of those wonderful old American highway cruisers. The 2014 and ’15 models ride more firmly. Once boring to look at and not very engaging on the road, the current version of the Avalon is more European in character and styling.

We’ve driven quite a few hybrids over the years, from the “mild-hybrid” models favored by General Motors a few years ago, to the iconic Toyota Prius. But we’ve never experienced anything quite like the hybrid Avalon. It’s hard to tell it’s a hybrid, so seamless is its performance. For a working person with a long commute, a tight gasoline budget and two or three passengers, the Avalon hybrid is almost ideal. Except …

Today’s drivers prefer to sit high above the highway, and they demand the flexibility and all-weather capability of SUV and crossover models. That may help to explain why the Avalon, unavailable with all-wheel drive, is one of Toyota’s slower sellers. Through July, the 2015 Avalon’s sales have dipped 10.8 percent. By contrast, sales of the Highlander, a midsize SUV, are up 9.1 percent.

Rated a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Avalon also earned an overall 5-star score in government crash tests.

Steven Macoy ([email protected]) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.

Price: $39,177

Engine: 2.5-liter inline Four with electric motor, 200 horsepower combined, 156 lb.-ft. torque

Transmission: continuously variable automatic

Drive: front-wheel

Weight: 3,966 lb.

Suspension: MacPherson strut front and rear

Wheels: 17×7-in. alloy

Tires: P215/55R17 all-season

Seating capacity: 5

Luggage capacity: 14 cu. ft.

Fuel capacity: 17 gallons

Fuel economy: 40 mpg city, 39 mpg highway

Fuel type: regular unleaded gasoline

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