2019 Toyota Avalon First Drive - One Step Forward and Back

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems

Years fade into the past, but the public’s thirst for high-riding, do-everything vehicles never seems to ebb. In light of this seismic shift, the Toyota Avalon’s continued presence at the top of the brand’s model line increasingly comes across as mysterious. Perhaps it shouldn’t be.

Introduced for the 1995 model year, the front-drive full-sizer always stayed true to itself — dressed in conservative clothing, it boasted a comfy, roomy cabin, ample V6 power, old-school Toyota dependability, and little chance of drama. If flashiness or cargo volume wasn’t your thing, who could ask for more?

In its recent study of America’s longest lasting vehicles, iSeeCars.com discovered the Avalon was the passenger car most likely to see 200,000 miles. Treat it right, and it’ll outlast multiple owners.

There’s a problem, though, in the fact that fewer and fewer buyers visit Toyota showrooms in search of a large sedan. Avalon sales declined each year following the model’s 2013 post-recession sales peak. Clearly, a change is in order. In crafting its next-generation Avalon, Toyota sought to create a model capable of wooing loyal, returning customers and — for the first time, it seems — younger buyers.

The trouble is, by messing with a formula that worked well for two decades, you risk alienating both groups.

Full disclosure: Toyota flew me down to San Diego for this drive, after which they put me up in a Del Mar hotel, fed me several meals, and footed the bill for an iced coffee at a trendy shop where good-looking people own nice dogs.

For 2019, the Avalon swings onto the brand’s TNGA K platform, bringing with it a wider stance (by 0.6 inches), lower roofline (by 1 inch), and a 2-inch longer wheelbase. Overhangs grow shorter, aerodynamic flourishes appear everywhere (coefficient of drag drops to 0.27 from 0.28), and the model’s face adopts the largest grille of any passenger car I’ve ever seen. With the exception of the narrow LED headlamps and a small piece of fascia connecting them below the hood’s leading edge, the grille devours all front-end real estate. (Note: very little of this gaping maw actually admits air.)

Speaking of the headlamps, Toyota’s awfully proud of them. LED daytime running lights shining through laser-cut aluminum panels underscore the main beams, and higher-trim customers can expect adaptive cornering lamps that illuminate the inside of a 25 degree-plus turn and activate when signalling or reversing.

Appearing along the sedan’s now busy flanks is a tapering bulge that grows as it approaches the rear fender, lending a hint of muscularity. That’s no happy accident. While touting the Avalon’s features, Ed Laukes, group vice president of marketing at Toyota Motor North America, made sure to mention the car’s “athletic personality” to a room of skeptical journalists.

Now that there’s more than one type of buyer in mind, the Avalon’s trims fall into two distinct camps: premium and sport. The premium category covers the base XLE and uplevel Limited, both of which adopt a horizontal slat grille and say “no thanks” to sporty add-ons, while the XSE and Touring offer a stiffer suspension (sport-tuned shocks and stronger stabilizer bars on XSE, an adaptive variable setup on Touring), 19-inch wheels, quad exhaust tips, a black lip spoiler, mesh grille, mirror caps, and diffuser, plus an additional drive modes on Touring. A hybrid drivetrain is available on all but the Touring trim.

Overall, it’s not a bad looking package. And, on paper, the standard powertrain — a 3.5-liter V6 making 301 horsepower and 267 lb-ft, mated to an eight-speed automatic — seems perfectly sufficient for a large front-drive sedan. That output’s up significantly from last year’s 268 hp and 248 lb-ft. Go hybrid, and the recipe swaps the six for a Dynamic Force 2.5-liter four-cylinder/electric motor combo. Total system output rises to 215 hp, managed by a continuously variable transmission.

Green types could easily find themselves wooed by the hybrid “HV” models, now costing just $1,000 over stock. As a starting point, the 2019 Avalon’s better-equipped XLE base model rings in at $35,500 before an $895 delivery charge, some $2k more than 2018. XSE models carry a $38,895 price tag. Moving up to a Limited carries an all-in sticker of $42,695, while the range-topping Touring moves $43,095 from a buyer’s checking account.

Standard on all trims is Toyota Safety Sense Plus (TSS-P), a suite of driver assists that includes a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure alert with steering assist, dynamic radar cruise control, and brake assist. Entune 3.0 audio graces all vehicles (eight speakers for XLE and XSE, 14 for Limited and Touring). Want Alexa to ride shotgun? She’s there, too, but it may be a while before Android Auto joins Apple CarPlay on the Avalon’s list of connectivity features. Oh, there’s also a 10-inch head-up display (HUD) on Limited and Touring.

Clearly, Toyota didn’t skimp on the kit. But what’s the ambiance like?

Hop behind the wheel of an uplevel Avalon and you’ll find soft-touch surfaces and open-pore wood or authentic aluminum trim colliding with a less-than-premium pebbled gray plastic that covers much of the doors and console. It’s not the greatest combination, nor is it an extreme mismatch. In our cushy Limited tester, decked out in perforated “Cognac” SofTex pseudo leather, seat bolstering was mainly absent but unnecessary, as the low-drag tires would surely wash out before a lead-footed driver found themself in need of physical restraint.

Stickier rubber and corresponding seat bolsters appear on Touring models, as do paddle shifters.

