Twenty years ago, a Diamond White Pearl 1998 Toyota Avalon with brown pinstripes and gray leather bucket seats rolled off its assembly line in Georgetown, Kentucky. Seven years and two owners later, having wended its way through the twisted avenues of the used car market, it came to rest on the patchy pavement of a buy-here-pay-here lot in southeastern Connecticut, where it was spotted by a nice, middle-aged couple who thought it would make an idiot-proof car for their two teenage sons.
In case it wasn’t clear, I was one of those teenagers.
Alas, they were wrong—that sucker pulled past 80 mph, that’s all I’ll say—but that perception of pre-eminent safety and reliability that made it a solid choice for a high school car hasn’t changed over the last two decades. What has changed is how the Toyota Avalon presents itself in a world that has moved far beyond the beige-is-best philosophy that defined the model (and Toyota itself) for much of its life. With its floaty suspension, couch-like interior, and vanilla driving dynamics, my 1998 XLE was basically a Japanese Buick LeSabre.
Suffice to say, no one would say that about the new 2019 Avalon.
That’s partly because they don’t make the LeSabre anymore (though the LaCrosse might want a word), but mostly because the all-new 2019 Toyota Avalon is the first incarnation of the company’s flagship mid-luxury sedan that tries to be something other than a Barcalounger on wheels. Riding on one of Toyota’s new global platforms, it offers up a refined interior, a 301-horsepower V-6 engine, and respectable handling at a price that won’t require emptying the kid’s college fund. Not that anyone would, anyway; Avalon buyers are far too sensible for such rashness.
Run down the list of new standard and available features, and you might be tempted to ask why anyone looking for a four-door comfy cruiser would burn more money on a Lexus. The 2019 Avalon will be the first Toyota equipped with things like adaptive variable suspension, progressive turn signals, cornering lamps, and Apple CarPlay, all wrapped up in a package that doesn’t look like a robot acid trip. It also borrows the Sport/Sport+ driving modes of its premium cousins, the latter of which might briefly make you forget you’re hucking around something often derided as an old person’s car.
And therein lies the rub: The average age of an Avalon buyer is 64 years old, meaning the model will need some fresh blood eventually—but it’s incredibly hard to balance the demands of legacy customers with the desires of the next generation. The highly-stylized exterior gives way to a conservative cabin, while the powertrain cries out for an all-wheel-drive option—we dare not even dream of a rear-wheel-drive ‘Yota sedan in this country. The new Avalon bends the comfort-first playbook as far as it can without breaking it, but is that enough to stave off the dual threat of crossover-mania and kids these days? The Drive’s West Coast representative decamped to Del Mar, California to find out.
The 2019 Toyota Avalon Has a New Look and a Big Mouth
I suppose there’s no way to talk about the exterior design of the 2019 Toyota Avalon without first bringing up that gaping maw in the front. If you recoil from the Lexus spindle grille, you’re probably not going to be a fan of how Toyota made half this car’s front end magically disappear. Thankfully, the effect is less pronounced on the XLE and Limited luxury-oriented trims, which come with chrome bars spanning the fascia instead of the piano black mesh on the sportier XSE and Touring models.
I’d be all right with the yawning abyss if it actually provided airflow to the engine, but 90 percent of the grille is backed by solid plastic. It also represents a pretty big risk for the company, considering longtime Lexus owners have been literally calling up headquarters to complain that their cars are too ugly. Style and sales success don’t always go hand in hand.
However, the vertical air ducts running down from the headlights are functional, and the first sign that this Avalon has more aggressive aspirations than in the past. The headlight design is sleeker, and the thin, angled aperture hides LED cornering lamps and a classy sequential turn signal on higher trims. The hood is low and flat, and character lines running along the fenders and extending along the sides of the car help keep everything in proportion.
That’s not just a trick of the eyes, though: The 2019 Avalon is lower, wider, and longer than the outgoing model, which gives it a gravitas that the old “Extended Camry” lacked. The cabin has also been enlarged, and though its profile verges on a fastback silhouette (like everything else these days), there’s still enough of a notch to the trunk deck that it looks like a proper sedan. And credit is due to the team at Toyota’s Calty Design Research center in Michigan, who actually put some thought into making an interesting rear end with a trunk spoiler and functional quad pipes. As a bonus, the concave taillight design makes the Avalon look like it has old-school Fifties tail fins when the trunk is open.
