Driven: Avalon and TRD actually fit together quite nicely

Toyota Racing Development turns Avalon sedan into cool cruiser

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Driven
We wondered what Toyota Racing Development might be able to do to make the Avalon sedan into a driver's car, and we were impressed | Larry Edsall photos

I was perplexed when the email arrived offering me a week in a 2020 Toyota Avalon TRD. 

Avalon, seemingly little more than a plus-size Camry, and TRD, Toyota Racing Development, in the same sentence? Seemed oxymoronic.

But then I remembered back more than a decade ago, when I chased the Copperstate 1000 vintage sports car rally for several days in a Camry tweaked by Toyota Racing Development, and how impressive that vehicle was and how it did a great job, actually keeping pretty much on pace with the sports cars.

So I said, sure, let’s see what this Avalon TRD offers, and after a week in the car, I think it offers quite a lot. 

My first impression of the car was favorable, albeit a bit boy-racer in appearance thanks to the TRD body bits in a contrasting piano black standing out against the Supersonic Red paint. The car rides on matte-black, 19-inch wheels with low-profile tires that further enhance its slightly lowered stance. 

Looks are one thing, driving is another. 

So I climb in, adjust the seat and steering column and mirrors, press the starter button and — what is that sound? The Avalon TRD has the standard 3.5-liter Toyota V6, except they usually don’t sound so stout. Turns out the TRD upfit includes a cat-back dual exhaust system that allows the engine to exhale more freely, which, I hope, means that the engine’s 301 horsepower get to gallop more freely.

Back out of the driveway and head up the street. Not only does the car sound good, it goes nicely, even though the 8-speed automatic transmission has the standard Toyota gearing. Not standard, however, are such things are “track-tuned” coil springs, larger front and rear stabilizer bars, added body bracing, enlarged disc brakes, lowered stance, and summer (high-speed rated) Michelin tires on those wheels, which allow the red-painted brake calipers to peek through.

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Checking the vehicle’s specifications, I also discover that it weighs 3,655 pounds, more than the Avalon in XLE trim but less than the Touring version. 

My initial impression is that this car is what I expected, but didn’t find in the much-hyped, more-expensive and twin-turbocharged Kia Stinger GT2 that I’d driven 2 years earlier.

Cottonwood Cove Marina | Resort photo

After a couple of days puttering around town, I took time to head out on a desert highway, and then to take a delightful if narrow two-lane down to Cottonwood Cove, an “off-the-grid” family-oriented resort (motel and campground) and boat launch on Lake Mohave, which is above Davis Dam (aka Bullhead Dam) on the Colorado River. 

Cottonwood Cove is on Lake Mead National Recreation Area property administered by the National Park Service. The banks of the Colorado River along the area used to be lined with cottonwood trees, thus the name of the cove, but during the gold- and silver-mining era, the trees were cut down for fuel for the steamships that carried bullion to processing plants.

The road down to Cottonwood Cove is downhill for several miles and provided a place to explore the manual mode of the Avalon TRD’s 8-speed automatic gearbox as I toggled among 2nd, 3rd and 4th rather than use the brakes to stay within the posted speed limit. 

On the highway, where the speed limit was 75 mph — but the Avalon TRD really preferred 76 — the manual mode provided anywhere from 500 to 1,000 more rpm per gear to enhance such things as passing. However, even left in automatic mode, the gearbox responded immediately to changes in pressure on the accelerator pedal.

Steering also was immediately responsive, and the car handles curves uncharacteristically well for a vehicle of its size. I’d rated the Avalon TRD as road-trip ready, with one proviso: The fastback architectural design of the Avalon limits the size of the trunk lid and opening. You won’t fit a large sutcase or a big-screen TV box through that hole, but there is cavernous room for whatever else you might need for a week-long road trip. 

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The car’s interior also is trip-ready, both comfortable and efficient. The exterior color scheme flows into the cabin with black leather-and-suede-like seats with red trim. The floor mats even have red trim, and the seat belts are red as well, just like in some high-end exotic sports cars. 

As you would expect, the front seats are heated and ventilated with power adjustment, including lumbar. As if the standard audio system isn’t quite enough, the Avalon TRD I drove was equipped with an optional JBL/Clari-Fi premium system with 14 speakers and “Dynamic Navigation.”

Oh, and of course, the car has a full array of Toyota Safety Sense driver-assist technologies.

While the switchgear on the dashboard and steering wheel seem busy to my eyes, there’s a huge (9-inch) touch-screen display that seems to make many of those other controls redundant.

Actually, the busy dash display is about the extent of my negative comments about this pleasantly surprising sedan. Turns out, however, Andy Reid disagrees. Our East Coast editor also spent a recent week in an Avalon TRD and he was less enthusiastic.

Here are his comments:

I had mixed feelings about the Avalon TRD. First, I thought that the styling was a bit silly. The car looked like the kind of car that someone who used to own more sporting cars bought because they now have a family and need 4 seats. Basically, I think Toyota Avalon with boy racer styling elements added to try to make it look cooler and convince the owner they still have that tuner car street cred. 

We all need something to make us feel better when that 2-seater car needs to be replaced by a family car and at least it’s not a Chrysler Minivan. The carbon spoilers combined with the large flat black alloy wheels just makes the car look a bit silly. 

From a driver’s perspective, the car is quite nice. The red and black leather interior is of exceptional quality and the seat design and the driving position are exactly what a more-performance car owner would want. The TRD steering wheel is also of good quality and instrumentation is logical and in the right places.

The performance is surprising from such a large car. The TRD suspension makes a noticeable difference in the Avalon’s handling and the car offers great grip and steering response.

While the Avalon TRD wuold not be the car for me, if you are the kind of guy that had a Fast and Furious influenced Supra when you were in your 20s and now in your 30s need to cart around kids and such, the Avalon TRD might be what you are looking for.

Larry again:

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So, it seems that Avalon and TRD are not oxymoronic and they do fit together nicely for those who are at the stage of life when 2 seats no longer are practical but they still want to be able to enjoy driving, and at a reasonable price.

2020 Toyota Avalon TRD

Vehicle type: 5-passenger sedan, front-wheel drive

Base price: $44,060 Price as tested: $46,287

Engine: 3.5-liter V6, 301-horsepower @ 6,600 rpm, 267 pound-feet of torque @ 4,700 rpm Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 113.0 inches Overall length/width: 195.9 inches / 72.8 inches

Curb weight: 3,655 pounds

EPA mileage estimates: 22 city / 31 highway / 25 combined

Assembled in: Georgetown, Kentucky

For more information, visit the Toyota website

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A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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