Testing the Avalon's sporty side
Long relegated to status as a floaty barge for end-stage buyers, the 2019 Toyota Avalon—specifically the sporty Touring trim—has become a proper flagship with actual driving prowess. The term “vanilla” and Avalon once went hand-in-hand because the conservatively styled sedan provided a comfortable ride with the absence of driving excitement (perfect for Aunt Trudie down in New Port Richey). But the Avalon’s 2019 redesign sheds the stigma by offering a driving experience that borders on exhilarating.
An Updated Powertrain
Powering the Avalon is an updated 3.5-liter V-6 that now develops 301 hp and 267 lb-ft of torque. That is a 33 hp and 19 lb-ft improvement over the last V-6 thanks in part to direct and port injection technology. With an EPA-rated 22/31 mpg (10.7/7.6 L/100km) city/highway (22/32 mpg (10.7/7.3 L/100km) for the XLE trim), the 2019 Avalon with a V-6 is the nameplate’s most powerful and most efficient non-hybrid model ever. In real-world testing from the EQUA Real MPG team, the 2019 Avalon Touring earned a rating of 21.8/33.4 mpg (10.8/7 L/100km). The car’s 22/31-32 mpg (10.7/7.6-7.3 L/100km) rating puts it above the six-cylinder models of the Nissan Maxima (21/30 mpg (11.2/7.8 L/100km)), the Chevrolet Impala (18-19/28 mpg (13.1-12.4/8.4 L/100km)), the Chrysler 300 (19/30 mpg (12.4/7.8 L/100km)), and the Buick LaCrosse (21/30 mpg (11.2/7.8 L/100km)).
Backing the V-6 is a crisp-shifting eight-speed automatic that rarely fumbles, almost always finding the right gear. The eight-speed is very responsive, even in Normal mode, making this big sedan feel quicker than it is. When cruising, there’s no need to dig into the gas pedal to get a downshift; small applications will get you one or more kickdowns. This makes highway passing not only easy but fun, especially in the Sport+ mode that’s unique to the Touring model.
The paddle shifters respond quickly when flicked, unless of course you are going too fast for the gear you want. When engine braking, not much happens until you downshift into second and first gears.
A Surprising Driving Experience
After I adjusted the steering wheel and seat, I find myself in a rather low driving position – comfortable for a fit Millennial, but perhaps not be the best location for older drivers to access. The naturally aspirated V-6 responds immediately to throttle applications with almost no lag, followed by an engine note that one passenger described as “sexy”—probably a first for the Avalon. Stomp on the right pedal, and a burst of boisterous engine noise fills the cabin until you lift off.
An Intake Sound Generator amplifies the sound of the air rushing through the intake system while unique baffling shoots out an exhaust sound with a mean tone. Engine sound at start-up, idle, and during acceleration is enhanced via the audio speakers thanks to the Engine Sound Enhancement feature. Some might call that gimmicky, or “fake noise,” but I think it sounds great and enriches the driving experience.
Another feature you wouldn’t expect in an Avalon is an adaptive variable suspension. The feature is usually found on higher-dollar sports cars but is standard on the Touring trim. The system provides real-time damping based on information received from front and rear g sensors, and an ECU determines how much damping should be applied, making adjustments within 20 milliseconds. The four drive modes—Eco, Normal, Sport, and Sport+—don’t merely adjust the already strong throttle response, they work with the adaptive suspension by adjusting damping force depending on drive mode. Normal mode is comfort-oriented with soft suspension damping and light steering. Sport mode slightly stiffens the ride and steering weight, and Sport+ should be called “is this really an Avalon?” mode. Sport+ tightens the suspension, significantly increases steering weight, and boosts the Engine Sound Enhancement feature. The Touring’s capable and predictable handling is reminiscent of a big European sport sedan. Yes, we’re drinking the Toyota Kool-Aid here, but trust us on this one.
Toyota’s new TNGA platform underpins the 2019 Avalon, resulting in a longer, wider, and lower sedan. The Avalon is front drive, which can kill some fun when throttling through corners, but don’t overlook the Avalon’s minimal body roll, robust chassis, and precise steering. The full-size sedan’s as-tested 3,723-pound (1,689-kg) mass can rear its ugly head when pushed hard, but the strong brakes do a great job of bringing you to a confident stop. Regardless, I was impressed with how the Avalon flew through tight or long sweeping corners with the assurance of a smaller sedan. The new multi-link rear suspension and thicker anti-rollbars play a part in all this, too.
