On Autos: Two Toyota sedans blend quiet comfort, V6 performance


The redesigned 2019 Toyota Avalon full-size sedan avoids old-school qualities like a huge back seat and a pillowy ride quality in favor of more dynamic design and performance. Photo by Brady Holt

As automakers master the art of adding power to small, fuel-efficient engines, folks who prefer extra cylinders and high displacement are finding fewer and fewer options.

Once relegated to cheap economy cars, 2.0-liter four-cylinders now sit under the hoods of everything from a Honda Civic to luxury cars priced above $60,000 and a wide variety of cars and crossovers in between.

Perhaps the industry’s most prominent holdout is Toyota. While it offers a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder in a few Lexus models, its big 3.5-liter V6 also remains easy to find. We recently tested two V6 Toyota sedans: the midsize Camry and the full-size Avalon.

Most Camrys sell with a fuel-efficient and affordable four-cylinder engine, but the larger, more luxurious Avalon remains more popular with the V6. Think of the Avalon as a bargain hunter’s Lexus ES 350 — the two cars share their main mechanical components, and both are available with heaps of luxury features, but the Toyota costs several thousand dollars less.

Old Avalons were focused purely on a quiet ride and a big back seat. Recent models have followed the trend of the Nissan Maxima and Dodge Charger to offer livelier performance and assertive styling. The newly redesigned 2019 Avalon doubles down on that decision, while also bringing superior interior space and upgraded in-cabin technology, while keeping the car impressively quiet.

Particularly in the tested sport-themed Touring trim level, the new Avalon feels lively and natural on a winding road — nothing like the “land yacht” vibe that once defined the model. And the 302-horsepower V6 engine is perfectly calibrated for gentle, near-silent acceleration around town or throatier performance on an open road.

This big engine is even relatively fuel-efficient, with EPA ratings of 25 to 26 mpg in mixed driving, among the thriftiest in its class. A new eight-speed automatic transmission helps them improve from the 24 mpg achieved by last year’s less-powerful Avalon.

You can also get an Avalon Hybrid with a gasoline four-cylinder engine plus an electric motor. You won’t get the invigorating performance or near-silent engine, but gas mileage improves to an incredible 44 mpg in mixed driving — with the best results being in city traffic, where the small electric motor can help out the most.

The 2019 Toyota Camry is available with the same powerful V6 as the larger Avalon, for about the same price. Photo by Brady Holt

Between the Lexus ES and the Toyota Avalon, the Lexus understandably has the richer interior details — more leather and less plastic everywhere, extra-plush upholstery, and other finery. The Avalon also has an oddly blocky instrument panel: a rectangle that projects outward from the dashboard. On the other hand, its controls are more user-friendly than the Lexus’s.

Another Avalon advantage over the competition is its suite of standard advanced safety features, which trumps competitors like the Charger or the Chevrolet Impala, Buick LaCrosse, and Ford Taurus. It also handles with more agility than the latter two, while being much less bulky than the Chevy and more smoothly modern than the Dodge. Another solid competitor is the Genesis G80, which delivers outstanding luxury for the money but — as with several other Avalon competitors — achieves mediocre fuel economy.

The Avalon also faces a challenge from Toyota’s own Camry, which shares the same engine and has an arguably more attractive interior design despite a much lower base price. The Avalon advantages are exclusivity, additional feature availability, and an even more commodious rear seat than the already-spacious Camry.

Moreover, although the Camry starts at just $24,875, adding the optional V6 pushes the price up to at least $35,080 — nearly the price of an Avalon. That means that if you’re interested in either the Avalon or the V6-powered Camry, it’s worth trying both to see which feels better for you — the roomier, higher-tech, more exclusive Avalon or the more graceful-looking, more compact Camry.

Also consider the four-cylinder Camry and the hybrid versions of both the Avalon and Camry to see if they’re quiet and powerful enough for you. The high quality of today’s four-cylinder engines helps explain why so many automakers now use them instead of the more traditional V6.

The 2019 Kia Cadenza offers a relaxed driving experience and quiet V6 engine. Photo by Brady Holt

If you’re sure you want a traditional big V6 sedan, we tested one often-overlooked option that might be a good fit: the Kia Cadenza, which offers the flavor of past Avalons rather than the sportier current generation.

The Cadenza is quiet, well-finished, and user-friendly. It wears classy styling that never risks offense. It has a spacious interior. It’s pleasant enough to drive, though never sporty. And most versions have as much safety gear as the Avalon.

What’s more, the Cadenza can be a killer deal. Its base sticker price isn’t far behind the Avalon’s at $34,095, but it has more standard luxury equipment. And because it’s a slow seller, dealers are often more eager to give you a discount.

One tradeoff on the value front is that the Cadenza isn’t as fuel-efficient as the V6 Toyotas, much less their hybrid variants. Its 3.3-liter, 290-horsepower engine has EPA-estimated fuel economy of 23 mpg in mixed driving.

Also be aware that the Camry and Avalon deliver livelier handling than the Cadenza along with equally smooth rides.

To see more photos of the tested 2019 Toyota Avalon, you can visit tinyurl.com/avalon-current. To see more photos of the tested 2019 Toyota Camry, you can visit tinyurl.com/camry-current.