It’s hard to believe that the Toyota Avalon has been part of the streetscape for over 25 years now. Redesigned again for its fifth generation a couple of years ago, the range has been expanded for 2021 with a new all wheel drive model. Interestingly, it’s paired exclusively with Toyota’s gasoline 2.5liter 4-cylinder engine, as opposed to either the V6 or the available Hybrid. I, as a closet Avalon fan despite never having owned or as far as I can recall even having driven one, was looking forward to this week with it. Let’s go for a ride.
The Avalon has long been called the Japanese Buick by some, I’m not sure if that was originally meant to be derisive or laudatory. Or perhaps just a bit of a backhanded compliment thought up by someone trying to be clever. Whatever, if that’s really the case then the Avalon has seemingly had the last laugh as it’s apparently kicked the ass of the Buick sedan lineup to the point that there are no Buick sedans left for sale in its home country.
If a new one is ever introduced here again (fat chance), perhaps it’ll be called Buick’s Avalon. Quiet, dignified near-luxury is exactly what Buick once specialized in, and describes the Avalon mission to a tee, a mantle once held by the Cressida prior to the rise of Lexus.
Still, that’s a lot of credit seeing as how the Avalon hasn’t cracked 60,000 annual sales here since 2015 (and 100k only once in its entire history). In fact this current generation hasn’t yet exceeded 30,000 per annum. Yet, Toyota keeps on with it and regularly updates it. One reason for this is that the platform is shared and the car is built on a flexible assembly line that also builds the Camry, so relative volumes can easily be adjusted depending on demand. The heavily related Lexus ES (also now available with this drivetrain configuration) is also built on this line, further helping to keep it moving.
Another point of interest is that the Avalon now a hit in China of all places, where this newest generation sold over 111,000 units last year (yes, the pandemic year) and thus development costs can be spread over more units. Perhaps it’ll kick Buick’s ass over there too eventually, who knows, the Japanese auto industry in general seems to be making serious inroads there as of late which didn’t seem to always be the case.
The Avalon has gone from a very conservative and upright design to something more swoopy over the last few design cycles and that hasn’t slowed this time around. When introduced, the immediate general reaction was a somewhat shocked outpouring of emotion and pearl-clutching over its rather large grille, which when now viewed in context to the rest of the current lineup served to announce the direction of Toyota’s front end design in general, with a similar theme being displayed on other models introduced since then, most notably the Sienna and Highlander.
In those cases the reaction to it was more muted after the Avalon broke the ice, perhaps a clever move on Toyota’s part to do so with a lower volume model. The Camry did actually do the wider grille slightly earlier but not quite to the same extreme. The grille features an upper section that opens to the radiator, then a solid section in the middle where a European (or Chinese-sized) license plate would go, and then another opening towards the bottom. The side portions are mainly closed. In its entirety, the chromed surround encompasses an area that is probably about half open and half closed when counting the license plate area.
Most pronounced on the “sporty” Avalon sub-models, this version in Limited trim keeps it as toned down as possible and actually isn’t what makes the biggest initial impression, at least when not faced with it from a head-on perspective while laying on the ground, as many of the initial images of it appeared to have done.
What’s most notable is in fact are its dimensions and how low it looks with long, flowing lines that sculpt themselves around the corners of the car. As a sedan, and a historically conservative one at that, this is downright sexy, the choir girl showing the congregation her garter belt which I’m not entirely sure all of the purists are ready for.
In fact it’s virtually the exact same height as the first generation Avalon but now almost six inches longer than that one, a quarter decade later. Three and half inches longer than and about the same height as the current Camry and five and half inches shorter than the last (now departed) Chevrolet Impala while about two inches lower than that same Impala.
I kind of dig the look, it reminds me of the Lexus LS big dog, long and sort of slinky, especially in the vivid metallic blue named Blueprint this one was painted. Besides the blue, there are also two different reds on offer along with the usual array of grayscales as well as a brown. While the market is seemingly heading away, every few years I find myself drawn back to some sedans, and currently this here finds my favor. I’d really love to see it as a station wagon, but know that’ll never come to pass.
