2021 Toyota Avalon Hybrid review: Soft-serve sedan

I hope you like big grilles…

Craig Cole/Roadshow

The 2021 Toyota Avalon Hybrid is like soft-serve ice cream: smooth and sweet. With a comfortable ride, accommodating cabin and pleasant demeanor, this large sedan is soothing to drive and goes down (the road) easy. But the real-world fuel economy is unquestionably its strongest asset. You may not believe how economical a four-door of this size can be.

Cup or cone?

Appealing to a range of drivers, the Toyota Avalon is served in two ways: with either an internal-combustion or hybrid powertrain. Since neither version is a driver’s car — no, not even the Avalon TRD — you may as well get the hybrid and enjoy its superior efficiency, which is provided with little sacrifice in performance.

Introduced a few years ago, the fifth-generation Avalon is built on the TNGA platform, underpinnings that, in one form or another, support a huge range of Toyota products, everything from the Prius to the Highlander to the Lexus ES. This architecture makes the Avalon Hybrid feel rock solid, free of creaks, groans, squeaks or rattles, plus it helps provide excellent crash protection, as evinced by stellar ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Slightly larger than a Camry and far more upscale, the Avalon offers luxury-car frills in a mainstream package, though you may not love its looks, as that massive grille is a bit much. Aside from unique styling and interior appointments, this Toyota is nearly identical to the Lexus ES, which is basically an Avalon with extra toppings. They have the same wheelbase and overall length, and in hybrid guise, identical powertrains and efficiency ratings. But who wears it better? Well, having reviewed the ES a few months back, in this case, I’d say the Toyota is more satisfying. The ES 250 I tested was adequate, but its faults were far more glaring given the elevated price tag.

A big softie

The Avalon Hybrid’s interior is stretch-out spacious and as cushy as grandma’s couch, though this example’s creamy-soft cognac-colored leather is far more appealing than her shiny plastic slip covers. The materials employed inside are of high quality, with liberal amounts of soft plastics and even real wood accents in Limited models. Up front, the bucket chairs are soft yet supportive and the backseat is similarly accommodating, serving up vast amounts of headroom and leg space. For long-distance travel, the Avalon is aces.

The Avalon Hybrid’s interior is spacious and upscale, just don’t expect much cutting-edge technology.

Craig Cole/Roadshow

Adding a bit panache, this Toyota’s dashboard is expressively designed but not over the top or weird looking for the sake of being different. There’s definitely some 3D sculpting to it, but the design is pretty much symmetrical. I also love how the console sweeps up to join the center stack, it’s a simple but artful touch. The infotainment and climate controls are mounted up high so they’re easy to see, though I do wish some of those chiclet-style buttons were a little larger, as they can be a challenge to press while driving.

Like other Toyotas, this car has predictable deficits and I’m not going to beat them to death in this review. The backup camera is pretty low-resolution and the infotainment system lackluster at best. The standard 9-inch touchscreen is, however, bright, colorful and easy to glance at without taking your eyes too far off the road, again, because of its elevated position on the dashboard. Along with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto is standard equipment, though both smartphone-mirroring systems need USB access to work, so make sure you bring a cable. Limited models do come standard with a Qi wireless charging plate, at least.

Efficiency is the cherry on top

This Toyota is powered by a hybrid drivetrain, one centered around a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. Augmented by a pair of electric motors, which, among other things, function as a continuously variable transmission, this Avalon is graced with a total of 215 horsepower. A specific torque figure is not listed as the math with hybrids is fuzzier than the skin of a kiwi you might garnish a sundae with. Smooth and responsive, this arrangement can move the car from a standstill to 60 mph in around 8.1 seconds, which makes the Avalon Hybrid feel spry if not overly vigorous. Even when the accelerator is buried, the internal-combustion engine remains muted.

But what makes this such a dynamite drivetrain is the fuel efficiency. Lower-end Avalon Hybrids sticker at 43 mpg city and 44 mpg on both the highway and combined test cycles. In comparison, this Limited-trim model is rated at just 43 mpg across the board, a huge privation, I know. In real-world driving, however, this car is extremely efficient, as I’m getting more than 46 mpg without even trying, which is damn impressive for something this size.

This powertrain delivers good performance and stellar efficiency.

Craig Cole/Roadshow

A creamy ride

Comfort and efficiency are this Toyota’s jam, so don’t expect much else from the drive. There’s nothing fun about how the Avalon Hybrid handles. Its steering is predictable, the wheel feeling as light as a dollop of whipped cream. The brake pedal easy to modulate and the transition from regenerative to friction braking is all but imperceptible, something other automakers could learn from.

Handling is secure, but my tester’s Hankook Kinergy GT all-season tires feel like they’re made of hard cheese, offering little feel, even on dry pavement. Of course, with a treadwear rating of 540, you can’t expect much in the way of corner-carving grip. They howl in disapproval long before you reach the limit. On the plus side, those efficiency-focused tires are quiet and provide a ride that’s creamier than frozen custard. Thanks to its comfort and refinement, the Avalon Hybrid is soothing to drive and can actually make you feel less stressed after a journey than when you started.

Helping soothe frazzled nerves, Toyota Safety Sense-P is standard across the range. This includes advanced driver aids like lane-departure warning with steering assist, automatic high beams and adaptive cruise control. Blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert is included free of charge, too. Even though it’s available on other Toyota and Lexus models, lane centering (Lane Tracing Assist in Toyota parlance) is, unfortunately, not available at any price.

If you’re after a large sedan and both comfort and fuel economy are top priorities, Toyota has you steed.

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A winning recipe

The 2021 Toyota Avalon Hybrid starts at just about $38,000 including $995 in destination fees, a mere $975 more than a comparable gas-powered version. That gets you an entry-level XLE example with loads of standard features including keyless entry with pushbutton start, LED headlights and plenty of safety equipment. The pinnacle Limited model you’re reading about in this review checks out for $46,717, a more-than-reasonable figure for a large, comfortable and well-equipped sedan. Naturally, a few extras inflate the base price, but nothing crazy. The Advanced Safety Package includes a 360-degree camera system and parking sensors with rear automatic braking, all for $1,150. The sleek Ruby Flare Pearl paint job costs an extra $425, and a small handful of other options add an additional $847 to the bottom line.

The Avalon Hybrid is a large sedan with a twist. Like a dish of chocolate and vanilla soft serve, it provides big-car comfort and hybrid efficiency, an unexpectedly tasty combination.