Larry Printz: An impressive new Toyota Avalon springs to life for 2019

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Jan. 22, 2018

DETROIT ó Full-size cars rarely attract younger buyers, and the Toyota Avalon is no exception. Try selling a car to a millennial with a name that refers to the legendary island of the dead where King Arthur is buried. After all, this car has traditionally offered a similar dose of eternal serenity.

As before, the fifth-generation Avalon competes in the large car class against such Detroit stalwarts as the Buick LaCrosse, Chevrolet Impala, Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger and Ford Taurus, as well as the Hyundai Azera, Kia Cadenza and Nissan Maxima. The segment sold 392,200 units last year, down 11.2 percent from 2016, with the Avalon down 32.2 percent at 32,583 units. That placed it sixth in sales with an 8.3 percent segment share.

Still, you may wonder why Toyota bothers given this segmentís continuing decline.

"We are still a full-line manufacturer and the segment is still probably a quarter million units strong. There are some who are leaving it, some not paying as much attention to it. But with a new platform and a new Camry, it was very logical to follow that with a new Avalon," said Bill Fay, senior vice president of automotive operations at Toyota North America. "We think thereís a new opportunity to grab some more share there."

In other words, Toyota hopes to lure a younger buyer, one younger than the current Avalonís, which is slightly less than 60 years old.

The redesigned 2019 edition was engineered and designed at Toyotaís facilities in Michigan, Kentucky and California using Toyotaís New Global Architecture, a platform that also underpins the recently redesigned Camry. And while not as radically styled as the Camry, the Avalon has a similar look that banishes the stodginess of the current car.

"Itís really the one chance in 20 years to redefine the proportions, the stance and the overall look of the vehicle," said Randy Stephens, Avalonís chief engineer at the modelís introduction at the 2018 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

That may explain why the 2019 edition is two inches longer and one lower and nearly an inch wider than the vehicle it replaces in an effort to lend the Avalon a sportier aura. Its face features an outrageously large, somewhat formless black plastic grille. Its dominance recalls that of Lexus, as does the over look of the front fascia. The former slab-sided styling has given way to softer side sculpting accented by character lines. In the back, a thin LED light bar includes sequential turn signals and cornering lamps placed atop sloping sheet metal. Itís a unique look.

Similar to the Camry, the Avalon will have three distinct trim walks: sporty (XSE and Touring), opulent (XLE and Limited), and Hybrid (XLE, Limited, and XSE). Each model also wears a slightly different face, with XSE and Touring models getting a mammoth black mesh grille machined wheels, black side mirrors, and a rear spoiler, while XLE and Limited models get more chrome trim up front, body-colored side mirrors and chrome exhaust tips. Hybrid models get a unique grille as well, with hidden exhaust tips in the rear.

Open the door and youíll find the Avalonís cockpit avoids the over-caffeinated exuberance of the Camry, with a modern eloquent simplicity. The Avalonís striking center console resembles a ski slope, with the carís 9-inch capacitive infotainment screen topping it. Soft touch materials are noticeable throughout the cabin; they even wrap the top sides of the center console where a taller driver or passengerís knee might rest. Upper trim levels include real wood and aluminum trim. In the rear thereís storage for electronic devices and generous amounts of head and legroom. Seat heaters are optional.

But this is a vehicle meant to appeal to a younger buyer, so it comes equipped with standard Apple CarPlay. It will also feature smartwatch and Amazon Alexa integration, allowing you to unlock the doors or start the engine or check fuel levels. And while most buyers will appreciate the standard 8-speraker audio system, a JBL 14-speaker, 1200 watt surround sound system is available.

Most Avalons will get their power a 3.5-liter V6 and an eight-speed gearbox, with a XSE and Touring models offering optional steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The other driveline option will be a hybrid, consisting of a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a 650-volt electric motor and continuously variable transmission; itís the segmentís only gas-electric hybrid model. Thoughtfully, the hybridís battery pack is now placed under the rear seat rather than the trunk, so cargo space is not affected.

In an effort to make the Avalon more engaging to drive, al models get selectable drive modes, with Sport, Normal and Eco modes. Touring models also get a Custom mode. Touring models also get an adaptive variable suspension system with Normal, Sport and Sport+ modes. All Avalons now have multi-link rear suspension, which, along with thicker stabilizer bars and spring rates, to improve the carís ride and handling.

Of course, the new Avalon will the sort of driver assistance safety systems that most consumers expect, including a lane departure warning with steering assist, automatic high beam headlights, dynamic cruise control, blind spot monitor, rear cross traffic alert, rear view monitor, and rear cross traffic braking.

Looking at the 2019 Avalon, itís easy to expect that it could attract a younger buyer, or any buyer interested in a large mainstream sedan with luxury car amenities.

"Camry has gotten a younger buyer since the new one was launched; weíre probably down three or four years in average age on just the new Camry alone," Fay said. "So weíre hoping with the four grades and the new look that we can do the same with Avalon."