2019 Toyota Avalon Hybrid Review: A Premium Sedan With a Compact's Thirst and Thrust

Toyota’s new 2019 Avalon is trying hard to be a Lexus in terms of driving comfort, a Prius in terms of efficiency...and a baleen whale in terms of appearance. 

Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff car review consisting of impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: the 2019 Toyota Avalon, in hybrid form.

The 2019 Toyota Avalon Hybrid XSE, By the Numbers:

Base Price (Price as Tested): $39,920 ($40,600)

Powertrain: 2.5-liter inline-four, dual AC 650-volt electric motors, combined output 215 horsepower; continuously-variable transmission; front-wheel-drive

EPA Fuel Economy: 43 mpg city, 43 mpg highway

0-60 MPH: 7.8 seconds (Car and Driver testing)

Trunk volume: 16.1 cubic feet, identical to the non-hybrid model

Quick Take: The new Avalon trades in its cushy image for a more exotic look, while the hybrid model brings near-Prius fuel economy figures to the party. 

Cait Knoll

PICTURED: The visually identical, non-hybrid Toyota Avalon Touring

As cars strive to be all things to all people—sporty, efficient, roomy, affordable—the risk becomes huge degrees of sameness. We see it most in crossovers and full-size sedans—most of which, if you flick the logos off and squint your eyes, you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish from their competitors. That’s not entirely a bad thing. Car companies give people what they want, and for most people, they want the basics; cost, resale value, and functionality generally trump excitement and attractiveness. The Avalon has long been Toyota’s sacrificial lamb in this respect—the car that ticks all the boxes for "needs" while wrapping its owner in a cocoon of sensibility. We know why people buy it, but who would want it? Doesn’t matter—it’s fine. There are other cars within Toyota’s lineup, and elsewhere, that play up one or two of the above metrics while sacrificing one or two others.

Cait Knoll

Therefore, it’s satisfying to see the little glimmers of hope present in the new 2019 Toyota Avalon, both hybrid and conventional—the hints of excitement that reward owners with a jolt of distinction. The two-tone black and brown interior color combo in my test vehicle was a refreshing surprise—a chocolaty spread of perforated cognac (i.e., brown) leather punctuated with black cowskin and some pebble-finished black plastic. The effect is upscale, if a potential ding against the value when it comes to resale. (At this point, any feature with that effect scores points with me.) The appearance of non-glossy wood with actual texture is also a surprise, something that signals, mercifully, that it may not actually be plastic—something I’m increasingly suspicious of when I see glossy, wood-like materials in a car.

Toyota Avalon

Outside, smoothly tapering lines arcing from beltline to roofline give the car another nice kick of elegance and modernity. It tries too hard in some respects—the massive, unsightly air intakes beneath the logo in the grill that bring to mind a baleen whale filtering krill from the ocean, the saucy swoops at the ends of the character lines on the side panels—but overall, the new Avalon looks really good. There’s actual design work present, which goes a long way toward making a large car feel reasonably lean and proportioned, rather than bloated. While it used to feel like a car driven by people who just don’t care what their car looks like, now it has some pride. That will likely transfer to those behind the wheel.

Cait Knoll

The large sedan, positioned above the Camry and often mentioned in the same breath as its Lexus ES corporate cousin, comes with a choice of a 3.5-liter V-6 that produces 301 horsepower and 267 lb-ft of torque or the hybrid powertrain, which is available in XLE, XSE, and Limited trims. The hybrid uses a 2.5-liter inline-four making 176 horsepower and 163 pound-feet and 88 kW worth of electric motors that combine to generate, due to assorted losses and differences within the system, a system output of 215 hp. That’s pretty modest for a large sedan, and if you want real grunt from a car—or even just grabby, torque-y acceleration—you won’t really find it in the Avalon Hybrid. What you will fine is an adequate, if uninspiring, 7.8-second time for the 0-to-60 sprint, compared to the V-6 engine’s 6.1 seconds. But the 43 mpg in the city and on the highway alike will make up for the laggy acceleration in many owners’ books. Some people just don’t care about jack rabbit starts.

Cait Knoll

On the road, the car feels confident and capable, thanks to its tweaked multilink suspension and the firmness—if not the actual sprightliness—of the hybrid powertrain, which is more efficient in terms of both cooling and overall power losses than the previous Avalon Hybrid. The new battery has also been relocated to beneath the rear passenger seat instead of the trunk, which helps lower the center of gravity. The 3,718-pound curb weight also isn’t horrible, compared to other large sedans—particularly luxury ones—so it also feels light behind the wheel for its class. The continuously variable transmission has wheel-mounted paddles shifters to give you some control over the power, but few will use them, and there’s little point. The transmission keeps up just fine, and this isn’t a sports sedan by any stretch anyway.

Cait Knoll

The $36,500 entry point for the hybrid can easily reach to $44,000 once you start climbing the trim ladder, adding in features like the 1,200-watt, 14-speaker JBL premium audio system, the moonroof, and the safety package that brings a bird’s-eye view camera setup, parking sensors, and rear cross-traffic braking system. But the Avalon is a well-equipped car to begin with, bringing LED headlights, collision alerts, automatic high-beams, and Apple CarPlay—though not Android Auto—along with plenty of creature comforts and built-in safety measures. System interactions take place through a bright, 9.0-inch capacitive touchscreen that allows for pinch-zooming and swiping, and the system packs voice-recognition for certain commands and smartwatch-control via Amazon Alexa and Toyota’s Remote Connect app. With this, you can lock or unlock the car, start the engine, or check the fuel level from a smartwatch or Alexa-enabled device.

Toyota

That said, these features are increasingly expected in mainstream lineups like Toyota's, where the Avalon Hybrid still exists in spite of its Lexus-rivaling price. Fortunately, the Avalon Hybrid hits a lot of the right notes; it's disappointing only in the raw thrust department, and it's finally something of a looker—which, in the world of universally-similar sedans, is starting to mean more and more.

Cait Knoll