Used Car Shopping: 2020 Toyota Avalon XSE – Contradictory Incongruities

Something has been troubling me about my slow-rolling car search.  Although I had narrowed it down to the lovely A5 and GS350, each has a distinct flaw, one that gnaws. A gnaw-flaw, if you will.  When your paid off Camry still shines up nice and probably won’t take much to go another 93,000 cheap and easy miles, you want to feel like you are getting your money’s worth on the upgrade.  This can either mean spending more on a have-it-all sport/luxury sled, or spending less on a more mainstream vehicle that punches up. I’m disinclined towards the former, but the latter?  I’m not sure I’ve explored that one.  As our Camry clomped and pounded on its “sport tuned” suspension down the shattered asphalt cobble of our embarrassing road grid, I thought to myself: do I really need a sports sedan in this environment? Does it really require an Audi to provide a nicer overall experience than an old Camry?  Is there not a middle way?  

Indeed there is. It’s called the premium front wheel drive sedan, a space now inhabited almost solely by the Lexus ES and its recently canceled platform mate the Toyota Avalon.   I’ve been avoiding this option, feeling another front wheel drive sedan wouldn’t be much of an upgrade. Yet, an Avalon I couldn’t ignore showed up this week.  Yep, it’s another FWD Toyota sedan in XSE trim.  Some of you may be rolling your eyes at this point, because the Camry I’m looking to replace is…a FWD Toyota sedan in XSE trim.  What gives, dummy?  Well, Toyota is getting much better at tuning suspensions and this final Avalon was fairly impressive if multiple reviews are to be believed.  It’s cavernous inside, it has the same V6 as the GS350 and very similar acceleration times but uses 25% less fuel, all while handling more than a bit like an Audi according to Motor Trend.  Do we believe that last one?  Maybe. The A5 was very competent but not stunning through the helm. Shouldn’t be impossible to approximate.   

The XSE is a lower-mid trim in the lineup, notable for its firmer suspension tune and aesthetic flourishes.  It sits above the base XLE with its softer suspension and below the more expensive Limited (also a softie) and Touring, which has an adaptive variable suspension.  The XSE has spiffy synthetic suede seat inserts, stupid quad exhaust tips, a blacked out grill, and rubber band tires.  It’s trying so hard to be sporty and young!  Yet, it’s huge inside, quiet, mostly refined, and will last a bazillion years like a Camry or ES.  It’s trying so hard to be mature and responsible!  Here on the used market, it is priced comparably to the A5 and below a GS350 of similar miles.  You’re gaining reliability and cabin space relative to the Audi and lower miles and better fuel economy versus the Lexus.

Upon test driving the car, I decided that Motor Trend wasn’t too far off and that this Avalon is a curious agglomeration of incongruities, good and bad.  This generation was tasked with providing a premium sedan experience without cannibalizing upper-trim Camry and lower-trim Lexus ES sales, all while drawing in younger buyers without alienating the mature clientele that put the Avalon on the map.  Contradictory? You bet!  And this XSE trim is perhaps the most contradictory of them all outside the rare bizarro TRD.  

This oscillation in purpose and execution exists from the moment you approach the car to the moment you park it and walk away.  The Avalon has presence.  The profile is long, low, and linear, with a proudly extended greenhouse and real windows behind the C pillar. It does not look like a “grandpa car”, and that continues with the cabin.  Prominent areas of the interior are meant to persuade buyers that this a true near-luxury product: the seating surfaces, the thick stitched padding of the center console that envelops the cup holders and extends past the shifter, the plush door armrests with their graceful chromed accent, the striking upward swoop of the center stack and its clean, thin trim.  Hard plastic panels are afforded minimal real estate.  The engine idles silently.  The climate fan whispers even at full speed.  It is inarguably nice in here on the whole. 

Nicer console than the BMW or Audi. Padded materials continue forward of the shifter, onto the sliding lid of the storage bin.


