Strange edges, a weird surface tension, the overhanging tail lamps, the oddly McLaren 720S-esque lower door cut, and of course the all-grille-all-the-time front end; all of this translates to a car that is not particularly fun to look at from any angle. I know the Avalon is aimed at baby boomers, and I’m about as far removed from that demographic as possible, but they have functional eyeballs too, right? Toyota has built a passable almost-a-Lexus in the Avalon, and they should be proud of that fact, but why did they have to make it look like this? As much as I am loathe to hate on a properly good quasi-lux sedan while we’re in the midst of an all out CUV-pocalypse, I couldn’t bear to have this car in my driveway simply on aesthetic merit (and that says a lot, because I drive a 986-generation Boxster). That said, if you’re looking for a big four-door, the Impala is dead and the Chrysler 300 is about a million years old. What’s the competitive set for this car? A Kia Cadenza, and what else?
In the interest of full disclosure, Toyota flew me to San Diego to test the new Avalon (as well as the Corolla Hatchback, review coming next week), they also put me up in a nice hotel and fed me nice food.
The Avalon design ethos has been split into two different models, and both of those models have two different trim levels. On the lux side of things, you’ve got the base XLE and the high-spec Limited. On the sportier side, there is an entry XSE and a higher spec Touring. For some reason, that sporty-oriented Touring model is the heaviest of all the Avalons. The Avalon Hybrid is not available in Touring spec. You can tell the two types apart by their grille, as the XLE/Limited have chrome slatted grilles, while the XSE/Touring feature this piano-black gaping maw. It is worth mentioning here that all of the grille below the Toyota emblem is not open for airflow, it’s simply stylized bodywork. The chrome slat grilles are an improvement, but in either case, Woof, that is a face even its mother would shy away from. The headlights on XLE and XSE are reflector based, and look alright, but the main upsell of the higher Touring and Limited models is the full LED headlamps and laser ablation tail lights.
To begin the day, I was in an Avalon Hybrid XSE. Unlike the other Avalon models, which carry a V6, the Hybrid is fitted with the familiar 2.5-liter inline four. System net horsepower is 215, which seems a bit on the low side for a nearly 4000 pound sedan, but it actually moves the big lump of car quite well. You’re never really going anywhere quickly in the Avalon, and as long as you drive it with that mindset, it’s not bad. Recently, I’ve been in a lot of cars that ‘drive smaller than they are’, which is to say they feel spry and lithe beyond what their size might belie. The Avalon, however, feels every bit of its sixteen-and-a-quarter feet long. It’s not unruly by any stretch, but it’s hardly a handling ace. I found myself driving this car in much the same way someone would drive a Panther-chassis Lincoln Town Car, slow and relaxed.
If you opt for the Hybrid, you’ll allegedly get fuel mileage in the mid-40s, which is great, and the new Hybrid is actually less expensive than the 2018 model, which is also great. Unfortunately, I couldn’t seem to get anywhere higher than the mid-30s in my stint with the car. On the outside, you’ll get Toyota’s hybrid-specific blue grille badge, a door emblem flourish, and standard shutters for the grille. On the inside, you’ll get a couple extra menu options on the screens, and a rear seat that is 10mm higher than the V6 non-hybrid car. The batteries sit back there under the rear seat. I’m 6’2″, and when I sat in the back seat behind the driver’s seat that was adjusted to my height it was a little cramped. If you’re shorter than me, you’ll fit fine. If your driver is shorter than me, you’ll fit fine. If you have the non-hybrid model, you’ll fit fine. One of the major problems with the back seat, however, was that the door panel armrest stuck out so far into the passenger compartment that it pushed my knee several inches toward the center, destroying inches of potential comfortable knee room. It felt a little bit like flying Spirit.
Both drivetrains were fine in the Avalon, as all non-hybrid models feature a 301 horsepower direct-injected 3.5-liter V6. The hybrid is equipped with an artificially stepped gear CVT that isn’t great, but doesn’t really do anything wrong. The V6 cars have an 8-speed traditional automatic where sixth is a one-to-one gear and 7th and 8th are both seriously overdriven highway gears.
After the Hybrid, I swapped for a V6 powered Touring model, the interior changes between the two models seemed minimal, with both being reasonably comfortable seats and a nice wide center console. I would have liked more right knee room as a driver, as the infotainment system widens out significantly to take up some of the room where my right leg wants to sit, but that’s the same across all Avalon models. The sportier XSE and Touring seats don’t jibe real well with the attitude of the car, and it really doesn’t make much sense for a car like this to have paddle shifters. (mini rant: why does everything need to have paddle shifters? Even CVT cars have them now!)
One more critique on the interior, the dashboard is layered with four different materials and colors. I described it as ‘a four-layer bean-dip of a dashboard’ when I drove it, and I can’t come up with a better explanation all this time later. On the sport models, the door has a 3-dimensional triangular flourish of textured plastic. On the lux models, that flourish is wood (above). This interior doesn’t lend itself well in either trim, but it’s certainly an improvement with the wood bits.
The 19″ wheels of the Touring (shown above) are stylish. It’s a five-axis machined design that Toyota seemed extremely proud of. I can’t help but think that an 18″ wheel with more sidewall would have been more appropriate for a large sedan, anyway. Even the 18″ wheel on the Limited and XSE I drove seemed to have too short a sidewall. The car certainly didn’t crash over bumps, but it would have added just a smidge more comfort.
The Avalon doesn’t provide anything particularly new or exciting, but it does most everything you’d expect it to do fairly well. The one thing that Toyota should have figured out by now, however, is an easy-to-use navigation system. I’m not sure if it was just because this was a pre-production unit, but my driving partner and I could not figure out how to get the GPS navigation route to cancel navigating once we changed our mind on where we wanted to go. We went through seemingly every menu and option on the danged screen, but it wouldn’t do what we wanted it to. If TomTom had it figured out twenty years ago, why is a huge company like Toyota still having trouble?
The buttons and switchgear are nice, and operate the way you’d expect them to. I do like that the infotainment system has stayed with some buttons and knobs instead of touch-screen everything. I do wish the knobs had a little more click-style back, as they are simply smooth sweeping knobs. It’s not something I’d give up on the car for, but it’s a minor annoyance. Another gripe, even if you order a car without navigation, you’ll get a button that says “Map” to the left of the screen; it does nothing but mock you for being a cheap bastard. The driver gauges are simple and easy to read, and the optional heads up display is incredibly non-intrusive.
The final car I drove for the day was a nicely equipped Limited model. The multi-color interior actually played well in this model, as the seats and steering wheel were trimmed in a tan leather that helped lighten up my mood. The door panels and seats were nicely quilted, as well, which is a really nice touch. The XLE and Limited models don’t have an intake sound generator, and a quieter exhaust, making this a slightly nicer place to sit for a while. I intentionally drove this car out late in the day to ensure I’d get stuck in San Diego traffic for an hour or so. This car excels at low-speed highway creeping, and was comfortable enough to keep me from road raging.
Here is the Avalon’s pricing structure. I’m inclined to believe the XLE is the bargain here.
XLE hybrid, $37,395;
XSE hybrid, $39,895;
Limited hybrid, $43,695
Long story short: Would I buy one? It’s not really my bag, but I’d way rather have this than any crossover. Would I recommend one for my parents? Yeah, they’d probably like it.