What Drives Us episode

2013 Ford Fusion Energi Plug-in Hybrid

4 Jun , 2016  

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– Tony Schaefer

(Check out all our car review videos at our Youtube channel: Youtube.com/WhatDrivesUs and click “Playlists”)

Special Note: I drove the Ford Fusion Energi during a particularly cold December week in order to test its cold-weather performance. Taking exterior pictures in sub-freezing temperatures is not pleasurable. For that reason, there are not many personal pictures accompanying this article.

2013 Ford Fusion Energi

I have to admit I was really looking forward to driving this car. My wife owns a 2010 Fusion Hybrid and really likes it. I wanted to see this new generation of Fusion and experience how Ford has incorporated the plug-in technology. After all, this might be my wife’s next car.

Simply driving the car wasn’t enough. I wanted to test it. Hybrid drivers know their car will return the best mileage in warm months. Every plug-in manufacturer promotes the mileage earned by a fully charged vehicle. What I wanted to do was see how well the Fusion Energi would perform during a Chicago December being plugged in only sporadically. By capturing a snapshot of how the Energi performs during difficult situations, I hope to get a sense of how good it can be during the best of situations. Additionally, I hope to get the car again during the summer months for a true comparison.

Exterior

Fusion Energi GrillComing from the 2010 to the 2013 is a huge change in terms of the exterior. Parked side-by-side, you would have difficulty identifying them as versions of the same vehicle. Gone is the high-chrome grill and in its pace is the large open grill that has become Ford’s standard. I know there are many people who liken it to high-end luxury cars and they praise the aggressiveness. I’m not blind; I see it. It’s just not my cup of tea.

Having said that, the leading edge of all Fusion models does indeed take an aggressive stance. In darker colors, the combination of the grill and headlights presents a frowning, angry profile.

This front-end extends beyond he front wheels more than I anticipated. Couple this with the hood slanting down away from the driver and I had very little idea where the front of the car actually was at any point. Parking was a fun game of trying to pull into a spot without curbing out.

All-in-all, except for that front-end, I can’t help but to describe the Fusion styling as under-toned. Ford keeps with minor details and only a few accent lines. Ford has an established history with established models; there is little need for them to go out of their way to make their vehicles flashy and showy. They keep the Fusion clean and in doing so keep it classy in my opinion.

J17721Of course, the easiest way to identify the Fusion Energi is the plug port just forward of the driver’s door. From some angles, it’s easy to miss. This port is covered with a round door that swings open when pushed. It’s lined with an LED ring. When unplugged, there is nothing very interesting about it. When plugged in, however, the ring pulses and provides a visual indication of the battery’s state of charge by illuminating a growing portion of the ring until it’s fully charged/illuminated. That’s a nice touch and avoids the need to power up the car to check charge level.

Interior

2013 Ford Fusion Energi Titanium DashboardLike the previous hybrid iteration, the 2013 Fusion Energi dashboard has an analog speedometer flanked by two full-color LCD computer screens. This is, by far, one of my favorite features with the Fusion vehicles. Rather than dedicate space to single-purpose gauges, Ford has computerized the displays so you can decide which gauge to display. The car I drove was the SE model, not the highest-tier Titanium. For this reason, I feel that my displays and options were limited. At least I hope so because our 2010 Fusion Hybrid had better displays than the 2013 Energi I test drove.

The driver controls the display of the dashboard screens with arrows mounted on the steering wheel. There are two sets of arrow buttons: right thumb for the right side and left thumb for the left side. For the most part, using these buttons with your thumb is okay. Unfortunately, the [up] button is curved around the top of the steering wheel post making it almost physically impossible to easily push with your thumb without adjusting your grip on the steering wheel. Even once you get comfortable with the arrow buttons, changing the screens can be a navigational nightmare. After a while, I came to know where the screens were located in the maze of levels and sub-levels. It made me wonder whether you’re supposed to simply pick a screen and stick with it. Switching is certainly discouraged. I found the audio entertainment navigation on the right side much easier to navigate than the vehicle information displays.

2013 Ford Fusion Energi Steering WheelEasier to reach are the cruise control buttons on the left and phone controls, voice controls, and volume controls on the right. The greater scheme of the layout becomes apparent when you consider the left side of the dash is vehicle information and the left side of the steering wheel is car-related. The right side of the dash is infotainment and the right side of the steering wheel controls media. Once you get it, you get it.

The dashboard coloring is very easy on the eyes. Ford has employed shades of red and blue to create a nice, strain-free ambience. To offset the cool, relaxing hues, there is a “Ready” indicator, which lets the driver know the car is started and ready to be driven. If the overall dashboard can be described as relaxing, the “Ready” light, by comparison, can be described as “highlighter-green LED shone directly into your eye.” I can understand the need for a “Ready” light since powering on the car rarely includes starting the engine. However, once the car is shifted into Reverse or Drive, the “Ready” light becomes moot. Ford is not alone in the “Ready” indicator, of course, but it is the only car I’ve driven that left a blind spot on my retina.