Inside though is where it really shines, especially in the striking Cognac color that pervades a lot of it here. Not just on the seats and door panels, incorporating the color on the dashboard and center console makes it look more complete and adds significant visual interest which is then compounded by the intricate stitching most evident on those panels and seat bolsters. “Dramatic” isn’t a word I was ever thinking of being able to draw from my wordsmith’s quiver in relation to any aspect of a Toyota Avalon but here it fits.
Calming and comfortable, like a good lounge, and not as austere as many other vehicles. In addition there are flashes of extravagance clearly on display that make the eye focus on things not normally worthy of attention without veering into the garish.
Beyond the leather, there is genuine wood trim that has tactile grain with a satin finish, apparently sourced through Yamaha who through their fine musical instruments division has some very relevant experience with this material. Here the wood has the look and feel of large solid pieces rather than just thin veneers. But most captivating in the interior is the way the center console sweeps forward and up in a very, well, dramatic fashion.
Love it or hate it, the 9″ screen doesn’t look tacked on at least, here it actually looks like it comes from somewhere and presents as a very clean user interface that at its root is still the same basic item that is shared across most of the lineup. With eight small menu buttons along the sides, touch and voice capability, the resolution is perfectly fine but not anywhere near the top of the class (most evident in the camera resolution of the backup and 360-degree bird’s eye views).
While I’m well versed in Toyota’s system and it is quick to respond to inputs, it’s starting to feel a little clunky compared to the advances made in other systems, however it does work reliably and without fundamental fault. The main screen is easily reconfigurable as to what information a driver wants displayed on it (up to three unrelated subjects at one time) and in the end it’s just another aspect of controlling the car that’s quite ubiquitous now and far from a novelty anymore. Apple CarPlay and AndroidAuto are also included here as they are now seemingly (finally) for at least the majority of Toyotas in general.
Below the screen and the center vents is an array of buttons for the HVAC controls that aren’t the ideal way to control everything as opposed to knobs but fit within the modern theme here. At least they are physical buttons, as usual presented and installed extremely precisely with excellent action. Seat heat and ventilation controls are found down here as well and it all works easily and obviously, without any need to look for a manual to explain things. All the way at the bottom is a compartment covered in the same colored soft material that slides forward to present a compartment for a mobile phone with a wireless charging pad.
Steering wheel heat and some of the driver assist features are controlled via a separate button bank to the lower left of the wheel, and the wheel itself controls various aspects such as the adaptive cruise control as well as phone and audio functions along with information displayed via the instrument panel. In addition adjustment for tilt and telescope is electric via a small knob on the column below the turn signal lever, much like an external mirror adjuster.
That instrument panel contains backlit gauges with traditional needles along with a large and reconfigurable central display area that as usual I mostly kept in the fuel economy reporting program but can be used for all manner of other items ranging from various bits of vehicle information to audio selection along with many other aspects to toggle through. The above picture makes the screen edge obvious, in reality it appears seamless with the rest of the panel.
The seats themselves are supremely comfortable and easy to find yourself forming a long-term relationship with, although those longer of torso than myself (6’1″ with 32″ inseam) might wish that the roof was raised a bit more. With the sunroof I was dangerously close to touching its surround and when entering the car was reminded of one of the main reasons that sedans are falling out of favor.
I’m not completely out of shape but am also not the most limber person I know, at times ducking and bending my neck under the doorframe wasn’t as easy as it was at half my age or even a decade ago. That’s subjective of course and hardly an overall demerit but something that some buyers will (unfortunately need to) consider.
The back seat is similarly comfortable, however again the roofline intrudes a bit, forcing at least myself to slouch a little for maximum comfort. The cushion is long enough for this and legroom is also very charitable back here, so this presents less of a problem than it could. Interestingly this is at least partly due to the AWD setup on this car, the revised floorplan required the back seat to be almost half an inch higher than the regular FWD version, but the Hybrid FWD is similarly afflicted due to its batteries.
The rear of the center console contains separate HVAC vents along with seat heater controls and two separate sizes of USB inputs, more of which are located within the center console itself. A fold-down armrest with cupholders completes the package back here.
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