Toyota Avalon Hybrid: Short On Speed, Long On Legroom

“I’m still looking for a ride to the airport,” he said. One of my best friends was getting married next month, and sadly none of us could be there. The wedding was in Newfoundland.

“Where are you flying out of?” I asked.

“San Francisco.”

“Lovely, I’ll just take you. No worries.”

I’ll be totally honest. I love strife. I love stressful situations. Why? Easy stuff never makes a good story. Whilst I was very much looking forward to the opportunity to have a fun drive, I was equally hoping to be the only one to report back to my friends on “The Freak Out” he had when we finally arrived at the airport. What I wasn’t looking forward to was driving his aging Ford Fusion back through what is quite possibly the worst city for driving a manual on the planet.

Just for kicks, I figured I would reach out to Toyota and see if they could hook me up. A very pleasant PR guy returned my email the next business day after I politely asked to borrow a $38,000 car, informing me that they would be happy to let a total automotive journalistic novice take a car for the weekend. I was stunned, and still expected there to be a catch.

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I woke up early Thursday, as I had arranged to pick up the car in a city some three hours south of me. When I met the car at the pickup point, I was rather excited. Perhaps it’s “first press car goggles,” but the 2016 Toyota Avalon Hybrid is quite the looker. Parisian Night Pearl, a really posh name for dark blue, worked well on the car. The styling was refined. The bulging chrome fog light surrounds were missing from previous iterations of the Avalon, replaced by a single turn signal blade similar to the one found on the Camry. Anxious to get going, I grabbed my meager belongings from my car, and left it behind with nothing more than a gentle “whirrrrr” from the electric motor.

As soon as I had got up the street, I was irritated by a warning tone. A message flashed up on the display:

EV mode deactivated

Really? The Avalon Hybrid isn’t a plug-in car, but I found it vaguely annoying that it gave up on EV operation so quickly. According to the display, I had ample battery remaining. What gives, Toyota? Let me drive the car how I want to drive it.

Having been in possession of a press car for nearly two whole minutes, I decided it would be a good time to test just how not-fast it was. I selected Sport Mode and mashed the pedal to the floor. The Avalon sauntered up the on-ramp at a reasonable pace, but 200 combined horsepower is never going to feel very fast in a car this large. For what it’s worth, the Sport function did deliver on its promise. Any time I selected it, I found that the car much more eager to select a better ratio from the CVT and spin the electric motor up to maximum output.

On my first of MANY long freeway drives through the least scenic part of California, I got better acquainted with the interior. The stitching on the leather dashboard gave the car a relatively upscale, if not restrained, feel. It didn’t shout “opulence” by any stretch of the imagination, but was still a comfortable and pleasant place to be. The front seat had a myriad of adjustments, in addition to being rather plush. The fit and finish of all the trim panels seemed pretty solid, and road noise was barely perceptible. This car was already living up to my expectations: a slow, quiet, comfortable freeway cruiser.

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Whilst reading about the car, I saw tons of pushback in the press about the capacitive controls on the stereo. Many complained about “accidentally” pressing other buttons, but I had no such issues. After an hour or so I was used to it, but still perplexed as to why Toyota would give up on their usually brilliant physical buttons. Otherwise, the stereo system was pretty unremarkable. The channel preset interface was clunky, and I never felt that my iPhone was doing what I wanted it to do while I was attempting to play songs from my Spotify playlist. Although I’m not a huge audiophile, I found the optional JBL speakers made it so I could blast Styx reasonably loud and not have any distortion.

After returning home, I did two days of sterling work at my job. After two days of using it as my “work car,” I had returned around 38 MPG. The Avalon drank fuel at an unbelievably slow rate, especially for its size. I filled the 17 gallon fuel tank, and then set course for my friend’s house, hoping to give him the best possible “last night” you can have as a single man when the flight to your wedding is in eight hours.

“Wow,” he exclaimed, “that’s a nice looking car man!”

“I know, check out how much leg room there is!” I said, showing the car off like a mother would her five year old gymnast.

