Toyota adds better driving capabilities while retaining features older drivers want
The Toyota Avalon has a reputation for a lot of things — dependability, comfort, an older driver behind the wheel — but sportiness or an above-average driving experience certainly have not been on the list, not by a long shot.
As they say, the times they are a-changin’, and the Japanese automaker took note of that when designing the 2019 Avalon. Features that made the car a hit with older audiences were retained, but some new features were added that could expand interest in younger buyers out hunting for that family sedan that isn’t too vanilla.
The first thing that struck me about the Avalon was its looks. Gone are the days of the big, rounded sedan I associated with my grandfather’s tastes. Toyota has introduced a new version of the car with clear, sharp lines and enough aggressive styling to separate itself from past generations.
The 2019 is wider, longer and lower than its predecessors, which contributed to changing the look and feel of the car. The one I drove, a pre-production model, came with a Wind Chill Pearl paint job that caught the light nicely. When paired with black accents on the mirrors, spoiler and 19-inch wheels — dare I say it? — the Avalon looked almost sporty.
The one exterior feature I wasn’t a huge fan of was the grille. I drove the Touring trim that comes with a sport mesh insert, and I thought it was a bit much. Obviously, the designers were looking to connect the Avalon with some Lexus models with similar front ends, but the yawning black hole contrasted with the white paint was too overpowering for my taste.
Inside, the Avalon was all about luxury. The black SofTex-trimmed Ultrasuede seats were big, comfortable and supportive. All of them, including the back, were heated, while the driver and passenger could opt for ventilation.
Rather than embedding the 7-inch infotainment screen in the dash, Toyota mounted it on a sort of tower that slopes up from the center console and eventually peaks above the dash. The system was a little slow to react to touches, pushes and knob turns.
Of course, being an Avalon, the entire interior felt well-made and thought out. The addition of sport-look pedals was a nice touch. If I have one request, it would be somewhere to store sunglasses, though the sunroof may have prohibited a ceiling-bin storage area.
When driving, the interior remained quiet and calm. Left in Eco or Normal mode, most people would feel like they’re driving an Avalon that happens to look trendier. But the new Adaptive Variable Suspension system — offered only on the Touring trim — and the car’s spirited Sport mode could be selling points for enthusiast drivers.
The Sport mode makes the adaptive suspension stiffer and tightens the steering. When paired with the 3.5-liter V6 capable of making 301 horsepower, the Avalon actually became fun to drive. It’s by no means a rocket, but the experience was engaging, especially when using the paddle shifters to flip between eight available gears — up from the 2018’s 6-speed automatic.
Shifts both manually and automatically were smooth and gave enough of a performance feel. Should Toyota fully decide to leave the model’s old cushy reputation in the dust, the option of a turbocharged inline-4 or even the expected turbocharged V6 planned for the upcoming Supra would be welcome.
In all, Toyota’s latest Avalon demonstrated that its flagship full-size sedan is ready to move into the future. Gone are the days of focusing sales on an older demographic. The marque’s target audience is changing and the Avalon is ready to change with it.
But how much is yet to be seen. The Touring trim level that will likely appeal to younger buyers is the second-most expensive non-hybrid trim, while lower trims tend to fall back into the old way of prioritizing comfort over performance.
With a few more affordable performance tweaks and options, Toyota could have a winner on its hands that marries a good driving experience with a sterling reputation for comfort and reliability. Without those, the Avalon may become a nice, comfortable car my grandparents drove that will be nothing more than a passing curiosity at a future classic car show.
2019 Toyota Avalon Touring (pre-production)
Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sedan, front-wheel drive
Base price: $35,500 Price as tested: $44,655 (comparable production vehicle price)
Engine: 3.5-liter V6, 301 horsepower at 6,600 rpm, 267 pound-feet of torque at 4,700 rpm. Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 113 inches Overall length/width: 195.9 inches/72.8 inches
Curb weight: 3,704 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 22 city/31 highway/25 combined
Final assembly in: Georgetown, Kentucky