2013 Ford Fusion Energi Capacitance ButtonsMy first impression of the overall cockpit and center console was underwhelming, but not in a bad way. The lines are clean and capacitance buttons replace most of the conventional air conditioning buttons and knobs. This means they use the electrical capacitance of your fingers to trigger the buttons. When you remove the push buttons and dials found in most cars, you are rewarded with a cockpit that is clean and sleek.

A word about capacitance buttons. These function on essentially the same principle as smart phones in that the small electrical current in your finger closes the circuit and activates the button. The idea of capacitance buttons in a vehicle was clearly conceived in warmer climates. One morning, it was 8°F. The car had been sitting outside all night. After knocking the fresh snow off the car all I wanted was warm air and heated seats. But what really warmed my heart was taking solace in the mental image of a Ford executive somewhere outside Dearborn, Michigan, being forced to remove his gloves – just like I had to – in order to use the buttons that heat his car.

And don’t even try to tell me about those gloves with the special fingertips so you can use your cell phone. I shouldn’t have to buy new gloves just to heat my car. I was 8°. A couple months later, it was -12° with a wind chill of -40° and I’m scraping ice off the windshield. That’s not special capacitance glove weather; that’s hockey glove weather.

Once engaged, the cabin heats quickly and efficiently. I base the heating of the cabin on a couple things: when I can remove my gloves (voluntarily) and when the engine will shut off. These factors tell me that the cabin is warm, the engine is warm, and the A/C is no longer drawing huge amounts of heat off the engine. In the Fusion Energi, I had reached both qualifications within about a mile and perhaps ten minutes. Granted, when you’re sitting in a cold car, this seems like a long time but it’s faster than other cars I’ve tested. Heated seats, as always, help.

I tend to adjust the dashboard illumination quite a bit based on natural lighting. I bump it up during the day and tone it down in the evening. Rather than a rheostatic wheel seen in other cars, the Fusion Energi uses up and down arrows to allow specific stepped adjustments. I personally prefer this; it just feels more precise.

In my wife’s 2010 Fusion Hybrid, the headlights do not automatically turn off when the car is powered off and locked. Rather, it reminds the driver to turn them off with a series of chimes. I normally admit when I am being petty but in this case, how hard is it for the car to know that it is parked and powered off? For the cost of the Fusion Energi, in the 21st century, headlights that turn themselves off should be standard.

The headlights controls themselves left me a little baffled. Employing a dash-mounted dial to the left of the steering wheel, I found it neither easy to see, reach, or understand. I am one of those drivers who uses the headlights as a communication method with other drivers. On one commute, I wanted to blink my lights to indicate that I would yield right-of-way to a car wishing to turn in front of me. This requires only a twist of the stalk in my current car; in the Fusion Energi I couldn’t figure it out and ended up snubbing the poor guy.

Under the center console, Ford has taken advantage of a dead spot by building in a storage cubby. Due to its height, location, and depth, I found it considerably easier to put things into this cubby than to fish them out again. One little gem was the cigarette lighter power plug which could be used as a phone charger.

In the center armrest console, Ford has fitted 2 USB ports, audio/video ports, a cigarette lighter power port, a pen holder(!), holder for business cards, and removable tray. Fortunately, Ford redesigned this area: it’s oddly oriented and nearly impossible to access the USB in the 2010 Fusion Hybrid; in the 2013, the ease of access is impressive. Topping it off is the cord minder and the ability to close the armrest without pinching the cords.

2013 Ford Fusion Energi Aux AudioI plugged my phone into the USB to see if it could access my playlists. Within a few seconds of plugging in, the active playlist started playing though the stereo system. This is as expected, of course, but some cars do not play well with Apple’s iOS 7. The phone quickly appeared as a media source on the central screen and all steering wheel controls were active. It started indexing my phone for the voice-activated commands.

I’ll finish my interior review with a feature I hadn’t seen in a while: individual driver presets. Once you find the seat position and side mirror combination that works for you, push and hold one of the buttons to program it. Up to three presets can be stored allowing multiple drivers to have the car return to their perfect settings the next time they get in. Or you could do what I did: program one of the buttons to move the seat to a position that makes it easier for you to get in and out.

Drivability

So many times people ask me about the differences of driving a hybrid versus a conventional car. No doubt a plug-in hybrid would make their heads spin. Rest assured, the accelerator is still on the right, the brake is still on the left, and the steering wheel still makes the car change direction.

One thing I noticed immediately was the amount of engine noise. I’m familiar with continuously variable transmission (CVT) systems generating high RPMs and sounding like they are working harder than they actually are. All that is not new to me. What surprised me was the volume at which the Fusion Energi engine came in and operated. Though it was hard to feel the transition from EV to engine, there was no mistaking the sound when the transition occurred. Case in point: I was near the front of a line of waiting cars being held by a construction flagman. When he waved for us to start moving, the Fusion Energi spun up and the flagman gave me a look as though I was intentionally revving the engine.

