Toyota Avalon Hybrid — The frugal way to drive big

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

There's still a market for large comfortable mainstream sedans with stretch-out room for adults, a pleasant ride, quiet interior, decent gas mileage, and acceptable performance. But it's becoming harder to find these cars, which not long ago existed on every manufacturer's new-car lot. One of the best remaining sedans is the Toyota Avalon that was redesigned for the 2018 model year. It's a handsome vehicle with most of the creature comforts and safety technology available today.

And if fuel economy is high on your list of desires Toyota has just the ticket with the Avalon hybrid. It has advertised fuel economy of 43 mpg city, 43 highway and 43 combined on regular gas. Our lead-foot antics managed about 40 mpg. And here's the good part — it's priced just $1,000 higher than the traditional V-6 engine model. In other words, it shouldn't take much more than a year to recoup the extra cost even at today’s shrunken gas prices.

The Avalon carries a stately, eye-appealing stance. Subtle side surfacing emphasizes the car’s 195.9-inch length, and the sloping, fastback-like rear glass tapers nicely into the rear deck, below which is a pleasing full-width taillight treatment. But we think the big-mouth grille — a treatment given to virtually all Toyota and Lexus products these days — doesn't harmonize with the rest of the design.

Although the Avalon rides on the same TNGA architecture as the new mid-size Camry, it’s considerably larger with the wheelbase stretched nearly two inches and length by three inches. This yields excellent legroom and a decent-sized trunk measuring 16.1 cubic feet, a cubic foot larger than the Camry. Note that the hybrid's batteries are mounted under the rear seats giving the hybrid the same trunk capacity as the conventional Avalon.

The Avalon Hybrid comes in three trim levels — XLE, Limited and XSE — all with the same powertrain, although the XSE gets some performance tweaks including a tuned suspension. Power comes from a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and two electric motors with combined output of 215 horsepower mated to a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) driving the front wheels.

While combined gas mileage is 17 mpg better than the conventional car, you will lose some performance. Overall performance measured 7.8 seconds from 0-to-60. Merging and passing were accomplished, be it with a bit of pedal to the medal and the whine of the CVT.  By comparison, the standard 3.5-liter V-6 making 301 horsepower can accomplish the same feat in 6.1 seconds. We found cornering and handling to be acceptable and on a par with the standard Avalon. And it was easy to direct it in a straight line without a lot of steering wheel inputs.

The hallmark of the Avalon has always been its large, roomy and premium interior, and that space really shows up with comfortable front seats and stretch-out-room rear seats. The look of the interior is certainly conservative and void of curvy design elements. It’s rather straightforward, with the dash bisected by Avalon’s thin nine-inch floating multimedia system (MMS) displaying audio and navigation.

Avalon also features Toyota’s first inclusion of smart watch for Amazon Alexa-enabled device connectivity, as part of Toyota Remote Connect. The feature allows drivers to lock/unlock their doors, start their engine, or check their fuel level, all from their smart watch or Amazon Alexa-enabled device. It’s voice controllable, and compatible with select Android or Apple devices. And, for the first time, Apple CarPlay is now offered. However, for some unknown reason Android Auto is still not available.

The Avalon Hybrid has the requite safety equipment. The so-called base XLE comes with Toyota's Safety Sense suite of advanced features — forward collision warning with automatic braking, lane keeping assist, automatic high beams and adaptive cruise control — as well as a blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert.

Our top trim Limited was loaded up with 18-inch wheels, upgraded exterior lighting, a sunroof, a head-up display, leather upholstery, ventilated front seats, driver-seat memory settings, heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel, wood interior trim, ambient interior lighting, a wireless charging pad, a built-in navigation system and a 14-speaker premium JBL audio system.

The Hybrid starts at $37,420 for the XLE. The XSE begins at $39,920 and the Limited goes out the door for $43,720. Our test car with the $1,150 Advance Safety Package including a surround-view parking camera system and rear parking sensors with automatic braking carried a bottom line of $45,513. Hybrid components carry an 8-year/100,000 mile warranty in addition to the basic 3-year/36,000- mile warranty and the 5-year, 60,000-mile drivetrain warranty.

Base price: $37,420; as driven, $45,513
Engine: 2.5-liter 4-cylinder, 2 electric motors
Horsepower: 215 combined
Torque: 2.5-liter, 156 lb-ft; electric motors, 199 lb-ft
Transmission: continuously variable
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 111.0 inches
Length: 195.3 inches
Curb weight: 3,638 pounds
Turning circle: 40.0 feet
Luggage capacity: 14 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 17 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 43 city, 43 highway, 43 combined
0-60: 7.8 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Honda Accord Hybrid, Lexus ES 300h

The Good
• Outstanding fuel economy
• Quiet, upscale cabin
• Wide array of safety features

The Bad
• Small trunk for size of car

The Ugly
• Still no Android Auto available