We both agreed that this was the first car we’ve sat in where “all the way down and back” wasn’t necessarily the most comfortable (or indeed only usable) seat set-up. After piling his suitcases into the moderately-sized trunk, we set off. Or, so I thought.

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“Can we stop at In-n-Out? I’m kinda hungry.”

“I mean, sure, whatever man.”

When I arrived he was too excited to leave, and over the next 45 minutes he found multiple reasons for us to stay in town.

“Did you grab a coat?”

“Nah, but we’re cool man. We can go.”

“No, no. Let’s go get a sweatshirt for you.”

“Do you need to stop and get coffee? Let’s get some before we leave town.”

“Should we fill up again just to be safe?”

Yeah man. The half gallon we’ve used in town is really going to make or break our trip. For the record, I did around 600 more miles before I felt compelled to fill it again.

After running a million fake errands, we finally managed to leave town and head south. We talked about his wedding, his plans, and everything was pretty great from there on out. Having a conversation in the Avalon was amazingly easy. The lane keeping assist made sure that if you weren’t paying enough attention, you were immediately informed of your idiocy and the car would gently put you back in your lane. If anything, this system made me MORE attentive as a driver.

Golden Gate Bridge
Photo credit: Wikipedia / Ryan J Wilmot

My friend elected to have me drive along the north end of San Francisco Bay so that we could cross the Golden Gate Bridge and look at the city before dawn. Naturally, it was too foggy to see a damned thing, and thus we wasted around 20 minutes and $6 on a toll (Which Toyota and/or the fleet company covered. Thanks guys!)

Needing a restroom stop, we descended on Golden Gate Park… At 4AM. We stopped haphazardly on the side of the road and found a restroom that happened to be unlocked. Realizing that we still had 4 hours before departure, we went to Land’s End and frolicked on the beach as much as two straight men can do. We finally piled back into the car, and finished the drive at the Airport. My friend headed for the gates without as much as a look back.

I know you’re waiting for a punchline, but there really isn’t one. My friend is happily married and living with his wife. In a way, that story parallels my story with the Avalon. It worked. It was quiet. It was efficient. It’s what you should do. It’s the car you should buy when you settle down.

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Sure, there are minor irritations. The stereo interface isn’t great. I’m sure your significant other has flaws too. But much like a good marriage, your Avalon will last dozens of years. It’ll keep your kids safe. It’ll save a ton of fuel over time. I’m not entirely sure why people dismiss the Avalon so quickly. William Byrd was significantly less enthusiastic about the more conventional V6 Avalon he tested back in August. He seemed too caught up with the “old man” image he claims the car puts off. To be fair, I’m not certain we were even looking at the same car. Even the Hyundai Genesis Sedan (or whatever I’m supposed to call it this week) looks quite nice. Only car people are incredulous enough to be so snobby about brand or image based on previous iterations of the vehicle. Therefore, most people will likely see it as a “nice car”, and think nothing else of it. Any car guy worth talking to is going to look at it and nod respectfully, knowing full well that they wish they could be riding around on a cloud whilst enduring a potholed and cracked road in their rock-hard Fiesta ST.

Will also decided that the price premium the Avalon commands ($32,000) over its smaller brother, the Camry ($22,000), is too steep. Sure, the Avalon starts about $10,000 more expensive than the Camry, but once you spec the optional V6 and leather for the Camry (standard on the Avalon) you’ve already caught up to the Avalon’s base price, but the Avalon is still larger and more comfortable. Granted, there is also a $5,000 gap between the hybrid models, but leather is NOT an option on the Camry Hybrid.

So, you could have a bumpy, ugly Camry, or for the same price you could ride around in a bona fide luxury sedan in absolute comfort and silence. I know which I’d pick. Sorry Will, but not only is the Avalon a better deal, it’s quite simply the best car on the market for the money.

(RFD photos by William Byrd)

Ryan West is the official West Coast Unpaid Freelance Something for the Untitled Car Show.