Engine noise aside, I did enjoy the overall drive. There were two separate snow storms during my time with the car. At no time did I feel concerned or unsafe. The Fusion handled very well in deep and falling snow. It was extremely capable in turns on slippery roads. My wife was not too pleased with the flashing traction control light on the dash, but that’s how you know it’s working. And work it did.

(OK, I admit that I was playing around and testing the traction control. Don’t tell my wife.)

The Fusion Energi has a push-button parking brake. It’s just a sign of the times, I know. But there’s just something about yanking that hand brake or stomping the foot brake that really lets you know it’s engaged. Pushing a button seemed too removed from the process. The same could be said for push-button start, I’m sure. No doubt we’ll see this in more and more cars in the near future.

The car I drove didn’t have a HomeLink button allowing the driver to program the garage door code into the car. Something like this eliminates the need for a separate and bulky garage door opener. As I said before, I didn’t have the top-of-the-line Fusion Energi but my wife has the top-end 2010 Fusion Hybrid and her car doesn’t have HomeLink either. Is this a Ford thing? Are they convinced people would rather have an ugly garage door opener hanging from their visor? Respectfully, I disagree.

Hybridability

As expected, getting excellent mileage in a plug-in while it’s running on electricity is easy. I don’t have the tech to calculate the amount of energy consumed to convert grid power to wheel power so I can’t speak to the MPGe. Some people might be a little disappointed in that; this makes it easier to identify the people who worry too much.

As I mentioned previously, I didn’t want to take advantage of fully recharging every night. I didn’t want to start each day with a full pack. What I wanted was to get an impression of how the Fusion Energi would perform for those people who only get to charge intermittently. To that end, I plugged in only two of the six nights. Also, it was Chicago in December. It was cold. I only parked in the garage on those nights I charged the batteries. Most mornings, the car was starting cold with a fully discharged battery in below-freezing temperatures.

First, I want to talk about charging. Ford uses what they call “My GO Time” scheduled charging. This is amazing! Not only can you schedule when to charge the batteries, you can tell the car to preheat the cabin to a preset temperature. Let’s discuss each of those components. There is ongoing debate whether it’s best to charge the car as soon as you get home or right before you drive it. Using “My GO Time”, the Fusion Energi will start charging when it needs to in order to be ready when you need it. Thus, it uses the ‘right before you need it’ philosophy. Also, preheating the cabin while the car is plugged in not only saves you from sitting in a cold car; it saves you from having to run the engine to generate heat. It’s part creature feature and part efficiency. One last thing about this: one morning I was running about ten minutes late. The heater was still engaged maintaining the designated temperature. I was in love.

2013 Ford Fusion Energi Included PlugThe Fusion Energi uses the standard J-1772 plug and comes with a 25-foot cord. I was concerned that it might not be long enough but it was fine. Even though the placement of my garage’s plug was nowhere near where the car’s plug port is, there was plenty of cord to spare. One point Ford stresses: Do Not Use An Extension Cord! This point is stressed repeatedly just about everywhere there’s a mention of plugging in the car. Just don’t do it. Most of the time, the car will be plugged in unsupervised; you won’t be there if the extension cord fails; you won’t know until your garage is burning down. Just don’t do it.

Driving the Fusion Energi, the car rolls surprisingly well. Why am I surprised? Because you can normally tell when a car is using regenerative braking or just capturing energy from spinning the wheels. There is usually a feeling of drag when you take your foot off the accelerator. The display screen indicated that regeneration was taking place, but I couldn’t tell which made me wonder just how much energy was being captured.

fusion_energi_EV_ButtonWhen I wanted to use the EV button, I found it awkward to reach. It’s located to the right and of the center-console shifter. In other words, exactly opposite the driver. It’s as though it’s hiding behind the shifter and my morning mug of coffee. Seriously, it’s inconvenient enough to be discouraged. I can understand that it’s not a good idea to overuse the EV button for multiple reasons, but this placement just felt like an afterthought. As though someone at the last minute realized they didn’t have a location for the EV button. Finally, someone said, let’s make it easier for the passenger to use than the driver. On the grand scheme of things, though, if this is what I’m complaining about, I’m just whining.

You might be wondering why I was reaching for the EV button so much anyway. Well, the Fusion Energi just didn’t seem to use EV Mode very aggressively on its own for my taste. I’m willing to conceded that this might be weather and temperature related, but I know my route and I know where a hybrid should be able to shut off the engine. Including my wife’s 2010 Fusion Hybrid. After a couple days, I realized the Energi just wasn’t going to shut it off so I took matters into my own hands. This is where I want to drive this car again in the summer to see if the lack of EV was indeed temperature related along with my desire to heat the cabin.