But then you start to notice things. Things not present in the A5 and GS350.  Sloppy things. The interior door handles are straight from the Corolla.  They are hollow featherweight plastic and release the door with no positive effort or precision.  The rotating lock beside them has a cheap sheen mismatched to the surrounding panel.  It’s not integrated very well into the door: the back of the handle juts out and looks unfinished.  It’s a shameful and cheap-feeling setup that you’ll interact with every time you drive.  The doors shut with a flimsy sound at all but the lightest of touches. The optional JBL tweeters are tacked onto the A-pillars.  The mid-dash trim strip running across the cabin is supposedly aluminum but feels plasticky and has a woven carbon-fiber look printed on top.  The edge of the printed surface is visible where the trim meets the door panel–leaving a gap of unfinished grey in a highly visible location.  Finally, the corporate steering wheel that feels premium in a Corolla has no business upstream of the Camry; the leather rim is fine but the hub should be a higher quality plastic at this price.  Limited models add impressive crosshatch stitching on the door panels and seats and wood on the dash strip, but you’re still pulling on Corolla door handles and looking at a shiny Corolla steering wheel hub.  Toyota had to keep some clear air between the Avalon and Lexus ES somehow.

Corolla (left) and Avalon (middle). Note the angular back edge of the door handle. Looks out of place, right? I suspect it was designed for the Camry’s chrome spear (right), which it meets up with nicely. This is an example of bad parts bin sharing.


The contradictions continue in the driving experience.  Let’s start with the good: the suspension tune is way better than I thought it would be.  This car rides on thin 40-series tires on giant wheels, yet bumps and potholes are handled with a quiet bump-ump and a short, clean suspension stroke that can be felt without the jolts, squeaks, squawks or rattles that make a car feel unpleasant and junky.  This car does not float. It responds to the road surface and you can feel the irregularities and cruddy pavement, but all the harsh edges have been nicely filed off.  Toyota engineered an engaging yet comfortable ride & handling balance.  Handling competence in our Camry XSE was accomplished by simply making the suspension rather stiff for a family car, and there are railroad crossings and rotted pavement that make me flinch in anticipation of the sharp hit and the resulting interior noise.  Not in this Avalon.  Moreover, the Avalon corners more confidently, with less roll, better body control, and a slightly sharper steering response.  It turns in cleanly and maintains a flat, steady feel. 

The steering is isolated, like nearly everything else on the road now.  It’s accurate and weighted reasonably, but you cannot feel the front end bite down and dig in.  It just goes where you point it with surprising ability but no feedback, an obvious concession to trouble the comfort-oriented driver.  I think a slightly quicker steering ratio would improve the sense of nimbleness without outrunning the chassis’s capability, but that would run against the conservative origins of this car. 

In these conditions, Motor Trend is correct, it corners much like that Audi.  Where it differs is in putting power down through a turn.  The Audi can claw through under substantial throttle, but the front wheel drive Avalon cannot.  The steering wheel tugs, the inside wheel breaks traction, nannies scold, and you back off.  Relevance, your Honor!  No one drives that way! 

Overruled!  This is not just a snooty esoteric racetrack concern.  Pulling assertively into traffic is a common necessity in my suburban warfare environment, and it’s not pleasant in a 300 hp front wheel drive car with an open differential.  Neither is accelerating on wet pavement.  This is a very competent chassis hindered by an economical drivetrain layout. AWD would do transformative things for the Avalon, including killing the gas mileage. 

The power delivery is another incongruity.  The Avalon is quick. It clears the quarter mile at 99 mph, about even with the BMW 430i and well ahead of the TLX.  But there are character flaws. The 2GR V6 is an eager and energetic engine.  It is joined to the responsive old 6 speed in the Lexus GS, but in the Avalon it’s contending with the contradictory newer 8 speed. I thought this transmission was just fine in the Camry, but apparently my expectations have changed because I didn’t like it in the Avalon.  It’s very eager to downshift–too eager–but takes forever to complete the shift once it has initiated.  If you so much as breathe on the accelerator, it immediately puts a hand up:  “Wait! Lemme find you another gear.”  It then shuffles over to a filing cabinet and starts rooting around:  “Now where is it…aha! How about 2nd?”  