Unfortunately, the well cared-for pavement and bevy of law-abiding SUV drivers in and around Del Mar didn’t add up to an ideal test of the Avalon’s roadholding abilities, but pros and cons soon emerged. Seat and ride comfort was perfectly fine, though not exceptional, in all trims. Regardless of trim, the Avalon isn’t prone to jarring bumps or queasy body lean, and even the Touring model avoided undue harshness in the suspension-firming Sport + mode. While the precise steering gains a nice heaviness in the more athletic drive modes, and wandering isn’t an issue, you won’t mistake the feedback for that of a taut, rear-drive German.

Befitting a near-premium highway cruiser, road and engine noise fades to the background, but that engine note receives an audio enhancement in Touring models (a feature available on XSE). This type of gimmick seems wildly out of place on an Avalon; feel free to disagree. At least the sound generator isn’t wildly intrusive.

One gripe in the Limited — a 9-inch touchscreen (standard in all trims) that appeared illegibly dark and was slow to respond to inputs for the first five or so minutes of driving — didn’t replicate itself in the other models. Let’s hope the car’s pre-production nature takes all the blame for that.

When the roads allowed, the transmission’s manual mode went into action. And, almost as quickly, I abandoned it, as this isn’t a true manumatic. Stomp on the gas in manual mode and the tranny shownshifts, regardless of the gear selected and displayed on the 7-inch multi-information display; you can also digitally upshift past the present gear without the cog engaging. Add a little more speed and bam, an upshift. No thanks.

And this is where the Avalon’s Achilles heel makes its appearance. That eight-speed, like others I’ve experienced in the automaker’s line, was the biggest strike against the car. Laggy and confused under sudden, “sporty” throttle application, especially when coasting towards a traffic light that goes green, it often doesn’t know whether to drop one gear or four. A significant delay ensues. The transmission’s drawbacks really takes away from the car’s sporting pretentions, which is too bad. A crisp, seamless eight-speed can do wonders for a car, or drive you nuts.

True, returning buyers sourcing an XLE or Limited aren’t likely to moan and groan about such an issue, as sedate motoring doesn’t arouse the tranny’s dark side. Instead, they’ll enjoy the compliant ride and boosted fuel economy. The 2019 XLE returns an estimated 22 mpg city, 32 mph highway, and 26 mpg combined. Drop 1 mpg from the highway and combined figures and you’ll find the estimated thirst of the remaining gas-only trims. It’s up 1 or 2 mpg from the six-speed 2018 model.

Hybrid buyers, on the other hand, can cruise right past those pumps, thanks to a maximum estimated fuel economy figure of 44 mpg combined in the XLE HV, and 43 mpg in the Limited HV and XSE HV trims. That’s an increase of 3 or 4 mpg depending on model, and buyers can get into an entry level hybrid for $1,000 cheaper than last year’s model. In fact, there’s a third bonus in buying an Avalon hybrid: no eight-speed automatic.

Of the Avalons tested, the XSE HV — or any other HV trim, really — seemed the ideal overall choice. Sure, there’s CVT lag off the line, but once the gearless tranny’s in the correct rev range, power isn’t an issue. Passing thrust feels adequate, but most importantly, the 2.5-liter/CVT combo delivers the smooth, quiet driving experience an Avalon occupant deserves — and, more likely than not, expects.

One further note: For 2019, the hybrid’s battery moves from below the trunk to beneath the rear seat, freeing up an extra 2 cubic feet of cargo space. Dimensionally, both trunks are now the same.

For all the changes made to this next-gen model, the results are decidedly mixed. Styling, now far more visually arresting, isn’t fully backed up by the vehicle’s on-road performance, and it’s with this newly sport persona that Toyota intends to lure in the younger crowd. XLE, Limited, and certainly the HV trims should find acceptance from many former owners. For one thing, Toyota hasn’t gone way out and wild with certain things. There’s still an volume and tuning knob for the audio system, and thank God for that. There’s no newfangled — and potentially confusing — gearshift one must learn to operate.

If Toyota can program the eight-speed to shift with certainty and finesse, there’d be far more to like about this car. As it stands, the 2019 Avalon packs a lot of content into a contemporary package with a daring face, but if you’re a 30-something couple with a decent combined income, an eye for style, and an appreciation for driving, what’s stopping you from dropping less money on a base Kia Stinger — or even a Stinger GT?

[Images: Steph Willems/The Truth About Cars]

Steph Willems
Steph Willems

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  • Ultraviolet Thunder Ultraviolet Thunder on Apr 24, 2018

    The Duh sisters, Hon and Toyo, are complicit with the infestation of tastless, hideous, blindness-inducing rolling road rabies designs. There is not one shred of design talent in both companies and they just continue to go more hideous. This Avalon is a putrid mess. And that interior has dog feces brown in the most disgusting hue. Total barf central.

  • Texex Texex on Apr 25, 2018

    What is it with the Toyota/Lexus designers. It's like they have a Predator fetish.

  • MaintenanceCosts Looks like the best combination of capability, interior comfort, and subtle appearance can be achieved by taking a Laramie (crew cab, short bed, 4x4 of course) and equipping it with the Sport Appearance, Towing Technology, and Level 2 packages as well as a few standalone options. That's my pick.Rebel is too CRUSH THAT CAN BRO and Limited and up are too cowboy Cadillac.
  • Xidex easier to buy a mustang that already sounds like that. love the coyote growl
  • Oberkanone Shaker motor on an EV. No thanks.
  • Oberkanone Crew Cab 6'4" box, 4x4, BighornInterested in midsize truck from Ram. Our fleet includes fullsize truck as well as Maverick compact and something midsize could replace both. Ram is 1st choice of the current full size offerings, with Ford in 2nd place.
  • EBFlex Nice truck, but it needs a proper engine.