At the Track
I’ve spoken highly of the Avalon Touring’s powertrain, handling, and driving experience. But do our test drivers agree? On the drag strip, the Avalon propelled itself to 60 mph in a quick 6.0 seconds on the way to a 14.6-second quarter-mile time at 98.5 mph (158.5 km/h). Associate road test editor Erick Ayapana described the engine note as “giving me some Lexus GS F vibes.” He got his best acceleration run in the Sport+ mode with a little brake overlap and described the shifts as “snappy.” Those runs put it ahead of the Impala (6.3 seconds, 14.9 at 95.9 mph (154.3 km/h)), a front-drive 2017 LaCrosse (6.3, 14.7 at 97.7 mph (157.2 km/h)), and a last-gen 268-hp Avalon (6.4, 14.8 at 96.7 mph (155.6 km/h)). The Maxima clocked a 5.8-second 0-60 run and hit the quarter mile in 14.3 seconds at 99.5 mph (160.1 km/h).
Stopping power is good, coming to a stop from 60 mph in 115 feet, tying the Maxima and beating the Impala (118 feet) and the LaCrosse (126 feet). Ayapana described the brakes as “solid” with “good bite and very minimal dive.” It took 122 feet for the 2018 Avalon to stop from 60 mph. Testing director Kim Reynolds found the brakes “clear and predictable.”
Around our figure-eight handling course, the 2019 Avalon ran a time of 26.9 seconds, besting the 2017 LaCrosse’s time of 26.9 seconds and falling just behind the Impala’s 26.6-second time and the Maxima’s 26.0-second time. When whipping the Avalon around the course, Reynolds described the Toyota as “fun, very buttoned down and composed…Get over the stigma and compare this to an Audi.”
The 2019 Avalon’s interior carries more soft-touch materials, larger display screens, a non-clunky and better-looking shifter, and stylish front seats compared to the previous edition. There’s more attention to detail with the use of contrast stitching and unique interior trims. Our Touring trim tester distinguishes itself from the less sporty XLE and Limited models with the use of perforated and very soft Ultrasuede on the door panels and seats (along with leather-like SofTex) and aluminum trim on the dash and door panels. The center console is elevated, mostly made of soft-touch materials, and extends to an ergonomically smart center stack. Gripping the thick perforated leather-wrapped steering wheel feels good, but the paddle shifters are positioned such that only those with lengthy digits can flick them comfortably.
The high-mounted 9.0-inch touchscreen and optional 10.0-inch head-up display are in easy sightlines. On that touchscreen, the surround-view camera system does a good job of displaying your surroundings, but the video feed (and the navigation map) looks dated. One nice touch: The electric parking brake automatically applies itself when you shift into park, and automatically disengages when the transmission is placed in drive or reverse.
Our Touring trim tester came equipped with automatic LED headlights, LED taillights, a piano-black front grille, dual-exhaust with quad chrome tips, and a piano black rear spoiler, mirror caps, rear diffuser, and badging. Inside you will find a 7.0-inch instrument cluster display, an eight-way power driver’s seat, a heated steering wheel, a 14-speaker JBL audio system, and Toyota’s Entune 3.0 infotainment system with navigation, Apple CarPlay, SiriusXM satellite radio, and Wi-Fi capability. Toyota Safety Sense P is a standard package of driver-assist features that consists of automatic emergency braking, lane departure alert with steering assist, automatic high beams, and an adaptive cruise control system that leaves too much of a gap with the vehicle ahead but does a good job of not overreacting by slamming on the brakes when cut off. Although I appreciate these features, I wish the package offered a true lane centering system, a feature you can find in more affordable vehicles. Blind-spot monitoring with rear-cross traffic alert is also standard. An optional Advanced Safety package that includes the previously mentioned surround-view camera system with a perimeter scan and automatic reverse braking also came equipped. The Touring model starts at $43,120 USD, and our tester stickered for $44,665 USD.
Designers did a fine job making the Avalon more appealing inside and out, but its grille is controversial. Most people I asked didn’t like it or paused while trying to figure out a diplomatic way to say they didn’t care for it. One of the nicest responses I received was, “At least they’re trying something different.” It’s an oddly shaped grille, and the piano black color only accentuates that bizarre shape. Add this one to the list of bold grille designs from the Toyota/Lexus design team. Still, that wouldn’t stop me from buying the Avalon if I were in the market for a full-size sedan.
Aunt Trudie can still get her floaty ride from the cushier XLE and top Limited models, but the Touring trim is reserved for those who don’t mind sacrificing some ride comfort for fun and capable handling dynamics as well as a vocal engine.
|2019 Toyota Avalon Touring|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$44,665|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan|
|ENGINE||3.5L/301-hp/267-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||3,723 lb (60/40%)|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||195.9 x 72.8 x 56.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.0 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||14.6 sec @ 98.5 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||115 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.83 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||26.9 sec @ 0.66 g (avg)|
|REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB||21.8/33.4/25.9 mpg|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||22/31/25 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||153/109 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.77 lb/mile|