What the performance variant gets right and wrong
Toyota Racing Development has been best known for producing factory off-road pickups and SUVs as of late, but for TRD’s 40th anniversary, Toyota has tasked its in-house tuner with a slew of new production cars. We’ve already covered the 2019 Toyota 86 TRD and 2020 Camry TRD, but how does the unlikeliest of TRD products, the 2020 Avalon TRD, stack up?
For starters, it’s a real-deal TRD
The skeptics among us would probably be quick to call the Avalon TRD little more than a trim package—I know I did. But truth is, TRD engineers had a crucial hand in shaping this particular Avalon. Using the Avalon Touring as the jumping-off point and with a focus on handling, TRD dropped the Touring model’s electronic adaptive suspension in favor of stiffer new steel springs and shocks, lowered the ride height by 0.6 inch, and added new bumpstops. The TRD team also fit its version of the Avalon with dual- (instead of single-) piston front brake calipers with larger rotors, added an electronic brake-based front differential, and rounded the car out with stiffer underbody bracing than is found on the standard Avalon, along with wider, lighter wheels (shared with the Camry TRD) and unique styling.
The chassis reinforcements and suspension tweaks make a noticeable difference out on the road. Although it’s still more softly sprung than the Camry TRD, the Avalon TRD is the better balanced of the two cars. There’s less impact harshness than its slightly smaller platform mate, and the Avalon’s lighter steering feel does a better job of transmitting what little information there is from the front wheels to the driver.
Weirdly though, when driven back to back with the baseline Avalon Touring—like, say, on an autocross course, the Avalon’s natural habitat outside the retirement community—it’s the Touring model that’s more impressive. The biggest difference between the Avalon Touring and the TRD model is the former’s Sport + mode, which, when combined with its electronically adaptive suspension, helps keep the Avalon flatter and more neutral through bends, making it easier to put the power down. The TRD model exhibits more roll than the Touring (even if it felt stiffer) and thus doesn’t put its power down as well.
But TRD didn’t touch the engine or transmission
For better or worse, Toyota corporate didn’t allow the TRD team to make any mechanical changes, save for fitting the Avalon TRD with a cat-back exhaust. Like all non-hybrid Avalons, the TRD model has a 3.6-liter V-6 good for 301 hp and 267 lb-ft of torque, mated to an eight-speed automatic.
The V-6 is a perfectly nice engine; it makes its power near redline, but it revs smoothly and sounds good enough through its new TRD exhaust. However, its gearbox is simply maddening. Despite the car’s 112-mph(180 km/h) top speed, the Avalon’s eight-speed is geared like a four-speed auto, with third gear good through 90 mph (145 km/h), so gears five through eight are essentially dead weight. Shorter gear ratios would significantly improve performance, likely without any cost to fuel economy. They’d also likely help cure the automatic’s tendency to randomly hunt through gears.
Surprisingly, Toyota took the Avalon TRD (and Camry TRD) to racetracks during the development process
TRD engineers used three tracks (along with some of their favorite backroads) to fine-tune the Avalon and Camry TRD models. They’re not big-name tracks like Laguna Seca or Road America, but TRD says it used Motorsport Ranch in Texas, Arizona Motorsports Park, and the track on Toyota’s Arizona proving grounds during the development process.
Toyota is targeting the Avalon TRD at the Audi A6, Ford Fusion Sport, and Kia Stinger GT
Toyota has some pretty lofty targets for the Avalon TRD. Specifically, it called out the Audi A6, the recently discontinued Ford Fusion Sport, and the Kia Stinger GT. That’s, uh, ambitious. Although I’d have to drive them back to back to say for sure, the Avalon TRD certainly has its work cut out for it.
The A6 makes significantly more power from its turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6 (340 hp and 369 lb-ft), has torque-vectoring all-wheel drive, and is significantly more luxurious than the Avalon TRD—though it’s worth mentioning that the latter car has among the nicest interiors, in terms of both design and quality, Toyota has put together in a long time.
The Fusion Sport also made more power than the Avalon TRD, with its twin-turbo 2.7-liter V-6 pumping out 325 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque. Like the A6, it too has all-wheel drive. The Fusion Sport, before it was discontinued, was also one of the funner sedans to drive in its segment.
The rear-wheel-drive Stinger GT also makes significantly more power than the Avalon TRD. An exceptionally pretty and well-balanced sport sedan, the Stinger GT earned an invite to Best Driver’s Car in 2018 and placed a respectable ninth out of 12 competitors. It has a powerful 3.3-liter twin-turbo V-6 making 365 hp and 376 lb-ft under its hood. The Stinger is also available with a 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4 good for 255 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque.
Avalon TRD production will be limited
Toyota says it’ll initially limit Avalon TRD production to about 2,600 units for the 2020 model year and says it’ll happily build more if demand is high enough. Prices for the 2020 Toyota Avalon TRD start at $43,295 USD, and it’s on sale now.