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2019 Toyota Avalon: Smooth operator with acquired-taste looks

Roadshow logo Roadshow 10/5/2018 Chris Paukert

a car parked in a parking lot

© Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

When you think about great vacation cars, the 2019 Toyota Avalon probably doesn't come to mind. But perhaps it should. Most folks headed to the beach, big city or a mountain getaway probably envision getting there in SUV or a minivan loaded to the sills with gear, especially if they have kids. Solo travelers and couples might picture a sun-seeking convertible or GT coupe.

Fair enough.

As it turns out, though, Toyota's all-new fifth-generation Avalon sedan makes for an excellent and ultra-relaxing holiday companion. I should know—I road-tripped hundreds of miles to the shores of North Carolina's Outer Banks, an annual pilgrimage I've made for decades in exactly those types of vehicles. Perhaps more importantly, the very same attributes I discovered on vacation will help make the Avalon an excellent everyday companion.

I'll admit that clapping eyes on the 2019 Avalon's controversial face—let's call it "grille-forward"—isn't exactly a recipe for Serenity Now. In fact, it's a startlingly aggressive look, one likely to put off some people even before a test drive.

While I'm not a fan of the new nose, I don't quite share my colleague Antuan Goodwin's level of disdain for this midsize Toyota's possessed-vacuum-cleaner countenance (check out his take in our video). If nothing else, the Avalon's nose makes a statement, and it can't be accused of being milquetoast. Fortunately, reviews editor Goodwin and I are in harmony when it comes to just about everything else about the 2019 Toyota Avalon.

Long story short? We agree that it's a damn fine automobile.

This new generation now shares the Japanese automaker's TNGA-K scalable platform with the current Camry, forthcoming 2019 RAV4 and, of course, the likewise-new-for-2019 Lexus ES, this car's under-the-skin twin. That's good news, because Toyota's latest modular platform is a very rigid architecture. Building on this sound foundation yields a new Avalon that isn't just more ambitious in appearance, it's streets ahead of its old self in terms of cabin and safety tech, interior refinement and dynamic chops.

That's... a lot of grille. And in fact, some 60 percent of it is actually non-functional.

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Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Once you get past that polarizing proboscis, you can't help but note that the rest of the Avalon looks far more sculpted and stylish than ever. It also looks bigger. That's partially an optical illusion owing to the design's more steeply raked rear window, and partially because it's true: The 2019 Avalon rides atop a 2-inch longer wheelbase and spans 0.6-inches longer overall. It's also a smidge wider (0.6 inches) and it sits an inch lower.

Those generous dimensions lead to a very roomy cabin, with plenty of space to stretch out front and rear. Even in a class where that's the norm for rivals like the Buick LaCrosse, Chevrolet Impala, Kia Cadenza and Nissan Maxima, the Avalon's interior comes off as capacious, well screwed together andin the case of my Limited trimsurprisingly luxurious.

Rolling down to the barrier island chain that is the Outer Banks in the wilting heat of peak summer, a handful of vehicular qualities really help make life easier:

1) A supple ride.
2) A big trunk for one's luggage and beach clutter.
3) A boatload of advanced driver-assist features to contend with the hoards of motorists whose brains go on vacation well before their flip flops hit the sand.
4) Meat-locker-spec air conditioning.

The Avalon Limited nails all four.

Not too stiff and not too floaty, the Avalon has just-right handling characteristics.

Well-balanced ride

Whether muffling freeway expansion joints or tracing arcs around long, sweeping corners, the Avalon's ride and handling was always confident and well controlled. Despite being a comfort-first proposition, the car never wallowed. I'm sure if I pushed this Toyota hard down a canyon road and tried to corner on its door handles, it'd quickly betray that it isn't a sport sedan. But that's not what this car is aboutit's about coddling and lowering blood pressures. More importantly, unlike in some of the Avalon's early iterations, you needn't be a septuagenarian to succumb to its many charms. This four-door may not be a purebred athlete, but nor is it an overstuffed road sofait handles the way it should.

And it's not just the suspension that's on point. Much of the credit for the Avalon's pleasant demeanor goes to the 3.5-liter V6 and well-matched eight-speed automatic transmission. This naturally aspirated engine puts out 301 horsepower (an increase of 33 over last year) and 267 pound-feet of torque (+19). Aside from slightly lazy initial throttle tip-in that's most noticeable when pulling out at T-junctions and from parking lots onto main thoroughfares from a stop, this engine has plenty of power. It even sounds pretty good when you lay into the throttle.

Though I've never golfed a hole in my life, I can imagine that vacationing duffers would appreciate the Avalon's 16.1 cubic feet of trunk spaceand unlike last year's model, the capacious rear seat now folds conveniently in a 60/40 split. 

The Avalon rivals its Lexus ES sibling in terms of premium interior quality.

Cold front

Even though something like 80 percent of the Avalon's massive grille is blocked off, you could've fooled me into believing that the entirety of this sedan's gaping maw was completely functional, a necessary aesthetic decision to accommodate a 60,000-BTU HVAC system swiped from the shadows of some McMansion.