The gauges I used the most were the ones that showed the amount of demand I was placing on the car versus the amount of demand it could support before disengaging EV mode. Using this gauge, I could adjust pedal pressure to stay in EV mode as long as possible to minimize the use of the gasoline engine. The same gauge provided real-time MPG results. In a nice touch, Ford has the battery charge level nestled up next to the gas level in an unassuming manner. Simple arrows point up when charge is being added to the battery and down when charge is consumed. I’m guessing the average driver isn’t going to dwell on the battery state of charge as much as I do and this minimalistic approach provides information without over-exaggerating its importance.

2013 Ford Fusion Energi Dash - Collage

These displays are easy to read and very informative. I feel as though they provided the right blend of information for me to really work the car for maximum mileage. Speaking of which, let’s look at the numbers.

I’m going to be throwing around mileage numbers so keep in mind that the 2013 Fusion Energi is rated at 44mpg city and 41mpg highway for a combined 43mpg.

The average temperature on my morning commutes was about 16.5°. I did not shy away from using the heater and the heated seats. On the mornings when I started with a fully-charged pack, I achieved 180.2 mpg at 14° and 81.5 mpg at 8°. The difference between the two drives was the route: one is slightly longer but more conducive to hypermiling; the other is highway almost the whole way. On the mornings when the car sat outside and started with a dead plug-in battery, I averaged 38.4 mpg. Considering the circumstances, I consider this a commendable mileage number representing manageable drop in mileage. Shoot, I know Prius owners who see sub-40 mpg in the winter.

Ford claims the Fusion Energi should be able to travel up to 21 miles on a fully-charged pack. Perhaps it was the temperature, but the farthest I was able to travel on plug-in charge was 14.4 miles. I expected a hit to the range; it’s very well documented that every battery pack loses performance in cold temps. But from 21 miles to 14 miles is a 33% drop. That’s rather significant, in my opinion.

The evening commutes were usually warmer than the mornings though twice it was snowing and one evening I was hurried. Because my morning commute is far enough to completely drain the plug-in charge, my evening commute was always just as a normal hybrid. Five commutes, averaging 15.5°, gave me an average 38.3 mpg. This is just slightly less than my morning commutes but due to terrain, I see this in my own car and am not surprised.

For the entire week, my average mpg was 42.2, elevated by those two days when I fully charged. Let’s pretend I charged every night and averaged 130 mpg every morning (the average of 180 and 81). Perhaps I could expect to see close to 170 mpg. This should be above 200 mpg in the summer months. I shouldn’t have to tell you how excited I would be to see those numbers.

Familability

The Fusion, in my opinion, is a really good family sedan. I’m not just talking about the Energi; I’m talking about the Fusion in general. Ford has had many years to get the dimensions correct and, as far as I’m concerned, they’ve done a good job.

You can easily fit a family of four; each person gets their own cup holder. There are two in the front and two in the back. All are located in the center of their respective rows making for easy reach for all. Additionally, each of the four doors has a bottle holder built in. The placement of the cup and bottle holders keeps them within reach but also out of the way.

It seemed to me as though the back seats were just a bit stiff. It would be fine for hauling some coworkers to lunch, but as a kid I wouldn’t want to sit back there for a long drive. I drive to my folk’s home a few times a year: 375 miles each way. The kids are only as well mannered as their butts are comfortable.

The general slant of the back half of the roof seems to encroach on headroom in the back. I’m 5’9” and my hair was lightly brushing against the ceiling.

And then there’s the trunk. Let’s put it this way: the trunk comes preloaded with a 7.6 kW battery. That’s my best effort at putting a positive spin on it. Seriously though, it’s a plug-in hybrid. The battery has to go somewhere. Every plug-in hybrid makes the same – or similar – trade-off. There’s no getting around it. The Fusion Energi is no different. So, in my opinion, to complain about the battery encroaching into the trunk is just silly. If it bothers you that much, just buy the Fusion Hybrid.

Bags in the Trunk - 500I found that the trunk has room for five paper shopping bags. Maybe six if you cram. It measures 39” wide, only 13” deep, and 20” tall. Officially, the trunk is around 8 cubic feet. This is about half that of the regular Fusion. If trunk space is your biggest concern, due to kids activities, golf outings, tailgating, etc., then you might not have much luck here. The battery shape makes for some interesting trunk dimensions including a “shelf” on top of the battery that is 7” tall and 18” deep.

The 12-volt battery is located in a cubby just to the side of the trunk. I’ve seen this in other cars and assumed there’s a jump point under the hood. If this is new to you, it simply means there is a terminal under the hood that you can use with jumper cables and it’s as though you were connected to the 12v directly. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the button or lever to pop the hood so I never found out. Seriously. I searched for several minutes in all the expected places then I searched in oddball places. Then I looked for the manual in the glove box but there wasn’t one.

Overall Conclusion

There is no denying that I honestly enjoyed driving the Fusion Energi. It seems to have an easy grace and comfort level that is difficult to explain. The exterior is well designed but also seems understated. With such an established line, the Fusion doesn’t really have to try very hard to be taken seriously in the marketplace.

