Rating Toyota’s hybrids: Camry vs. Avalon

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(November 29, 2015) Let’s face it, since its launch in 1994, the Camry-based Avalon might as well have been the pace car for the AARP. Though based on a stretched Camry platform, this replacement for the even more “mature” looking Toyota Cressida was a soft riding boulevard cruiser with upright styling and plenty of room for the owner’s walker (or wheelchair) in the trunk. A perennial candidate for the “Last Car You’ll Ever Own” award (think about it), the Avalon was driven by younger (i.e. under 65) folks only when shuttling parents to appointment with their doctors, or when nothing — and I mean nothing, not even a Pontiac Aztek — was left in the rental car lot.

By comparison, the Camry was a sport sedan. Unlike the Avalon, it’s sheetmetal was not as conducive to a good night’s sleep. It’s ride motions weren’t patterned after those found on a cruise ship. And there was just enough nascent feel through the steering wheel and pedals that you knew that you were in a car and not a video game.

The 2015 model (pictured below) built on this base, added a bit more spice, and produced a car with more style and zest than any prior Camry. Toyota had to. Not only were the previous generations of Camry about as exciting as a solo round of golf, Toyota had a much more handsome sedan in its lineup, the Avalon.

Yes, I said the Avalon. For whatever reason, the fourth-generation Avalon (pictured below) rolled out of the factory gates looking like a supermodel. Sleek and (I can’t believe I’m writing this) rather sexy, the Avalon was like Marie Osmond in those Nutrisystem commercials; suddenly everything is short black dress, pearls and high heels. It’s a look that, even in its latest guise, the Camry can’t quite match.

Under the skin, everything is pretty much the same, and share between the two cars. A transversely mounted 2.5-liter Atkinson cycle four-cylinder engine produces 156 horsepower at 5,700 rpm, and 156 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,500. It’s supplemented by a 105 kW electric motor with 199 lb.-ft. of torque from 0-1,500 rpm, powered by 204 1.2 V nickel-metal hydride battery cells. The transmission is an electronically controlled CVT.

Suspension is independent all around with MacPherson struts up front and a dual link setup in the back. (Both ends have anti-roll bars.) The regenerative braking system is the same, the four-wheel disc friction brakes are identical and, on the XLE trim level, even the wheel and tire sizes are the same.

Camry interior

It’s only in the dimensions that you see an appreciable difference between the two vehicles. The Avalon in 195.3 in. long (+4.4 in.), 72.2 in. wide (+0.5), 57.5 in. tall (-0.4), and sits on a 111.0 in. wheelbase (+1.7). There’s exactly one more cubic feet of interior and cargo room, and the cars are within 100 lb. of each other. Surprisingly, the Avalon’s EPA-rated fuel economy (40 city/39 highway/40 combined) is 1 mpg better on the highway than the Camry’s, though it’s such a small difference that it’s essentially insignificant.

For the price, you get more with the Camry Hybrid. In fact, our XLE trim level came with Toyota’s Safety Connect system ($515), Blind Spot Monitor with Rear Cross-Traffic Alert ($500), the Convenience Package ($345), Entune Premium JBL Audio with Navigation and App Suite ($1,330) and Advanced Technology Package ($750), and it still cost nearly $3,000 less than the Avalon
XLE Premium that graced our drive the next week.

Avalon interior

Plus, it has more safety equipment (the Advanced Technology Package includes Pre-collision Alert, Lane Departure Alert, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, and Automatic High Beam) than you currently can get on the Avalon. However, as our own Al Vinikour might say, in most situations all you really need are the blind spot and cross-traffic alert systems, so why pay for what you don’t want?

On the road, the two cars are very similar. The hybrid drive system is quietly effective, and returns great gas mileage under most conditions. Drive it with even a modicum of restraint, and either car will return a solid 36-38 mpg in the city. Venture out onto the highway, and this number is only slightly (about 1 mpg) lower. The downside is diminished carrying capacity. You can’t fold the seats down to extend the cargo area as the batteries and electronics are on the back wall of the trunk.

Ride and handling are pretty similar, though Toyota engineers went a little firmer with the Camry than they did with the Avalon, and this shows up in the form of occasional ride harshness. Of course, the Camry’s slightly smaller size and busier interior feel slightly sportier than the Avalon’s more cultured confines, making this attribute easier to understand. However, it is the only dynamic aspect where the two diverge to any degree.

The Virtual Driver