When Toyota launched the full-size Avalon sedan for 1995, it did so with commercials depicting the four-door smoothing over bumps and literally floating on clouds.
“Experience the tranquility,” went the pitch, delivered in a breathy whisper at the end of each ad. Thus began two decades of the Avalon being a quiet barge amounting to automotive NyQuil. Toyota is now trying desperately to shed the sedan’s old-person, Japanese-Buick image for one that is decidedly less tranquil.
The latest Avalon—the sharpest driving and most aggressively designed ever—was Toyota’s first bid to eradicate thoughts of grandparents anytime someone uttered the word “Avalon.” The sporty new-for-2020 Avalon TRD trim level takes things from there. While you might still think of grandpa when seeing this updated large sedan, this gramps will show up to Thanksgiving dinner and down a few whiskey sours, and then take off his shirt.
We’re reaching for bizarre analogies here because, well, it was pretty weird sitting in the Avalon TRD’s cabin, buckled in with its red seatbelts, awaiting our turn to speed through an autocross circuit in the infield of Texas Motor Speedway. Thank Toyota Racing Development, the brand’s in-house tuning outfit, for giving Toyota the confidence and chutzpah to park our butts in a heretofore sleepy family sedan on a coned-off autocross course.
The Avalon TRD’s mechanical highlights include lightweight 19-inch wheels that are a half-inch wider, a 0.6-inch-lower ride height, springs that are 10 percent firmer in front and 15 percent firmer in the rear, stiffer anti-roll bars, revised nonadaptive dampers with internal return springs, beefed-up underbody braces, 0.9-inch-larger front brake rotors with two-piston calipers (versus the one-piston calipers on lesser models), and a seductive-sounding exhaust system for the otherwise unchanged 3.5-liter V-6 engine.
The Avalon TRD also wears a black-painted body kit with red pinstriping, a rear spoiler, a diffuser element in the lower rear bumper, and blacked-out exterior trim. Inside, there are those silly red seatbelts, plus additional red accents and stitching throughout, as well as “TRD” logos on each front headrest. At $43,255, the Avalon TRD isn’t the priciest Avalon (the Touring trim costs more), but it’s up there. The TRD is similarly equipped to the one-level-down XSE, with standard automatic climate control, adaptive cruise control, and blind-spot monitoring, but lacks the Touring’s heated steering wheel and heated rear seats. The only option is a $1760 bundle that brings a JBL audio system and built-in navigation.
Is the front-wheel-drive Avalon TRD a surprise challenger for the similarly sized, rear-drive Dodge Charger with a big, rowdy V-8? Absolutely not. The most aggro Avalon ever is still, well, an Avalon. Toyota didn’t even see fit to replace or upgrade the standard 301-hp V-6 and eight-speed automatic transmission for TRD duty, so it shouldn’t be any quicker than before.
While the car’s chassis upgrades aren’t exactly insignificant, the TRD’s athleticism barely shades that of the Avalon Touring we sampled it against on the autocross course. Without changes to the steering ratio or tires—the TRD rides on the same all-season rubber as the Avalon Touring—that’s about what we’d expect. Even the TRD’s exclusive Active Cornering Assist (a brake-based torque-vectoring function that helps it turn more sharply into corners) and larger front brakes fail to leave a meaningful impression.
It reflects well on the base Avalon that the TRD struggles to improve on it. At least you won’t have to trade the regular Avalon’s well-managed ride quality for the TRD’s marginally improved handling. Is it anything like riding on clouds? No. But, despite lacking the Touring’s adaptive dampers, the TRD still rides about the same and rounds off most road imperfections with plenty of squish.
A Sweet Spot
Size mostly explains the disparity in perceived improvement between the Avalon TRD and the smaller, lighter Camry TRD compared with the non-TRD models. The Avalon receives essentially the same hardware, save for the Camry’s summer tires and ambitiously tall rear wing. In the larger, heavier Avalon, the effect of the TRD parts is dulled, though not all in negative ways. The Avalon’s longer wheelbase helps maintain its ride comfort and places the driver farther from the TRD exhaust system, which means you get a pleasant exhaust sound without suffering the Camry TRD’s boomy interior resonance at 60 mph.
Toyota insists it was trying to push the Avalon to levels never before achieved with the TRD treatment. So it’s probably more of a happy accident that the TRD’s soft execution results in it turning out just about right—sportier than any other large front-drive sedan, if only just. While the Camry TRD looks wild and rides like a sports car, yet doesn’t deliver much better overall performance than a regular Camry V-6, you can still somewhat “experience the tranquility” in the hopped-up Avalon. Is that worthy of TRD branding, which Toyota also assigns to more hardcore stuff, like its line of TRD Pro off-roaders? Perhaps not, but the Avalon TRD is cohesively executed, drives well, and genuinely looks pretty cool. Grandpa should still like it, but it’s okay that the TRD brings a more youthful mind-set to the Avalon.