The layout of the dash is very well thought out. The placement of the displays clearly follows a well thought out, logical design approach. This makes it easy to find what you’re looking for without taking your eyes off the road to search for it. The red and blue hues of the displays are easy on the eyes. My only critiques can be on the placement of some buttons and switches. No doubt, once you get accustomed to them it’s no longer a problem.

My cold-weather testing revealed that the Fusion Energi is capable of pretty good mileage even in relatively difficult situations. Without plugging in and charging the batteries, I achieved a respectable mileage of 38.4 mpg. This is what my wife averages in her 2010 Fusion Hybrid in good weather. I’m anxious to see how the Fusion performs in the summer. I predict I could come close to 50 mpg with minimal effort. But, of course, the power of the plug-in is the 21 miles of EV, which should stretch your gas money substantially. Depending on your situation, 21 miles might get you through a whole day.

Fitting a family of four into the Fusion Energi is a snap. The kids will be comfortable in the back except, perhaps, on long trips where I feel the seats might be a bit too stiff. Taller back seat occupants might get claustrophobic when their heads hit the ceiling. Half of the trunk is dedicated to housing the plug-in battery, which severely limits the amount of stuff you can fit back there.

Let’s say you have a minivan or some other vehicle for long road trips and hauling the kids’ soccer gear and whatnot. The Fusion Energi is a very nice and comfortable daily commuter car. Using “My GO Time” you can start every morning with a full battery and a conditioned cabin. With 21 miles of EV and decent pure hybrid mileage, my conclusion is simple: there’s a very high probability this will be my wife’s next car.

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2016 Toyota Avalon Hybrid

16 Apr , 2016  

Thanks for visiting us.  We have started posting video reviews on our Youtube channel.  We post new ones regularly.  Click the image to the left to check them out. 


-Tony Schaefer

Special Note: The Avalon Hybrid I drove was on loan from Wayne Mitchell, a dear friend and great guy. This review would not be possible if not for his generosity. Thanks, Wayne!

The Avalon is an established car. Like all established cars, it has its own set of stereotypes and demographics. It’s Toyota’s largest, most nicely appointed, and highest priced car. These are the very things that cause most people to assume the target demographic is aged somewhere between 65 and dead. Toyota is aware of this stigma and reimagined the current generation of Avalon in order to attract younger buyers. Someone in their 50s, perhaps.

Another interesting facet of the Avalon story is that it’s the car people buy when they don’t want to buy a Lexus. For multiple reasons, some people would rather have the Toyota nameplate than Lexus: perhaps they don’t want others to think they are trying to put on airs, perhaps they are concerned a Lexus would be a target for vandals, or maybe they just don’t like the overall feel of Lexus cars. Add to those personal factors the very tangible fact that the Avalon costs less than its ES Hybrid brother.

Exterior

First of all, I am not a large vehicle driver. When I first sat in the driver’s seat, I felt like a kid trying to wear his father’s shoes. The Avalon is a 195.3 inches long. That’s more than 16 feet! The free-throw line on a basketball court is 15 feet. Yes, I admit it: my own inexperience with large vehicles is what caused me so much uncertainty with the length of the Avalon. Let me say this, though: after a few days, I got accustomed to it and the overall size of the car never crossed my mind again.

The side view of the Avalon is a study in elegant lines. Nothing too fancy or elaborate. Mostly straight lines extending from the front of the car to the rear. The slope of the roof backwards from its highest point is subtle and continuous creating a stubby truck door but also creating a huge rear window. Both of these provide excellent rear visibility.

The front fascia is where Toyota added some excitement. Toyota has updated the grill with their now-standard large grill and vertical fog lights. The Toyota emblem is high in front, on a horizontal accent between the LED projection headlamps.   This does two things: simplifies the front for a cleaner appearance and provides a more aggressive – dare I say manly – presence in a rearview mirror. Certainly, it might not be for everyone but it does show that Toyota wants younger buyers.

Avalon uses Smart Key technology allowing the driver to keep the keys in their pocket or purse and interact with the car. One feature that is much appreciated is that the interior lights come on when the fob approaches. The nicest touch is that the lights do not blink on instantly but rather ramp up over the course of a couple seconds as the fob approaches and slowly dim when the fob moves away. It’s a subtle difference that makes a world of difference.

Smart Key also allows the driver to unlock the doors by grasping the handle and lock the car by swiping the door handle from the outside. After using smart key to unlock the doors, owners will find it confusing when other cars don’t work the same way.

I previously mentioned that the Avalon Hybrid was the brother of the Lexus ES300 Hybrid. Here is a breakdown of the numbers, just in case you aren’t convinced.

(all in inches)           Avalon             ES300

Wheelbase:             110.0                   110.0

Length:                     195.3                   193.3

Width:                       72.2                     71.1

Height:                      57.5                     57.1

The inch or two differences can easily be explained away with sheet metal bending, grill styling, etc.

