Avalon Advances

Although sedan sales may be dropping, Toyota is still holding strong in the segment and 
is offering an all-new Avalon to bolster its position.

Toyota once had on offer in the U.S. market (as well as its home market and various others) a car named the Cressida. This was the company’s top-of-the-line sedan. The last Cressida in the U.S. market was the model year 1992 version of the car. For those looking for something a little more lux than the run-of-the-mill Toyota following the absence of the Cressida, the company offered the XLE trim on the third-generation Camry, a car with a 3.0-liter V6.

(Although it should be noted that in 1989 Lexus launched in the U.S. market with two cars, the large LS 400 sedan and the mid-size ES 250, which was based on the Camry platform, so presumably some Cressida buyers went to a place where they could also get a cappuccino.) 

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Arguably, that Camry XLE was just a placeholder for the space the Cressida inhabited in the Toyota showroom, because for model year 1995 the company introduced a new car. This car was specifically targeted to the U.S. market, a market where large premium cars were like the Buick Park Avenue and Mercury Sable were big, comfortable and generally wallowing.

The design and engineering development teams—based in Michigan and California—set out to create something that would compete in that arena, a car that would be comparatively big, well-equipped, comfortable, and a Toyota.

They created the Avalon, which launched in 1994.

One important fact about that model is that it was the first Toyota vehicle exclusively produced in the U.S., at the Georgetown, Kentucky, complex (where it continues to be built today). And the development team members that create the car continue to live in places like Ann Arbor and Newport Beach.

The generations followed. Second gen for the 2000 model year. The third in 2005. The fourth-generation for model year 2013. And now, the fifth-generation, the 2019 Avalon. (Incidentally: The Park Avenue went away in the U.S. in 2005; the Sable had its run until 2009. Buick has the LaCrosse sedan for this space; Ford stopped building Mercury products in January, 2011.)

The 2019 Avalon continues to be the technological tour de force for Toyota, as in this case offering not only firsts for the brand in terms of electronics—as in being Amazon Alexa-enabled—but also in terms of mechanics—it offers adaptive variable suspension (AVS), a system that debuted in the 2018 Lexus LC performance coupe (AVS features shocks that are equipped with solenoid control valves that restrict fluid flow such that damping can occur in 20 milliseconds; there are G-sensors at the front and rear of the vehicle that are connected to an ECU that provides the signals to the shocks as required to meet the road conditions; the damping force is continuously variable within a range of 650 steps). 

The Avalon has an independent MacPherson strut front suspension and a multilink rear; both feature a stabilizer bar.

As is the case with Toyotas that have been launched since the fourth-generation Prius (i.e., the current model), the Avalon is based on the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform, specifically the TNGA K, which is also used for the eighth-generation Camry (i.e., the current model). In addition to achieving engineering cost benefits through the use of commonality in underlying development, the architecture provides a low center of gravity for the vehicle, improved structure, reduced NVH and better sightlines for the driver through the use of thinner pillars.

The front-drive vehicle is available with two engines. One is an Atkinson 3.5-liter V6 with direct injection; the engine produces 301 hp and 267 lb-ft of torque. This engine features both variable valve timing-intelligent (VVT-i) and variable valve timing-intelligent wide (VVT-iW). The former is activated on the exhaust cycle. The latter is activated on intake: it allows optimal torque generation at all speeds and reduced pumping losses during intake valve closing. The engine is mated to an electronically controlled, direct-shift, eight-speed automatic transmission. Improved fuel efficiency was one of the objectives for the vehicle.

The XLE trim Avalon returns an estimated 22/32/26 mpg city/highway/combined. The second powertrain is a hybrid. It uses a 2.5-liter direct-injected four-cylinder engine that features dual VVT-I with VVT-iE (variable valve timing with an electric motor—with the motor replacing oil pressure for valve adjustment). The engine is mated to a hybrid system, the Hybrid System II, which uses two electric motor/generators, which work to either supplement engine performance—the net horsepower is 215—or to recharge the nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) battery pack (which has been moved from the truck to under the rear passengers’ seat so that there isn’t a loss of cargo room yet the packaging is such that the EPA passenger volume is the same for both hybrid and non-hybrid Avalons: 102.9-ft3).

Although the Avalon HV (as the hybrid is designated) is about fuel efficiency (HV XLE: 43/44/44 mpg city/highway/combined), there is a Sport drive mode that can be selected that applies increased motor power for acceleration, and even though there is a version of a continuously variable transmission used, there are six “simulated” gears that can be “shifted” through steering wheel-mounted paddles or the gearshift lever.

(Just as there are simulated gears for the hybrid, the non-hybrid versions are available with ISG—an Intake Sound Generator—ANC—Active Noise Control—and ESE—Engine Sound Enhancement. ISG amplifies both intake and exhaust notes; ANC and ESE work in concert such that unwanted exterior noises are canceled while the engine sound is amplified through the vehicle’s JBL audio speakers. (This is not “fake” noise; it is the “real” noise heightened.)

Compared with the third-generation car, the 2019 Avalon 
is longer, lower and wider:
                          2018           2019
Wheelbase:    110.0 in.   113.0 in.
Length:            195.3 in.   195.9 in.
Width:                72.2 in.      72.8 in.
Height:               57.5 in.      56.5 in.

The 2019 model is aerodynamically sleeker as well, with a coefficient of drag of 0.27, compared with the 2018’s 0.28 Cd.

The vehicles have two distinctly different front fascias, one that signifies premium and the other sportiness. The former, which is found on the XLE and Limited trims, features a dark gray grille with a chrome surround, machined silver headlight bezels, body-color mirror housings, chrome badge letters, and chrome-tipped dual exhausts. The XSE and Touring models have a piano-black mesh grille, black headlight bezels, black mirror housings, black badging, trunk-lid spoiler and quad tailpipes.

A notable offering on the interior is the use of actual aluminum trim on the XSE and Touring models and Yamaha wood on the Limited. (XLE? Hydrographic, or film, surfaces.)

There is a full suite of standard safety systems for the Avalon that fall under the name “Toyota Safety Sense P,” including a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, full-speed dynamic radar cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assist, and automatic high beams. In addition to which there are a blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert and a back-guide monitor. And almost inevitably, the Avalon is offered with Apple CarPlay (something that Toyota had seemed reticent to embrace; this is the first deployment in a Toyota vehicle).

While that CarPlay may not seem like a big deal, it is undoubtedly more significant than it otherwise might seem.

The average age of the current generation Avalon buyer is 66. While people of that age—and older—certainly buy cars, clearly it is more advantageous to reach a younger cohort as that represents a group that will buy more cars. The target group for the 2019 Avalon is 35 to 59 years old. Which probably explains Apple CarPlay.