Toyota Motor Co. is the largest automaker in the world, selling vehicles on every continent. Akio Toyoda, great-grandson of the founder and now the man in charge of this sprawling industrial giant, has brought excitement to the fringe products produced by Toyota (think Supra sports car and NASCAR racing) as well as innovation and solidity to the automaker best known for its steady, reliable products — like Camry, Corolla and Prius.
So, while many automaker presidents are racing to boast about their EV transition plans, Toyota has remained — silent. The automaker with the most hybrid vehicles produced and sold all over the world over the last 20-plus years, by far, Toyota continues to weigh strategies for what will truly work next. We are currently seeing hybrid minivans (the new Sienna), and a hybrid Tundra pickup is coming this fall, while Toyota’s stone reliable hybrid-battery/electric motor/gas engine powertrain proliferates through almost every sedan offering in both Toyota’s and Lexus’s lineup. And these vehicles sell — well. With more hybrid/plug-in offerings coming, with up to 50 miles of electric-only driving, Toyota is confident that this strategy ensures consumer faith and continued sales volumes, which will be paramount for the needed income for whatever the “next” technology is that will be employed in our future driving fleet.
The same steadfast philosophy is on display in this week’s Avalon full-size sedan. While several of its former competitors no longer come down for breakfast — Buick LeSabre, Chevy Impala and Ford Taurus — Toyota has elected to remain focused on its car-centric offerings despite the wave of crossover and pickup sales that have swung the new-market pendulum.
Without any doubt, full-size sedan sales have plummeted. With like-sized rivals listing on one hand — Nissan Maxima, Kia Cadenza, Chrysler 300/Dodge Charger — the Avalon’s appeal has apparently become limited. Sales in 2020 fell over one-third, no doubt abetted by the physical plague as well as by the march to crossovers.
Somewhere in the halls of Toyota’s marketing department, a lone voice has been crunching the numbers and lobbying for the Avalon, essentially a Camry stretched 4 inches longer. For the last four years, low fuel prices, reduced regulations and a booming economy helped spur buyers to make grander investments in luxury vehicles, crossovers of all sizes and, of course, pickup trucks.
Now, fuel prices are rising faster than the LED signs can keep up, more regulations are imminent and the economy is sending mixed messages. Can that lone product planner’s voice be reciting the hymn for the return of the frugal, practical sedan?
The Avalon is a conundrum. It costs $10,000 more than a Camry and is only the scant 4 inches longer (the wheelbase is only 2 inches longer) as the Camry continues to dominate four-door sedan sales, due to generous upgrades throughout its platform. Both of these stalwart offerings come with a hybrid-powertrain option, both can now be ordered with AWD, a boon to Snowbelt driving confidence, and both cars share the same engines — a 205-hp four, a 215-hp hybrid and a 301-hp V-6.
But the Camry weighs 340 pounds less — essentially your in-laws riding around with you all of the time in the Avalon — so the Camry gets better real-world fuel economy with the base 2.5-liter four than the Avalon (EPA rated at 25/34 mpg, 28 mpg realized).
Our tested Avalon Limited with AWD featured the base 2.5-liter four and a well-equipped sticker price of $45,479 (Avalon pricing begins at $36,970). In similarly priced cars with base four-cylinder engines, most automakers currently use a turbocharged 2.0-liter four for greater torque, higher peak horsepower as well as the elevated fuel economy promised by a smaller engine. These engines are refined, powerful and efficient.
The Avalon needs the V-6, or a turbo 2.0-liter like Toyota borrows from BMW for the Supra, not the 2.5-liter that moans and groans under duress in this vehicle. Performance is OK, if you’re willing to settle or be very patient. The other features found in this sedan can’t outdo settling, not at this price point.
Large sedans have also forgone the front bench seat, eliminating the six-passenger space that families used to buy full-size sedans for. Six occupant families now need three-row crossovers, minivans or full-size pickups to travel together.
The Avalon has solid composure and ride comfort, a lengthy list of accoutrements and safety gear, plus a huge trunk that expands via the folding rear seats. Yet the low access height, lower height while driving and the general competence of its sibling the Camry have to be factors in shrinking sales of both the Avalon and other big sedans as consumers vote for crossovers with their wallets.
As great as Akio Toyoda is, he can’t change that many factors in buyers’ taste.
Next week: Ford F-150 PowerBoost Hybrid