Toyota badges their hybrids high behind the front wheel. Lexus badges their hybrids low in front of the rear tire. The Avalon Hybrid, which is part Toyota and part Lexus, wears its hybrid badge low behind the front tire. It’s closest to the front tire like other Toyotas but low like Lexus. There is no way that is a coincidence.

Interior

Avalon Seat Programming

Avalon Seat Programming

Many car enthusiasts will talk endlessly about how much they love their cars; the Avalon Hybrid is a car that takes the relationship to the next level and will love you back. The big comfy seats are a sheer joy to sit in. With six different seat control settings, if you can’t find a comfortable arrangement it’s not the car’s fault. Once that perfect seat position is identified, you can program it into the seat memory system. Not only will pressing the memory button return the seat to the preferred settings, the memory system can be linked to each of the two fobs so a couple can share the car in comfort.

When climbing into the Avalon, the driver seat is back and low. This provides relatively unhindered access for the driver. When the car is started or the seat belt clicked, the seat adjusts automatically (either the last memory button pressed or the fob used). On the one hand, the way the seat assumes your perfect contour in a controlled glide is like being hugged. On the other hand, it is triggered by clicking the seatbelt, which means the belt tightens as you slide forward. Though the belt is allowed to extend with you, there were a few times when I felt it was necessary to readjust the belt after the seat stopped moving. It’s pretty trivial and after a while, I adjusted my routine to power on the car, let the seat adjust, and then fasten the seatbelt. No biggie.

It should come as no surprise that the Avalon has dual front climate zones. With a touch of a button, you can sync the passenger to whatever the driver has set. Or the passenger has temperature controls to create their own climate zone. Additionally, the rear seats have an adjustable climate zone. The controls and vents are located in the back of the front armrest along with on/off controls for the heated rear seats. Seeing all this rear climate control reminded of the numerous times my mom would ask, “are you getting air back there?”

Avalon Rear Heating

Avalon Rear Heating

About the overall climate control, in my opinion, the best thing the driver can do is set it to AUTO and leave it alone. The Avalon never seemed to struggle when it came to maintaining temperature. This led me to believe that it was efficiently using the air conditioning system and being stingy with energy. Even when it was cold outside, the cabin warmed quickly.

Avalon Seat Warmers

Seat Temp Controls

Adding to the cold day comfort are front heated seats. The driver and passenger have rheostat knobs with three stops to the right for heating and three to the left for cooling. If someone buys the Avalon hybrid over the conventional hybrid because they are concerned about fuel consumption, the heated seats certainly help in that area. By directly heating the body, there is less need to waste energy heating the cabin.

The hybrid Avalon borrows parts from the conventional version, including the driver’s central dashboard setup of a digital information display planked by two analog dials.

Avalon Dash

Avalon Dash

The most notable difference is that the tachometer of the conventional Avalon is replaced with a Power Meter dynamically indicating the flow of energy. The dial starts at what would be the 9:00 position on a clock. As the dial moves clockwise, the driver can gauge how hard to press the accelerator to remain in battery-only mode before the gasoline engine engages. If the driver exceeds the 12:00 position, the car is officially in “Power” mode. It’s when the dial is pointing between 8:00 and 9:00 that the driver knows energy from the tires or brakes is being recaptured and used to regenerate the hybrid battery.

The message center, in the center of the dash, is a beautiful full-color display of system information and driver messages. Though the screen is relatively smallish, the graphics are well designed and rendered very nicely. Seriously. Above the message center is one of my hybrid annoyances: The [READY] light. That light is there to let the driver know that even if the engine is not running, the car is ready to be driven. I get that. However, once the driver has shifted into gear and started moving, why doesn’t the light go off? When on the interstate, I was continuously reminded – at 70 MPH – that they car was ready to drive. Really?

Pop quiz: how many times have you looked all around the inside of a car trying to find the button that opens the trunk? Some manufacturers seem to enjoy a certain level of thrill in hiding the trunk button. The Avalon takes a completely different approach; the trunk button is clearly marked and easily within reach to the left of the steering wheel. That is a simple example of the little things Avalon gets right; there are no hidden buttons. Everything is easy to find.

The steering wheel uses a simple design but packs a whole lot of functionality. Typical for Toyota vehicles, audio volume is controlled with the left thumb. Additionally, the left thumb controls the message center. The message center has multiple screens to flip through; a few provide the opportunity for interaction. With a 4-directional outer rocker and a central push-button, the Avalon allows the driver to quickly find the desired screen and perform any desired configuration. Once the driver gets the hang of the screens and buttons, it’s very intuitive.

Avalon Steering Wheel

Avalon Steering Wheel

On the right side of the steering wheel are the phone controls: pick up an incoming call or hang up the current call. Additionally, the driver can invoke voice-activated commands with the press of the button. On the bottom of the right side is the button to enable/disable the dynamic radar cruise control, which will be covered later.