But there’s something else odd about that body: The 2019 Toyota Avalon is 195.9 inches long, 72.8 inches wide, and 56.5 inches high, with a wheelbase of 113 inches. That places it in kind of a weird spot in the automotive market: Bigger than pretty much every traditional midsize car out there, yet smaller than nearly every other full-size flagship. (For reference, its platform-mate Camry is more than three inches shorter and a hair narrower and taller than the Avalon.)
Avalon Platform and Powertrain
It seems like modular platforms are all the rage these days, as automakers continue to look for ways to trim costs and operate more efficiently. Volkswagen has its MQB plank that underpins everything from the diminutive Golf hatchback to the titanic Atlas SUV, and now Toyota is running with a family of new platforms known as TNGA, or Toyota New Global Architecture. First seen (or rather, unseen) on the 2018 Camry, TNGA is scheduled to form the backbone of half the Toyota lineup by 2020.
Toyota invested years of development and billions of dollars to make the platforms stronger, lighter, and more versatile. That’s reflected in both the design of the 2019 Avalon—a more rigid unibody means thinner A-pillars and better visibility, for example—and in its newly-confident chassis and powertrain.
The new Avalon comes with two engine choices: A 3.5-liter, naturally-aspirated V-6 putting out 301 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque, or a 2.5-liter inline-four connected to a new dual-motor hybrid system for a net output of 215 horsepower. Whereas my 1998 XLE made do with a four-speed automatic, the new car comes with twice as many gears (regrettably, the hybrid gets a decidedly-meh continuously variable transmission). Eight-speed gearboxes can be hit or miss, but I never found myself wishing for less during a day of driving in the hills around San Diego. Skip the paddle shifters, though; the action is unsatisfying and there’s just too much of a delay to make choosing your own adventure worthwhile.
For those who like it mildly spicy, the new Sport+ mode on the Touring models tightens up the adaptive suspension, sharpens the throttle response and electronic power steering, and kicks up the amount of engine noise being pumped into the cabin through the speakers. Yes, that’s annoying on a real performance car, but it gets a pass here in part because its coupled with physical hardware and piping on the intake side that naturally enhances things as well. The differences between the driving modes is most apparent in Sport+, which allows the car to corner noticeably flatter at higher speeds and filled the air with a healthy growl.
Inside, the Avalon Is a Comfortable and Conservative Cruiser
And if 300 horsepower and doodads like adaptive suspension have you thinking the Avalon is no longer a great car for grubby teens, then the upscale interior will demand a voting-age minimum for passengers. Ironically, the leather and Ultrasuede surfaces on my top-line Touring tester were almost exactly the same color grey as the interior of my old 1998 XLE. Yet nothing else is even from the same planet in terms of style, luxury, and quality.
The dashboard is full of sweeping lines, bisected by a thin, floating center console that contains the 9.0-inch Entune touchscreen and climate control interface. It’s handsome and understated, clean and unadorned—I’m especially a fan of the way the dash curves out towards the edges of the doors. Seating is very comfortable front and back, if a little plain to look at, though a beautiful new “Cognac” brown leather option livens things up. Real wood trim is available on higher-end models, which brings out the upscale vibe even more.
And fellow luddites, rejoice: Every important control in the touchscreen still has a redundant button, all of which have a satisfying, click-y feel to them. And while this update appears to have killed off Toyota’s iconic standalone digital clock, the seven-segment display lives on in the tiny HVAC readout. Finally, though a large information screen rests in the center of the gauge cluster, it’s flanked by a physical, unkillable speedometer and tachometer.
But it’s not all old-school. For the first time ever in a Toyota, you now get Apple CarPlay as standard (Hear that, BMW?)—though still no Android Auto, and Toyota executives hinted the holdout is over data collection issues. Additionally, the 2019 Avalon offers Amazon Alexa integration, wireless phone charging, a full color heads-up display, and a 14-speaker, 1,200-watt JBL sound system. And in keeping with these fastbackian times, you can fold down the entire back seat to create a full-width pass-through to the trunk for larger items.
When the back seat is up and full of pampered people, they’ll enjoy an expansive 40.3 inches of legroom and a couch-like throne. Befitting a luxury sedan, there are also outboard seat heaters and climate controls within easy reach of rear-seat riders. Combined with the unflappable ride provided by the adaptive suspension—though even the normally-equipped models benefit from some engineering improvements on that front—either row is a stupendously comfortable and comforting place to spend some time; while it feels great to plant your butt on any soft seat, the simplicity of the cabin’s design adds a kind of peace to the proceedings that’s sorely missing from some of the competition.
