First Drive

2019 Toyota Avalon First Drive Review: A new hope

A revamped segment benchmark still leads the way

If the 2019 Toyota Avalon isn't fit enough to survive, then the entire full-size sedan species is doomed to extinction. It's really simple as that, because as the new-and-improved replacement for a car that was already well-entrenched as the segment benchmark, it stands the best chance of coaxing customers away from an onslaught of SUVs and similarly priced smaller sedans with fancier badges. Perhaps it could even snag a few people not yet old enough to collect Social Security.

That last point is key, because at 64 years old, the current Avalon's average buyer is actually a few years older than the segment average. While there's certainly nothing wrong with building a car for retirees, one must also acknowledge that fixed incomes and well, the inevitable march of time, will erode your customer base even more than it has (from about 71,000 when the current generation was introduced to about 32,600 in 2017). So, while Toyota isn't trying to capture young buyers, knocking a few years off that average would be nice.

To do that, Toyota has diversified the Avalon lineup, continuing its recent trend of offering variants of differing style and driving experience. There are a pair of "premium" trim levels, the XLE and Limited, and "sport" trim levels, the XSE and Touring. Visually, XLE and Limited models get horizontal bars and grey trim accenting the absurdly large grille, brighter trim, and a pair of trapezoidal tailpipes (the Hybrid's are hidden). Inside, there are warmer color combinations, including the Touring's distinctive "Cognac" leather accented by genuine wood trim from Yamaha. That would, presumably, be the Yamaha piano people as opposed to the sportbike or snowmobile divisions.

The Avalon XSE and Touring are the trims targeting younger buyers, and possibly those looking to upgrade from the current crop of surprisingly involving midsize sedans (including the Camry SE and XSE). That pair's gaping maw is done up in a textured mesh finished in gloss black, which also adorns the wing mirrors, rear lower valance, added lip spoiler and "Avalon" badging. There are also quad pipes and snazzier wheels.

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The sporty trims present a compelling overall look that doesn't seem contrived or the equivalent of your dad coming out of Hollister with a new wardrobe. The rear of both variants is particularly sharp (the sculpted taillights are pretty cool), while the shapely hip line, thinly tapered C pillar and profile in general are quite fetching. It's evocative of the new Lexus LS, though that shnoz manages to make Lexus' signature Spindle Grille seem subtle.

There's more than just visual differences, though, as each of the four trim levels has different tuning of the MacPherson strut front and new multi-link rear suspension. Handling precision was improved for the XLE and Limited (every Avalon benefits from a stiffer structure, thicker stabilizer bars and a lower center of gravity), but comfort remains the priority and the new suspension setup yields a suppler ride. Supple it most certainly is, yet floaty it doesn't seem to be. Joe and Esther P. Avalon Buyer should be quite happy.

The Limited's springs are 25-percent stiffer than those of the XLE, while stabilizer bar stiffness increases by 20 percent front and 86 percent rear when going from XLE to XSE. It's a difference you can immediately feel when driving the XSE, which has a more solid, hunkered down feel than both the premium Avalon trims and other full-size sedans. It's actually more in keeping with the Nissan Maxima, which is another mainstream entry with premium aspirations and pricing. That it still manages to have full-size sedan dimensions certainly gives it a leg up on the Maxima – as does its superior steering.

Indeed, every 2019 Avalon impresses with its steering's precision and natural effort. The latter is actually a little heavier than expected – a pleasant surprise for some, perhaps a concern for the arthritic crowd – but still fine at lower speeds. Like the rest of the Avalon driving experience, especially with the sport trims, it feels like it belongs to a normal, involving car instead of an aloof isolation machine. In fact, selecting the car's Sport mode only slightly increases effort to the point that it's only noticeable when really pushing hard (and who's really doing that in an Avalon?). There's no forearm-challenging heft just to make things seem sporty. Good.

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At the top of the dynamic pile is the Touring, which adds to the XSE's suspension adaptive variable dampers that, in typical fashion, constantly adjust themselves based on road conditions and allow the driver to choose among Normal, Sport, and Sport+ driving modes to achieve their ideal ride/handling balance. Normal basically adds extra comfort to the XSE's standard settings (which lets you feel a surprising amount of the road, perhaps even too much), while the Sport and Sport+ settings get firm enough to be a bit unpleasant on rough pavement. They do, of course, keep the car flatter around corners and provide a generally sharper driving experience. We're not sure if that's really necessary for any buyer of an Avalon, but hey, why not?