The infotainment center features a 6.1-inch multi-functional display. This screen is used to view navigation, control music, make phone calls, and display how the car is managing energy. If equipped, this screen also provides real-time weather and traffic.

Toyota continues to promote its Entune suite of applications, including Bing Internet search, iHeartRAdio, MovieTickets.com, OpenTable, and Pandora. When enabled and connected to the Internet, the map screen provides real-time traffic information. Though the Avalon Hybrid doesn’t need fuel as often as the conventional version, when the time comes, it is surprisingly easy to look up nearby gas prices and station locations. When the best one is located, a single touch will provide navigation information straight to it.

It has to be said: the volume and tuning knobs are HUGE! The only possible explanation is that after laying out all the buttons, there was a lot of extra space so they beefed up the knobs just to fill the space. They are ridiculously oversized considering they each do only one thing: change volume and change tuning. The tuning knob is not only very large, it is on the passenger side of the screen. At first, you might think this is no big deal; but it is an established –albeit undocumented – rule of the road that the passenger is not allowed to mess with the radio. Placing a tuning knob of gargantuan proportions closest to the passenger is just begging for a fight. #CarFoul

Avalon Infotainment Center

Avalon Infotainment Center

For my money, one of the best technologies introduced applied to a car’s central console is the capacitance button. I simply love the clean, smooth look of buttons that both are and aren’t there. Avalon‘s use of capacitance buttons creates a clean and smooth central console. The matching widths of the multi-function screen, CD slot, the climate screen, and the buttons below create a level of geometric symmetry that is so precise yet subtle that most people probably won’t even notice it.

One of the hot tech additions to cars these days is the Qi charger, which will wirelessly charge Qi-compatible smartphones. By the way, it’s pronounced like “Chee”. In the Avalon, the Qi charger has a secret: it slides up to reveal a secret compartment. It’s not huge, mind you, but it’s got a USB port, cigarette charger, and the power button to the Qi charger. It’s large enough to hide a wallet and a few other little things that might be best left out of sight. Notice, in the following image, that there’s a slot in the bottom of the shelf; this way, even if your phone requires a cable to charge, you can feed it through and keep the cable mess tucked away. I love efficient uses of space and this little gem made me giddy.

Avalon Qi Charging and Cubby

Avalon Qi Charging and Cubby

Drivability

The Avalon Hybrid gets is power form a 2.5 liter 4 cylinder engine capable of producing 156 horsepower. It is coupled with a 105 kW electric motor. Combined, these two components can get the Avalon from 0 to 60 in about 8 seconds. Not too shabby for a car of such heft and comfort as the Avalon. The way Toyota has tuned the acceleration makes for the smoothest 0 – 60 acceleration I’ve ever experienced.

It did not take long to figure out why the Avalon has blind spot monitoring. It’s because I literally could not see anything behind me to the right. Until I made the seat almost as tall as possible, I literally could not see anything. At 5-foot 9 inches, I felt tiny. When considering the entirety of driving the Avalon, that was the only negative I encountered. But when considering road safety, it’s a big one. The blind spot monitor became my best friend.

Avalon Power Modes

Avalon Power Modes

The Avalon Hybrid has three different driving modes. These modes are used to adjust the ratio between pedal pressure and motor response. In Normal mode, there is a 1-to-1 ratio in that the car responds in concert with the amount of pressure applied to the pedal. When Eco mode is engaged, the dash takes a green hue and the amount of response to pedal pressure is reduced. In Power mode, the display is red and the response is increased. When in Power mode, the amount of “gitty up” is startling. For a large vehicle, it really has some spring in its step.

In addition to these three modes, there is also EV mode, which forces the gas-powered engine to stay off and power the car exclusively from the hybrid battery. This mode is intended only for short distances such as shuffling cars in a driveway and should not be used as an attempt to improve overall fuel efficiency.

Allow me to rant a little bit. If the driver moves the shifter all the way to the bottom, the car is in drive. Move the shifter to the left and now the driver has gear control and can shift up or down manually. To be clear, the Avalon Hybrid uses an electronically controlled Continuously Variable Transmission (eCVT). It uses software programming to continuously and instantly find the most efficient gear ratio for the situation. With a flip of the wrist, the driver can override that. Rather than write several paragraphs about how silly it is to electronically introduce fake gear settings to a CVT so the driver can play make-believe sports car driver, I’m just going to make it clear that I’m not a fan.

I had to drive the car from Chicagoland to the North side of Milwaukee. It’s entirely interstate and this is where the Avalon really shines as a large, comfortable, cruising vehicle. As though the seats weren’t comfortable enough, as though the highway mileage was high enough, the icing on the cake was dynamic radar cruise control (DRCC). If you are unfamiliar, here’s a quick explanation: You know that 2-second gap you are supposed to leave between you and the car in front? At the press of a button, Avalon will use radar to dynamically maintain that gap for you.

