Silvio Calabi: The Avalon is Toyota’s overlooked hybrid

Silvio Calabi More Content Now
This 4th-generation Toyota Avalon, introduced as a 2013 model and little changed for 2015, is something of a sleeper: large inside, but midsize outside; conservatively styled, yet aerodynamically sleek; and priced for the masses but luxurious.

If we count its Lexus models, Toyota now offers 11 different hybrid-drive, gas-electric vehicles in the U.S. — more than anyone else. The best-selling car in all Japan is not just a Toyota, it’s a Toyota hybrid: the Aqua, known as the Prius C over here. The Prius went global in 2000, and by now about four million of them alone have been sold. However you feel about the environmental impact of nickel metal hydride batteries, we can thank Toyota for an entire supertanker fleet of crude oil not extracted, shipped, piped, refined and burned up.

This is what I think about as I drive what is the rarest gas-electric Toyota, the Avalon Hybrid. Our town is overrun with Priuses — even the taxis are Priuses — and people comment on this car. ”I didn’t know there was a hybrid Avalon!” Indeed there is, and it possesses all the sterling qualities that a flagship, $38,000 Toyota must have: It is quiet, roomy, dead easy to live with, not at all bad-looking for a conservative sedan and well priced. And, at least until the driving begins, the car feels like an organic whole grown in a laboratory instead of a zillion parts knocked together by robots and hourly workers. The dashboard and console of this Avalon — an XLE Touring Hybrid made in Georgetown, Kentucky — may be the best combination of sophistication and simplicity I’ve ever seen in any automobile. Compared to the intimidating array of knobs, switches, lights, screens, dials and so forth in, say, a Porsche Cayenne Hybrid, this is rocket science brought to earth and tamed for people who still view smartphones as the devil’s work.

But I also think about this, as I drive the Avalon Hybrid: 2015 marks the third year of the fourth generation of the Avalon, but this is still only the first generation of the Avalon as a hybrid. And it shows. While most of today’s newer hybrid cars have gotten past wooden regenerative brakes, lifeless electric steering, confused acceleration (gas? electrons? both?) and tentative handling, this otherwise lovely Avalon still suffers from all that. The ride is a bit brittle, too — and, while I’m complaining, these aren’t rain-sensing wipers; they’re the old-fashioned interval kind. It’s time for a makeover.

That should be relatively easy, because this car is so similar to a hybrid Lexus, the ES 300h. Both cars ride on the same basic platform, and they share a drivetrain: a four-cylinder, regular-gas engine (156 horsepower, 156 lb-ft of torque) married to an electric motor (44HP, 199 lb-ft of torque) and driving the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission. The Lexus, however, behaves better; about the only negative it shares with this Avalon Hybrid is a whine from the CV transmission during acceleration and deceleration. The noise goes away when the cars reach speed, but sometimes it’s like being buzzed by Chernobyl mosquitos. On the plus side, the Avalon Hybrid gas engine’s stop-start feature is as smooth and transparent as the Lexus’s. Both cars deliver an honest 38 to 42 mpg as well (in warm weather), which of course is the whole point of hybrid cars.

The last time we drove an ES 300h — May 2014 — I wondered why it cost so much more than an Avalon Hybrid, with its exceptional interior, since on paper they seemed so alike. Sure, the ES had more toys and that slanty “L” logo, but did that really add up to ten grand difference on the sticker? Now we know. The Avalon is surprisingly inexpensive for a near-luxury hybrid, but the Lexus hybrid is that much better sorted out.

A friend of ours who drives an Avalon — he’s on his third one, a gas-burner — always feels he has to apologize when he shows up at our house. “Oh, I know it’s an old man’s car, but [here he gets a bit stymied] but ... I just love it. It’s got everything I want. And it’s so comfortable.” His wife drives a three-year-old Prius. Do they care about dynamics, handling, acceleration, status and all that? Uh-uh, no. They want a car that’s luxurious, quiet, reliable, undemanding, affordable and efficient. They’re drooling over this Avalon Hybrid.


- Maturity of line and design

- Sophisticated simplicity

- 40 mpg


- Not a driver’s car

Silvio Calabi reviews the latest from Detroit, Munich, Yokohama, Gothenburg, Crewe, Seoul and wherever else interesting cars are born. Silvio is a member of the International Motor Press Association whose automotive reviews date back to the Reagan administration. He is the former publisher of Speedway Illustrated magazine and an author. Contact him at