Still, while I understand that this is the conservative ying to the extreme yang over at Lexus, there are a few decisions that leave me scratching my head here. Maybe the biggest one: Considering the structural improvements of the TNGA-K platform, why can I order a panoramic roof on a Kia Optima (not to mention the Camry) and not here? The standard-size moonroof looks dinky and dated in the Avalon. Additionally, I found the buttons on the far side of the infotainment screen to be an awkwardly-long reach from a normal driving position. No, I don’t have T. rex arms; my six-foot-something driving partner with equally-proportioned limbs confirmed the ergonomic misstep. Another small quibble: Automatic trunk lids have long since trickled down to the masses, but the Avalon continues to do without.
Let’s Go for a Drive
One of my go-to excuses for speeding in my old 1998 Toyota Avalon was that it was so floaty, so entirely disconnected from the road beneath its wheels, that I had to hit 80 mph on that back country road just to feel something, damnit. Thankfully, that’s not the case here; I highly doubt anyone will buy an Avalon solely because of how it drives, but the car handles more confidently than any iteration that’s come before it. With its adaptive variable suspension and a fairly-seamless eight-speed gearbox, the Touring model returns sharper performance than anyone can reasonably expect from a front-wheel-drive sedan. And while the XLE and Limited trims feel a little softer, there’s no question that the new platform has made a difference.
The Avalon won’t blow you away behind the wheel, but we’re clearly long past the days of it putting you to sleep. But should your attention flag at some point, you’ll be glad to know that the standard suite of “Toyota Safety Sense” driver aides continues to impress with what it offers. You get everything from radar-assisted cruise control to automatic emergency braking to lane keep assist, while extras like backwards emergency braking and a 360-degree surround-view camera can be added. The only system I was able to test without giving Toyota’s press people a coronary was the full-speed radar cruise control, which comfortably brought the Avalon down to 0 mph but jumped off the line a little too quickly for my tastes.
2019 Toyota Avalon Pricing
The 2019 Toyota Avalon is still a few months out from production, so we only have a rough sketch of the pricing at this point. The base XLE model will start at $35,500 (excluding $895 delivery), while the top-spec Touring trim will run you $42,200 before you start ticking options. The hybrid system is available on XLE, XSE, and Limited models for a $1,000 premium over the standard 3.5-liter V-6 engine. That base price does start a bit higher than other mid-level entries in the segment, though it’s also lower than cars from traditional luxury marques with a comparable feature set. Really, that’s the strength of the Avalon—it offers up a healthy list of standard features at a reasonable price point.
In fact, there’s some pricing overlap with the Lexus ES, which starts at around $39,000. So apart from brand snobbery (which makes the world go round, to be fair), why would anyone trade “down” to the Toyota? Aside from the fact that the Avalon is actually bigger than the ES, it simply offers more features and the exact same reliability for the money.
The Toyota Avalon Parties Past Sunset
For its time, my 1998 Toyota Avalon XLE was comparatively well-equipped, with leather surfaces, dual six-way front power bucket seats, and a power moonroof. It was permeated by an honest simplicity (and teenage funk) inside and out that was indicative of the lower expectations set for, well, just about everything back then. Fast forward two decades, and the 2019 Toyota Avalon takes a more multifaceted approach—both to its benefit and detriment.
I say that because a car that tries to be something for everyone will have a harder time being everything to someone. Toyota did well to abandon the cloud-like ride of Avalon’s past, and the adaptive suspension shows the company is getting more serious about performance (relatively speaking), but the result is a car that’s not quite as self-assuredly soft as the previous versions while firmly landing in the nebulous “sport-ish” zone.
At the same time, sedan sales continue to plummet. Even cars like the venerable Honda Accord are struggling, so you might think the market for an in-betweener like the Avalon is shrinking too. But while its sales have plunged by more than half since the outgoing generation launched in 2012, Toyota still moved just over 4,000 units in this country in March—that’s more than the Mercedes-Benz E-Class or the Audi A6, and more than the Cadillac XTS and Lincoln MKZ combined.
So while the sun may be setting, the age of the Toyota Avalon isn’t over yet. Its time as a suitable car for stupid teenagers might be, though.