This thing goes from zero to Sub-Zero in minutes, quicker than any car with a cabin of this size that I can remember. If you're someone who constantly runs warm or someone who lives in inhospitably hot climes, give the Avalon a long look.

And there are wicked-cold seat coolers, too. 

Class-above cabin with improved tech

The rest of the interior is no less, well, cool. It's in the cabin where this front-wheel-drive Avalon makes its biggest strides. That's particularly true in my tester's high-end Limited spec, which looked and felt sensational. Most of the credit goes to the eye-popping cognac leather trim, which boasted painstakingly fashioned stitch lines, set off nicely by real wood trim sourced from piano and violin-maker Yamaha. A massive, 10-inch head-up display is useful and adds to the upscale feel. In fact, the Limited's interior is so premium as to wonder why anyone but badge-snob types would ever choose to go with its costlier Lexus kin.

Toyota's Entune system is better, but not great. And while Toyota now offers Apple CarPlay, Android Auto is still nowhere to be found.

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Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

That's even more true because the Toyota has the far superior infotainment system. Its simpler interface and crisp 9-inch touchscreen are leagues ahead of the frustratingly convoluted Enform system and mouse-like multicontroller in Lexus' (otherwise very nice) ES four-door.

While Toyota's Entune system has never been a favorite at Roadshow, this third-generation architecture is hugely improved, with snappier performance, smarter organization and crisper graphics. It also includes Apple CarPlay for the first time (sorry, Android Auto hopefuls), no fewer than five USB ports, as well as a new suite of Connected Services that include smartphone and smartwatch integration for things like remote access and monitoring. Amazon Alexa connectivity is also included, further evidence that Toyota is seeking a younger buyer for the Avalon as traditional large-sedan sales continue to erode.

It's also worth pointing out that in addition to active noise control and an engine-sound enhancement feature, Touring and Limited models also include a 1,200-watt, 14-speaker JBL Clari-Fi audio system, with excellent dynamic range and a clear soundstage. For my money, the stereo alone would be worth considering splurging for one of the Avalon's upper-end models, but it's also available as a $680 standalone option on lower trims.

Yet there's more separating top-shelf Avalons than just sonorous audio. Touring and Limited models also benefit from more sophisticated adaptive dampers (a first for Toyota) which still deliver a reasonably compliant ride, even when the drive mode selector is in Sport+, its most extreme setting. (Like the Sport mode just under it, Sport+ also adds steering heft, quickens throttle response and alters the shift schedule to allow for more revs.)

The V6-powered Avalon will return as much as 32 mpg highway. Toyota also offers the Avalon as a hybrid, with the ability to achieve up to 44 mpg.

Solidly efficient, plus a hybrid option

Fuel economy has improved, too. Depending on trim, 2019 Avalon models check in with solid EPA estimates of 22 miles per gallon in the city, and 31 or 32 mpg on the highway (combined cycle scores are between 25 and 26 mpg). I averaged an easy 30 mpg in mostly freeway driving.

For the parsimonious cruisers out there, the Avalon Hybrid model has returned, too. For a modest $1,000 more than a gas-only model, you'll net very impressive ratings of 43 mpg city, and between 43 and 44 mpg highway. The downside? In addition to having to contend with a continuously variable transmission, you'll only be able to wring 176 horsepower and 163 pound-feet out of the 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle engine.

When matched with the pair of electric motors yielding 118 horsepower and 149 pound-feet, combined total system output is rated at a modest 215 horsepower, meaning that you'll give up much of the gas-powered Avalon's impressive quickness in exchange for passing up the pump more frequently. That said, you won't have to sacrifice more aggressive looks or a firmer suspensionthere's a new Hybrid XSE model that attempts to bridge the seemingly contradictory worlds of frugality and sportiness.

The Avalon feels like an incredible value, especially when compared to similarly sized luxury offerings.

Safety and the bottom line

Toyota has been an industry leader when it comes to the democratization of active safety features, and the 2019 Avalon is no different. All models are treated to blind-spot monitoring, forward-collision warning with auto emergency brake, adaptive cruise control and active lane control. Plus, there's an emergency assistance telematics system with stolen vehicle tracking, automatic crash response and emergency roadside assistance. An Advanced Safety Package option pack ($1,150) includes a birds-eye camera system with sonar parking sensors and rear cross-traffic braking support.

Pricing for the Georgetown, Kentucky-built 2019 Avalon starts at a perfectly reasonable $35,550 plus $920 for delivery of the base XLE trim. Top-flight Limited models like my tester command $41,800 (add $1,000 for Hybrid powertrain), and the latter is essentially an all-boxes-checked proposition. The only factory-installed option is the aforementioned Advanced Safety Package, which brings pricing to $43,870 before freight.

That's not an insignificant amount of money, but nor is this an insignificant amount of car. Regardless of trim, this vehicle feels like a very good value, especially when compared to similarly sized luxury-badged offerings. Whether you're headed out on a vacation road trip, a Sunday drive, or just motoring to the corner store, the 2019 Toyota Avalon is an excellent travel companion.

This was originally published on Roadshow.

Related Reading:
• Toyota has already recalled the 2019 Avalon for airbag problems

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