U.S. engineering team leads 2013 Avalon program

  • 11-Jan-2013 12:15 EST
RandyStephens - Avalon chief eng.jpg

Avalon Chief Engineer Randy Stephens. His primary team is based in Toyota's facilities in Ann Arbor and Plymouth, MI.

Since its original introduction in 1994, Toyota's Avalon sedan has been one of the most refined and sumptuous cars in its segment, rivaling its pricier Lexus cousins in every metric. But the competition wasn't sitting still in the last couple design cycles, catching up to Toyota's flagship in critical areas such as NVH and even leaping ahead in others. So Toyota's engineering leadership handed the MY2013 Avalon program over to a team of sharp young American engineers based primarily in Toyota's Ann Arbor and Plymouth, MI, product and technical centers. 

AEI Senior Editor Lindsay Brooke caught up with Chief Engineer Randy Stephens during a late prototype drive to learn more about the program.

Q: What’s the Toyota code for the platform that underpins Avalon, and when did you begin development?

We kicked off this program in mid-2008. It’s based on our K platform which supports seven vehicle nameplates, including Camry and Lexus ES, Venza, RX, and Highlander. Avalon is European D-segment and U.S. EPA midsize.

Q: What were the greatest challenges for your development team on the 2013 Avalon program?

For starters, we’re in one of the toughest market segments in the world, and our outgoing model is already really, really good. We knew we had to up our game in interior amenities, particularly HMI (human-machine interface) and our infotainment package.

Increasing rear knee and head room was a critical area of improvement, according to all of our customer data. Maintaining leadership in NVH, achieving top-of-class fuel economy while increasing vehicle performance, and engineering in the hybrid-electric powertrain were among the many targets that challenged us. We knew the car was ready for the HEV powertrain.

Body development was also high on the list. We worked hard on increasing structural rigidity, and the exterior surfaces on this car were some of the most challenging ever for Toyota. They’re full of double-reverse surfaces and very tight radii.

Q: What was the competitive set your team used in developing the new Avalon?

Our set included the Buick LaCrosse, which we think had the best balance of ride and handling in this class; the Ford Taurus, which we thought had the lowest road-noise intrusion; Chrysler 300; Audi A6; the previous generation Nissan Maxima, and the Hyundai Genesis, which was our NVH bogey.

Q: Talk about improving the Avalon’s structure while maintaining your weight class.

As you know, reducing mass while adding a lot of feature content is a major challenge! It was no different on this program. In the end we were able to reduce the body-in-white mass by 5%, thanks to increased use of high-strength steels. They also contributed to the stiffer structure, as did the addition of 70 new spot welds, which also help improve damping and ride quality. Rear-suspension attachment points are 36% more rigid than the previous model.

Q: Randy, as the North American Chief Engineer, how did you work with Toyota engineering management in executing this program?

Mr. Terashi [Shigeki Terashi, President and COO of Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America] reviewed the program every two to three months. He pushed greater regional development of this product. He told us, ‘If somebody wants to do something differently, well, let’s try it!’ We had a lot more development flexibility as a result of Mr. Terashi’s approach.

For more on the 2013 Avalon, go to: http://www.sae.org/mags/sve/11712/.

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