There are a few things to keep in mind, though. For one, there are really two things going on here. You set the speed you want to travel, say 70MPH. And you also set the distance from the car in front. Avalon will adjust to whichever is the slower of the two. This means if the car in font slows down then you slow down also but if the car speeds up to 75MPH you will not follow because Avalon will top out at 70MPH, where you set it. This way, you can set the upper speed limit you are comfortable with and know Avalon will never exceed it.

One interesting twist is that if the car in front slows more than desired, just changed lanes. As soon as the Avalon realizes there is no longer a car in front, it will accelerate to the set speed. You will pass the slow car and continue on until catching another car and the DRCC kicks in, maintaining a safe distance.

Familability

The Avalon is a top-notch family car. After so many iterations of the car, Toyota has nailed it down. The front seats are as comfortable as you will find in a sedan and the rear seats are equally as nice. Though you technically could seat three in the back, it would seem as though that’s not really the intent. Two very comfortable people can enjoy the back seat with an armrest between them.

There is ample headroom all around, even in the rear, which is typically where cars fall short. To further increase the comfort of the back passengers, the Avalon has a rear window sunshade. With the press of a button, the driver can raise the sunshade. Showing that Toyota has thought of everything, when the car is shift into reverse, the sunshade automatically drops for rear visibility and raises up again when the cars shifts out of reverse.

The trunk is an ample 14 cubic feet. This is a sizable trunk considering most manufacturers sacrifice trunk space for the hybrid battery. For example, the Honda Accord Hybrid’s trunk is 12.7 cubic feet and the Ford Fusion Hybrid is 12.0 cubic feet. That 14 cubic feet is large and spacious compared to the Fusion Hybrid trunk, which has odd shaped walls as they bends around the battery.

Hybridability

Avalon Trip Summary

Avalon Trip Summary

It should be assumed that the purchaser of an Avalon Hybrid is interested in mileage. To facilitate this, when the car is turned off, the Message Center in front of the driver displays fuel economy information about the trip. In doing this, it allows the driver to compare today’s commute to yesterday’s, for example. The only downside with this display is that it seems to come and go much too quickly. The driver must be actively looking for it, and even then, a blink will miss it.

Once the engine was warmed (which didn’t take long), the transmission transitioned from gasoline engine to electric motor seamlessly. Drivers of early hybrids reported rough shut-downs in which the engine would shudder or even kick when shutting down. This was never the case with the Avalon. Whether sitting at a stoplight or rolling down the street, the switch was always easy to miss.

The EPA rating for the Avalon is 40 city / 39 highway / 40 combined. With a 17 gallon tank, around 680 miles per tank should be expected. I had the car for only 479.5 miles, not long enough to completely deplete the tank. The bulk of my driving was my regular workday commute; there was one day of interstate driving. When I gave the car back, it reported that there were 212 miles remaining to empty, which equates to 691.

The Avalon reported my overall mileage at a respectable 43.5 MPG. This is a respectable 8.75% above the EPA estimate. However, Wayne filled the tank to his satisfaction and when he did the math by hand it calculated only 40.5 MPG. This is almost exactly at the EPA estimate. I cannot account for the variance other than to speculate that the onboard mileage calculator skews the results upward. In fact, searches online reveal this is not uncommon for cars that report their own mileage. At the end of the day, the hybrid’s 40 MPG is substantially better than the conventional Avalon’s meek 24 MPG.

Overall Conclusion

The Avalon Hybrid has two primary actual ‘competitors’: the conventional Avalon and the Lexus ES Hybrid. Nearly doubling the Avalon’s fuel economy and priced $5,000 less than the Lexus are two very strong selling points.

The Avalon does not fall into the “family sedan” true sense of the phrase in that no owner in their right mind would risk damaging the gorgeous leather with car seats and kids prone to throwing things best left outside the car. It’s not really a car you would see hauling kids to and from a muddy soccer field. The Avalon is a grown-ups’ car that adults will respect and enjoy, whether riding in the front or the back. The only kids riding in the back of an Avalon are home visiting from college.

But the true question is: can the Avalon’s new styling, Sport mode, and advanced technology capture a younger crowd than its predecessors? That’s a tough sell. Given the overall size of the vehicle, it still feels like an older person’s large barge. Toyota will struggle to get younger buyers into actually trying the car to find out just how nice it is. This is a shame because it truly is a really nice car.

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audio and video,What Drives Us episode

#174 Nevada Hates The Sun

18 Feb , 2016   Video

This week we speculate how the Nevada legislature can so stupid, visit the Chicago Auto Show *and* the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto and much more. Patrick Connor, Mark Coughlan, Paul Guzyk, Tony Schaefer and Russell Frost dive deep into world of crazy lawmakers and cars.

And funny enough, as I was posting this show this morning, this tweet from actor, Mark Ruffalo showed up…Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 7.56.19 AM

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