The Touring also sounds different. It gets a sport exhaust with modified baffles for a more noticeable warble during acceleration, but then engineers added an active noise control system that cancels out some resulting unwanted noise. There's also an intake sound generator and fake noise piped in through the speakers. Frankly, it didn't sound that great and seems rather pointless.

Attached to that exhaust, and indeed every 2019 Avalon trim, is the same 3.5-liter V6 and 8-speed automatic combo introduced in the new Camry. Producing the same 301 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque, it moves the 3,560 - 3,704-pound Avalon with expected ease. That's a significant upgrade of 33 hp and 19 lb-ft compared to the 2018 Avalon. Its horsepower is only bettered in the segment by the Buick LaCrosse and Chevy Impala, but those both weigh more. (Yes, there's the Hemi-powered Chrysler 300, but that's a real outlier).

Yet, the best Avalon powertrain choice could be the Hybrid. Possessing virtually the same styling and chassis tuning as the V6-powered trims (minus the unavailable Touring), the Hybrid pretty much differs only under the hood. Oh, and under the back seat, where the nickel-metal hydride battery has migrated to from under the trunk. Not only does this mean the Hybrid has the same 16.1 cubic-feet of trunk space as V6-powered models (the old one was 14 cu.ft. versus 16), it relocates a considerable amount of weight from beyond the rear axle to forward of it and down low. That improves the center of gravity, and although we didn't get to push any version hard enough to really notice, if the similarly set-up 2018 Camry Hybrid is any indication, the Avalon Hybrid may ultimately be the more balanced car to drive.

2019 Toyota Avalon

That's only a happy side effect, though. The V6 may manage best-in-class fuel economy of 25 or 26 miles per gallon combined (depending on trim), but it's shellacked by the Hybrid's 43 or 44 mpg figure (the outgoing hybrid got 40 mpg). That could easily translate into annual fuel savings of at least $600 – huge when you consider the 2019 Avalon Hybrid is only $1,000 more than the equivalent gas-only model. That's an unparalleled payback time for a hybrid.

Sure, the system's combined output of 215 hp is obviously less than the V6, but its acceleration is sufficient and an added motor for 2019 (which basically frees the drive motor from other duties) adds a bit more electric juice into the equation when starting off. This eases the load on the 2.5-liter, 176-hp four-cylinder and prevents some of the uncouth mooing and vibrations of other Toyota hybrids.

The interior sees an increase in style and quality over what already exceeded its competitors in both measures. The old design also looked quite a bit like the new Camry's, but the 2019 version goes its own way with a tall, rectilinear center stack that rises forth from the center console and seems to hover away from the rest of the dash like a free-standing tower. It's kinda cool and avoids the tacked-on iPad look many dislike, while still benefitting from the reduced visual bulk and elevated sightline that design allows. The area behind it is architectural in appearance, neatly integrates the air vents, and showcases different materials. Perhaps there's a bit too much going on, though, especially in the Touring's Cognac cabin, and the tower's "supports" are an unconvincing hard plastic knock-off of the squishy dashtop above.

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The tower itself features new, unique-to-Avalon switchgear that maintains Toyota's longstanding preference for keeping the climate control system separate from the infotainment (kudos). The latest Toyota Entune 3.0 system comes standard with a 9-inch touchscreen, WiFi, five USB ports, satellite radio, Amazon Alexa integration, and, for the first time in a Toyota, Apple CarPlay. The company said it will add Android Auto should customers demand it, but we're guessing it's trying to iron out a comparable agreement with Google as it did with Apple that prevents customer data from being transferred back to headquarters in Cupertino (which was apparently the hold-up for adding CarPlay).

Other features include Toyota's Safety Sense suite of accident avoidance and driver assistance tech, including full-speed cruise control, lane-keeping assist and automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection. LED headlights, dual-zone climate control, heated power front seats and SofTex vinyl that's far more convincing in the Avalon than other Toyota products are standard. Equipment levels soar from there to genuine luxury levels on the Limited and Touring trims. Pricing starts at a not-insignificant $36,395 for the XLE then goes up to $38,895 for the XSE, $42,695 for the Limited and $43,095 for the Touring. Options are basically limited to an audio upgrade on lower trims and a parking tech upgrade on upper ones. Every Avalon is built in Kentucky.

Whether all of this is enough to stem the deluge of customers from full-size sedans is really anyone's guess. The current Avalon is still the class leader, isn't as dowdy as past versions and the 2019 isn't exactly a revolutionary makeover. Then again, maybe the jazzier sport trims really will attract some quinquagenarians and bring down that average age. They'll at least be getting a better car.

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