Payne: Toyota’s new Avalon is a Lexus-beater

Posted by Talbot Payne on November 16, 2018

Avalon Fr3 4

Toyota and its luxury-brand Lexus dominated Consumer Reports’ reliability rankings again this year, and it’s easy to see why. While brands like Tesla (third to last) and Volvo (last) innovate with new but glitchy technology, the Japanese brands beaver along with proven, dependable hardware.

Take the big Toyota Avalon that I’ve been driving with its dependable gated shifter, dependable infotainment display and dependable V-6 engine. They should call it the Toyota Dependable.

But for all their metronomic reliability, the Tokyo titans are hardly vanilla. Bucking design tradition, they’ve reached into the Hollywood wardrobe and assembled some of the most radical designs in autodom.

Lexus in particular has walked off the deep end, wearing costumes with more angles than Dr. Strange’s cape and a face that only Darth Vader could love.

It’s even more bonkers inside. I was recently in a Lexus LX 570 ute with the infotainment system from hell. The remote dash screen is operated by a sort of mouse on the console that is impossible to operate standing still, much less when the car is moving. One wonders how reliable it would be if Consumer Reports tested it after frustrated owners have beaten it silly with a tire iron.

All of which is why I recommend Toyota over Lexus these days.

As regular readers of this column know, the electronic revolution has brought a conversion of mainstream and luxury-car features. Features like adaptive cruise-control — a gee-whiz luxury item just 15 years ago that’s now commonplace on even compact cars like the $20,000 Toyota Corolla hatchback.

Speaking of which, the Corolla has gone from one of the most disappointing cars in the market (tell me again why this numb wallflower was a best-selling compact?) to my favorite Toyota product. And it’s not just that the rousing Corolla hatch is loaded with features and has all the utility of a Toyota RAV4 without the compromised handling.

The hatch is a looker. From its aggressive haunches to its good c-pillar visibility to its coherent grille, the Corolla is evidence that not all Toyota designers are crayon-wielding teens that believe every grille should be made to resemble comic-book supervillains.

I was fond of the last-generation Avalon with its long lines and pleasing face. Indeed, the cute Corolla hatch is the last-gen Avalon’s Mini Me. Then papa went to a plastic surgeon and got a face-lift. Oh, that mouth!

The Avalon looks like a humpback whale ingesting a school of krill. The Tasmanian Devil’s kisser isn’t this big. It rivals Lexus for most outrageous face. Which is how CEO Akio Toyoda wants it. Like the best-selling Camry sedan, Akio wanted his new generation of cars to inspire buzz, not ZZZZs.

Look up “polarizing” in the dictionary and it reads “1. Lexus 2. Toyota.” Happily for those of us not named Vader, the rest of the Avalon is more tasteful.

The horizontal tail lights are conventionally fashionable — following Dodge, Lincoln, Audi, et al — and help tie together the big sedan’s rump. Speaking of big, Avalon is typically roomy for a Toyota, expanding its wheelbase two inches over the previous model. You don’t get to be a best-selling brand in the USA without listening to your triple-extra-large clientele.

The front door was apparently taken off a Delta Airlines hangar. I have arms like an orangutan, but I needed an umbrella handle to reach the handle to shut the door once inside. The interior is tomb-quiet, my Touring model’s leather and suede appointments swallowing my big frame. I could easily sit behind myself in back.

The interior dials back the exterior’s craziness. Whereas the Camry gives the console an (admittedly inspired) S-curve design, the Avalon falls back on a conventional, upright look — replacing the previous floating console shaped like a artist’s palette. An artist myself, I rather liked the old look — but the new design is businesslike and easy to use.

And it’s why I’d recommend this up-market-targeted sedan over its Lexus peer.

The interface is easy to use, while providing standard “Safety Sense” and infotainment features — backup camera, digital radio, blind-spot assist, even Apple CarPlay (finally) — that customers have come to expect from a premium car. Heck, these items are standard on a $23,000 Corolla.

But perhaps the most critical piece of my upsell of the Avalon to you, dear Lexus customer, is its handling. Previous-generation Avalons were boats. But on the company’s new Toyota New Global Architecture — which undergirds the excellent Camry as well as the Avalon and Corolla — the Avalon is surprisingly athletic.

Carving through my favorite Metro Detroit ess-curves, Avalon is planted, allowing me to get into the 3.5-liter’s growly V-6 throttle early off the turn. Mated to a quick-shifting eight-speed tranny, the big sled is a worthy dance partner.

Love that six-holer. While automakers have fled to turbo-4s to meet both emissions controls and customers’ need for speed, Toyota has stuck with its loyal six. It’s dependable as a collie.

Dependability also rhymes with affordability in Toyota’s case. My Touring tester came in at $44,913 — $8,000 cheaper than a comparable Lexus GS with the same V-6, but without that maddening mouse controller. My only reservation is Toyota starves the Avalon of an all-wheel drive option for Michigan winters, a feature that the GS (and every SUV) options.

The Avalon is not deprived of a Toyota-Lexus signature hybrid model, however, and here again value is impressive. With its electric-assisted, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, the 3,718-pound sedan gets a remarkable 43 mpg for just a grand more than the V-6 model. That’s not much of a hybrid premium — and in just a year’s driving you’ll make it all back in gas savings. Helpless motorhead that I am, I would still opt for the visceral satisfaction of the V-6.

It’s a tough slog these days for sedans, especially big sedans like the Avalon. Without all-wheel drive, they are easily passed over for large utes. But for traditionalists who still value a sleek, punchy sedan with fuss-free ergonomics, the old-school Avalon’s new-school architecture is a contender.

Just be sure and park it nose-first into the garage so its humpback whale mug doesn’t scare the neighborhood kids.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Toyota Avalon

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan

Price: $32,000 base including $920 destination fee ($44,913 Touring as tested)

Powerplant: 3.5-liter V-6; 2.4-liter inline-4 cylinder with nickel-metal hydride battery assist

Power: 310 horsepower, 267 pound-feet torque (V-6); 215 horsepower (hybrid)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic (V-6) or continuously variable automatic (hybrid)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.0 seconds (Motor Trend)

Weight: 3,704 pounds (V-6)

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 22 city/31 highway/25 combined (V-6); 43 city/43 highway/43 combined (hybrid)

Report card

Highs: Roomy, athletic sedan; screen controls with nice knobs

Lows: Oh, that face; AWD, please

Overall: 3 stars

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