On the Road Review: Toyota Avalon Hybrid Sedan



Like other automakers, Toyota has maximized the possible output from one central platform by building numerous variations from a single blueprint. The Toyota Camry — the best-selling car in America for over 10 years — is the basis for the Lexus ES, the Lexus RX as well as this week’s Avalon Hybrid sedan.

Stretched 6 inches — 189 to 195 inches in overall length, but just 2 inches in wheelbase length — the Avalon is the largest Toyota sedan sold in the U.S. market except for the Lexus LS460 luxury-liner. Weighing in at a base poundage of only 3,560 pounds, the Avalon is also the lightest full-size package, beating rivals such as the Chevy Impala, Ford Taurus, Dodge Charger and Buick LaCrosse by as much as 500 pounds. This pays dividends in fuel economy, plus the Avalon has some packaging advantages that are quickly exposed when you enter this airy sedan.

Rear seat space is commodious; passengers can stretch their legs, their heads do not touch the roof-liner, and there is comfort for three. Compared to the cramped, closed-in space in the Taurus, the Avalon feels downright expansive.

This expression of openness is continued at the helm, yet there are some compromises. The dash is angled in such a way that hand access is very convenient — and conducive to both driver and passenger. However, sunlight often washes out the information screens and some Toyota engineers/designers have apparently been sleeping with the enemy, as Ford’s touch-surface semantics are on full display here too. Fortunately, there are also redundant knobs and controls for basic audio and climate alterations, so you are not held hostage to the frustrating touch-pads that are meant to suffice for efficient operation.

The seats are large, but could use thigh extensions for taller drivers, and the tilt/telescoping steering wheel could use more range in each motion. Again, taller drivers would probably benefit most from the expansive space, as they now have to stretch to reach the wheel.

Toyota efforts to upgrade the car’s interior are notable, but not yet stellar. Glove-like leather adorns the console cover, but the seats are not the plush, sumptuous leather found in other cars. By contrast, the Avalon doesn’t cost like some of those other cars either, so this complaint must be balanced against value. If this sedan is viewed as a larger extension of the Camry, and it really is, then the car’s content is consistent with the mission of the Camry.

Smart-key ignition is present, as is heating for the leather seats, plus a small nav screen that doubles as your back-up camera. While others have moved to much-larger and sharper displays, the Toyota’s system marched in lock-step with the accompanying smartphone used to verify directions on a long out-of-state drive. Each nav system delivered the same directions, at the same time, over the whole route.

In place of a tachometer, the hybrid’s instrument cluster gives you an efficiency gauge that relays your driving style: eco, power mode or charging. It does encourage a softer right foot.

Previous editions of the Avalon were derided because its ride was deemed too soft. In XLE Touring trim with the hybrid powertrain, the Avalon seemed to lack balance. It was a smooth touring sedan, with comfort and grace on the freeway, yet when piloted over less than perfect pavement, the car’s undulating ride lacked finesse and grace and often bounded over imperfections while the suspension seemed to be searching for the right amount of shock absorption and control. With more than 60 percent of the car’s weight over the front wheels, some of this imbalance can be attributed to a chassis trying to do a lot at one end of the car.

The Avalon has another contrast: two of its rivals offer AWD, which not only improves foul weather traction, but also helps to create a better chassis balance and improve handling. The Charger comes to mind here; it offers a very significant 9 more inches of wheelbase length, 120 inches total, that provides better ride and drive dynamics.

However, the Avalon is available with a hybrid powertrain that trumps all rivals in fuel efficiency as well as touring range. Standard Avalons come with a 3.5-liter 268-hp V-6 that has ample power with EPA ratings of 21/31 mpg.

The hybrid package adds a small battery pack and electric motor that can actually move the car along at low speeds, in addition to a modern 2.5-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine that makes 200 hp. Mated to a CVT automatic, the Avalon Hybrid returns EPA ratings of 40-mpg city, 39-mpg highway. In over 1,000 miles of use, mostly super-slab touring at elevated, traffic-pacing speeds, the Avalon returned a peak of 37.4 mpg and a weeklong average of 35.4 mpg. While below the EPA estimates, the Avalon hybrid is still significantly more fuel-efficient than its large car rivals.

With great space and greater fuel economy, drivers won’t suffer any negatives getting there. The hybrid powertrain is swift enough to pass, merge and jump into traffic flow without stress, while quietly motoring about on secondary roads. CVT design technology has improved so that most of these transmissions seamlessly operate without the straining engine sounds of yore, or, perhaps we have become more adapted to their particular dynamics.

Highs include the Avalon’s fuel economy, the car’s spacious interior and the overall value to price quotient. Opting for the hybrid powertrain, about a $1,700 spiff over the conventional engine, is not a compromise. If you are a Prius fan but just need more space, comfort and the driving range afforded by a large car, this is your ticket without reservation. Over 500 miles of driving range is approaching diesel-powered territory.

Lows: I wish the Avalon had a more composed ride dynamic, that the tilt/telescoping steering column had more range, and that the car’s evolution leads to a more congruent instrument panel design. If you have never driven a large German sedan, the Avalon will be almost perfect; if you have, the chassis dynamics will be disappointing. Despite these gripes, the Avalon remains a top-rated sedan by that famous consumer magazine.

Avalon pricing starts at $32,285. Add almost $2,000 for XLE Premium and then another $1,800 for Touring. Top Limited models are just under $40,000.

In other Toyota news, fans of the Venza — another Camry-based offering from Toyota — will want to act soon, as the Venza is slated to go out of production late this year. Stagnant sales have led to the decision not to invest in a second-generation version. I’d bet that a Venza hybrid would do well as these five-door semi-wagon/crossovers continue to sell well. Production of the FJ Cruiser has also ended.

Toyota is also expanding North American truck production as a RAV4 hybrid joins the lineup this fall, while a renewed Tacoma small pickup is released. RAV4 sales have been steadily climbing (up 26 percent YTD) as the aforementioned crossover boom rolls on unabated. A hybrid version will surely ignite greater sales and make the RAV4 the only hybrid crossover in the market other than Toyota’s own Lexus offerings.

The new Tacoma needs some refreshing, as GM’s two new offerings are stealing some of the class leaders luster. Look for a big marketing push for both the old and new Tacoma trucks as Toyota works to keep its stranglehold on this truck segment.

 

 

 

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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