Let's make one thing clear right up front: The 1995 Toyota Avalon is nothing more - or less - than a stretched, re-bodied version of the Toyota Camry V-6.

It is also a very ingenious and historic variation on the Camry. Even though it is only slightly longer than the Camry (190.2 inches versus 187.8), its clever interior design has made it what Toyota proudly refers to as "the roomiest sedan ever offered by a Japanese nameplate."Indeed, the Avalon is a six-seater when an optional front bench seat is substituted for the standard pair of buckets. And it is a large car by EPA standards.

The Avalon also completes Toyota's invasion of the last two segments of the auto market that the domestic automakers once had to themselves. Toyota became the first import to offer a full-size pickup when it fielded the T100 a couple years ago. Now, with the Avalon, it becomes the first to offer a full-size sub-luxury sedan.

The new Toyota differs in important ways from its domestic counterparts - cars such as the Ford Crown Victoria and Chevy Caprice. It is a unibody, front-drive V-6, not a body-over-frame, rear-drive V-8. But like its home-grown competition, it is aimed at midsize-sedan owners who want more room and comfort.

A replacement for the much smaller Cressida sedan, the Avalon reminds me of a number of other Toyotas I've driven: nicely engineered and manufactured - and forgettably styled. The Avalon's body isn't as interesting as the Camry's. If it evokes anything, it would be a kind of dressed-down Lexus LS 400.

Once you get past the styling, there is little not to like about the Avalon. Its excellent fit and finish, coupled with its comfortable ride, solid feel and low interior-noise levels, make it a pleasant, satisfying car to be in. And the fact it is so lively and nimble for its size makes it surprisingly enjoyable to drive.

The Avalon's snappy acceleration derives in part from its relatively light weight. Toyota engineers were able to hold Avalon's weight down to 3,263 pounds, which is just 22 pounds heavier than the midsize Camry. When you couple that Slimfast reading with a 192-horsepower version of the Camry's 188-horsepower, 3-liter V-6, you're left with very sprightly expressway merging and passing.

The Avalon's fully independent suspension combines a nice ride with composure and agility in a fast corner. Four disc brakes stop the Avalon effectively, especially when it is equipped with an anti-lock braking system, as the test car was.

The interior of the Avalon is attractive and ergonomic. Driver visibility is good. The instruments and controls are nicely laid out, and the seats are comfortable and supportive, although they could do with a tad more lateral support. There is good shoulder room front and rear, and plenty of back seat legroom. The trunk affords a generous 15.4 cubic feet of cargo volume.

The Avalon is reasonably priced. The well-equipped XL model that I drove starts at $22,758. The more upscale XLS opens at $26,688. Standard equipment on the base model includes a four-speed automatic gearbox, air conditioning, power outside mirrors, tilt steering, stereo/cassette with power antenna, cruise control, and power windows and door locks. The XLS tacks on such amenities as an anti-lock braking system, alloy wheels, automatic climate control, a power driver's seat, an upgraded sound system, keyless entry and a theft-deterrent system.

Toyota Avalon XL:

Base vehicle: Front-wheel drive, 3-liter engine, four-speed automatic transaxle, power steering, power disc brakes, 15-inch steel wheels, P205/65R15 all-season radials, dual air bags, power mirrors, tilt steering, center console, tachometer, intermittent wipers, stereo/cassette, power antenna, air conditioning, power windows, power door locks, cruise control, rear window defogger.

Test model: Anti-lock braking system, 15-inch alloy wheels, premium sound system, power front seats, floor and trunk mats.

Base price: $22,758

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Test model: $25,689 (inc. shipping)

EPA city rating: 21

Test mileage: 21

Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles bumper to bumper, five years/60,000 miles on powertrain.

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