Waiting for the crossover craze to wane

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(May 7, 2018) Despite the continuing decline in sedan sales, Toyota is launching a fifth generation Avalon, the flagship of the Toyota line in the U.S. And while Toyota executives expect this decline to continue for about three more years — averaging about three to five percent per year — they also expect it to level off as the SUV craze begins to cool, and sedans are rediscovered by a younger generation.

Which may explain why, in addition to continuing with a large sedan, Toyota has given the new Avalon such “adventurous” styling.

For the first three generations, the Avalon was aimed squarely at an older buyer whose tastes hewed more closely to Perry Como than Katy Perry; with the fourth generation shedding its dowdiness to become a conservatively stylish car. Toyota says the development team kept in mind two keywords during the 2019 Avalon’s development: Authenticity and Exhilaration, which aligns with the design philosophy of “Technical Beauty.”

It also claims the design, engineering, and development team, “masterminded an Avalon that represents multilateral progressiveness — for itself, its diverse group of drivers, and for Toyota.” I’ll give you time to let that sink in.

[Insert pause here.]

No, you are not mistaken. It does sound like a cross between the legalese in a financial prospectus and the rantings of a Sixties flower child — and makes about as much sense. You can almost imagine the television commercial: cable business network favorite Ken Fisher of Fisher Investments in a tie-dyed suit promising, “Dude, I’d rather go to hell than sell you an annuity,” all from the front seat of a new Avalon.

It’s jarring, incongruous, and almost as off putting as the near Lexus-spindle grille and oversize vents and scoops ladled over what otherwise is a very attractive shape.

Like the cars of the Sixties, the new Avalon is longer, lower and wider, but the cabin has been stretched to cover a larger portion of the available real estate. The cowl is 1.2 in. lower, the wheelbase is 2.0 in. longer, overall height is 1.0 in. less, and width is up 0.8 in., yet the front and rear overhangs are shorter than before. Toyota says the modular TNGA structure (TNGA K in this application) helped concentrate the masses lower in the chassis and improve packaging, while manufacturing breakthroughs allowed deeper, more chiseled character lines and the tightest radius (0.31 in.) Toyota has ever done on the C-pillar.

Unlike the Sixties, the Avalon’s press materials leave the mechanical rundown to the end, focusing instead on the styling, interior, and connectivity options. Personally, I blame the auto industry’s insistence on separating their product from its engineering roots, and concentrating instead on comfort and electronics as differentiators it believes will appeal to Wall Street and a generation raised to believe that manufacturing, engineering and — yes — automobiles are neither cool nor relevant. Nonsense. Absolute nonsense.

There are two powertrain choices: a 3.5-liter V6, a hybrid with a 2.5-liter inline four mated to a 50-volt electric motor. The V6 produces 301 hp and 267 lb.-ft. of torque. To put that in perspective, that’s 31 more horsepower and 43 more lb.-ft. of torque than Ferrari could coax out of the quad cam 3.2-liter V8 found in the 328 GTB/GTS in 1985. Unlike the Ferrari V8, the Avalon’s V6 has an 11.8:1 compression ratio, direct and port fuel injection, and variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust cams. It mates to an eight-speed automatic transmission, and — like the 328’s powertrain — is transversely mounted, though in the front of the car, not the back.

If the thought of a Toyota sedan with more power than a classic Ferrari is a bit too much, there’s always the Avalon Hybrid. It mates a 2.5-liter four with Toyota’s Hybrid System II to create a total of 215 horsepower — 15 more than the previous system.

The new hybrid system uses two electric motors, with one helping to charge the nickel-metal hydride battery pack, and the other to assist the engine. The battery pack has been moved from the truck to under the rear seat (an advantage of the TNGA architecture), while the powertrain control unit is smaller, lighter, and relocated to a “power stack” atop the transaxle. Not only is conversion efficiency improved by 20% and cooling system cut by 10%, the change in battery and powertrain controller unit location lowers the Avalon Hybrid’s center of gravity.

And, if further proof of Toyota’s intentions to make the Avalon, uh, exhilarating, not only has a Sport mode and Sequential Shiftmatic technology (six simulated gears) been added to the CVT, every drive mode — even Sport — is available when the EV mode is activated.

The fun doesn’t stop there as the 2019 Avalon also is available with continuously controlled electronic dampers, grade-specific exhaust baffle tuning, an intake sound generator, Active Noise Control, and Engine Sound Enhancement. All Avalon models come with three driver-selectable drive modes (Eco, Normal, Sport), with the Touring model adding Sport+ and Custom. In addition, the multi-link independent rear suspension has been redesigned around the 2019 model’s wider track, the dampers are tilted forward, and the trailing arms’ location has been raised to place the pivot axis of the tire rearward for better bump absorption. Also, the anti-roll bars are stiffer (25% in the front, 86% in the rear), and the spring rates have been increased.

On the safety front, the engineers have fitted Toyota Safety Sense P (TSS-P), which includes:

    Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection (PCS w/PD),
    Full-Speed Range Dynamic Radar Cruise Control (DRCC),
    Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist (LDA w/SA),
    and Automatic High Beams (AHB).

This is in addition to the standard Blind Spot Monitor (BSM) with Rear Cross Traffic Alert (RCTA) and Back Guide Monitor (BGM). And you can order the Panoramic View Monitor with Alert (PVMA) and Intelligent Clearance Sonar (ICS), which now includes a Rear Cross Traffic Braking (RCTB) system. All this is in addition to the 10 standard airbags, Enhanced Vehicle Stability Control, Traction Control, Electronic Brake-force Distribution, Brake Assist, Anti-lock Braking System, Smart Stop Technology and standard backup camera.

The standard headlights on the XLE and XSE have a cluster of three reflectors for the daytime running lights, low beams, and high beams. For the Limited and Touring, there are a pair of thin light modules per headlamp, one for the low beam and one for the high beam, coupled with an adaptive LED cornering lamp and an auxiliary turn signal that activates sequentially. In addition, both the head and taillights utilize Technical Laser Ablation to create a special intricate texture and patterning on a metallized inner lens through which the LED  lights are visible

Inside, the Avalon has five USB ports, a slide-open eBin with a 12-volt plug and — on the XLE — a Qi wireless charger, an available 10-in. full-color head-up display, a seven-inch display between the speedometer and tachometer, and more.

A JBL audio system is standard on the Limited and Touring, and optional on the XSE and XLE where an eight-speaker audio unit with Entune Audio 3.0 Plus is standard. The JBL unit has a 12-channel amplifier with 1,200 watts, 14 speakers, 7.1-channel Quantum Logic Surround sound technology, sealed inner doors, and JBL branding on the A-pillars and door trim.

This is a significant redesign of a large sedan in a crossover world. And while Toyota may have gone overboard with its visual imagery and overwrought prose, it usually doesn’t make  mistakes when it comes to product.

The new Avalon, like the Camry before it, is a prime competitor in a segment that shifts two million units each year. Toyota doesn’t want to lose those sales — or the ones it sees a few years out on the horizon.

The Virtual Driver