Uh, thanks. But I would rather have stayed in 3rd and been allowed to use the ample midrange. I didn’t really want a downshift.  But if you’re going to insist, do it faster.  This aggressive downshifting means the engine oscillates between low and high rpm and is rarely in the nice quiet punchy midrange unless you constantly work the unrewarding paddle shifters.   

Something is also very off about the engine noise.  An unfortunate feature of the XSE is “digital sound enhancement” through the speakers and a poorly done intake resonator.  At low revs, the V6 Camry and GS are largely silent, but the Avalon provides an audible waaahhh on every throttle application–even minor ones at low engine speeds.  Cycling on and off the pedal in traffic results in an irritating wah…wah…wah, which ruins the otherwise tranquil nature of the car and smooth refinement of the V6.  Wind it out and it improves, but there’s still an artificial discordant note to it.  In contrast, winding out the Camry and GS is a pleasure; the former providing a muted mechanical growl and the latter a rising subtly aggressive crescendo through a much better designed intake resonator with no digital augmentation.  It would have been better to leave the Avalon untouched rather than half-assing it as they did.  

But then we get on the freeway and all is rosy again. The big V6 slings the car to 80 mph and it settles into a rapid, confident, comfortable cruise.  The Avalon whispers down the interstate.  There’s a ton of room in that backseat and the trunk is big.  The large greenhouse and rear pillar windows provide good sightlines.  With this refinement, noise control, power, chassis, and suspension, you could drive all day in comfort no matter the road type, and the irritating bits of interior cost cutting would be invisible until I had to use the Playskool door handles at the next rest area.  I could frankly live with that given its many virtues and for a few minutes believed this was a dark horse candidate who might take this thing.  I was pondering whether to make an offer.

However, the placid freeway jaunt allowed me to notice the little warning signs from my lower back.  Thirty minutes into the test drive, and there’s something about the shape of the lower backrest and seat bottom cushion that is not quite agreeing with me. A vague lack of support.  Granted, I’m a bit stiff from sitting in an office chair all day, but the 4Runner didn’t bug me on the way to the dealership and our Camry seats tend to ease that occasional stiffness rather than emphasize it.  Hmm.  I’ve made this mistake before and I’m not anxious to repeat it.  An uncomfortable seat is a nightmare and my litmus test is whether the seat immediately impresses when I sit down.  If I’m ambivalent, the impression tends to worsen the longer I’m in the car.  That’s probably happening here.  

I don’t make an offer even though this would have been a good deal.  The Toyota dealership can’t move this car. It’s been here awhile and is now being aggressively marketed online for a claimed $7,000 below “retail value”, which is a fantasy world frequently concocted by this particular dealership.  I bought my 4Runner new here and have had largely positive experiences, but their used car office subscribes to the strategy of “mark ‘em up from Day One, then mark ‘em down halfway back to reality and scream that it’s the sale of a lifetime.”  If someone bites they’re a few grand ahead.  Shenanigans aside, this Avalon is still a full three thousand below KBB.  Why doesn’t anyone want it?  The grill?  It is indeed glorious and unapologetic. It could swallow a Fiat. 

But it’s more than that. No one wants a big FWD car that isn’t a Lexus ES.  Well, I might.  Particularly when it’s done as well as this one and is marked down.  Road trips would be dreamy in this car and it holds its own in the canyons. But the transmission behavior and seat discomfort are inescapable, and combined with FWD power delivery, this is not unseating the A5 or GS350.  But damned if it doesn’t have me wanting to waste time checking out a low-mileage Maxima and ES350 FSport now.