The verdict: The 2016 Toyota Avalon Hybrid is a composed, comfortable highway cruiser with loads of trunk space and impressive fuel economy, but you’ll have to be willing to pay Lexus money for a Toyota.
Against the competition: The Avalon Hybrid delivers a winning blend of efficiency, comfort and value, but its control layout frustrates, and competitors offer more upscale accommodations.
The Avalon is the only hybrid in the class of large sedans from modest brands, but its price puts it in line with luxury sedan hybrids such as the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid and the Lexus ES 300h from Toyota’s luxury arm. The Buick LaCrosse also offers a mild-hybrid version with its eAssist model. Compare all four models here.
For 2016, the Avalon and Avalon Hybrid got a mild styling update, more standard features and new safety options for the top trim. The Hybrid model comes in XLE Plus, XLE Premium and Limited trims, and the Entune multimedia system with a 7-inch screen is newly standard across the lineup. The midlevel XLE Premium adds new standard features such as navigation and Qi wireless charging for compatible smartphones. Compare 2015 and 2016 models here.
Exterior & Styling
Toyota’s largest sedan was redesigned for 2013, taking the Avalon’s styling from frumpy to fashionable. An update for 2016 adds minor styling tweaks: new turn signals, redesigned LED taillights and a wider and lower front grille add polish and help keep it one of the most stylish-looking sedans in the class.
On the road, drivers probably won’t be able to spot the differences between the hybrid and regular Avalon — only a subtle blue ring around the grille emblem and small badges on the rear and sides call it out.
How It Drives
Low-end power is surprisingly robust for great pickup from a stop. The hybrid’s sole drivetrain is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder combined with an electric motor for a total of 200 horsepower. The pair gets the job done quickly and smoothly. The hybrid system’s continuously variable, shift-free operation is unobtrusive, feeling natural and quiet.
An Eco mode benefits fuel economy and dulls accelerator responsiveness, but not annoyingly so. Sport mode peps it up, but again, the change is slight and not needed given the Avalon’s inherent peppiness. EV mode allows the sedan to travel on electric-only power at speeds up to around 20 mph. The Avalon Hybrid seamlessly transitions between gas and electric power and, unlike in Toyota’s Prius c, EV mode is easy to sustain; gentle accelerator application is what it takes to keep the car driving on electric-only power for short distances. This works best in around-town, stop-and-go driving.
The Avalon Hybrid’s fuel economy is class-competitive, with a 40/39/40 mpg city/highway/combined EPA rating — the same as the Avalon’s Lexus twin, the ES 300h, and similar to the MKZ Hybrid’s 41/39/40 rating. Buick’s mild-hybrid LaCrosse gets only 25/36/29 mpg. The non-hybrid Avalon gets power from a 268-hp, 3.5-liter V-6, and its fuel economy is much lower, at 21/31/24 mpg. Compare the hybrid model with the non-hybrid version here.
I took several long trips, driving a total of 627 mostly highway miles, and averaged a disappointing 34.2 mpg. However, the car was loaded with five people and a full trunk, and the weather was frigid.
The Avalon flies its hybrid flag most obviously and disappointingly while braking. As with many other hybrids’ regenerative braking systems, the pedal is overly firm and the brakes have a delayed reaction time. The overall feel is disquieting and takes a lot of acclimation.
On the highway, the Avalon hybrid’s steering feel also needs work; it’s too light at higher speeds, requiring constant adjustment. Around town, it’s comfortably weighted.
There’s plenty of elbow and knee padding in the cabin, but the Avalon’s interior design is busy, with too many shapes, patterns and materials competing for attention. Classy wood panels and contrast stitching complement the plush standard leather seats and surfaces, but the showy, vinyl-looking material and bright chrome trim that surround the multimedia screen directly compete with the other materials’ understated style. The overall look lacks continuity.
Two adults fit easily and comfortably on the wide, bolstered backseat. There’s seating for three passengers back there, but the middle spot is narrow. By the numbers, the Avalon Hybrid offers 39.2 inches of rear legroom, a smidge less than the LaCrosse and ES 300h but more than the MKZ Hybrid. I couldn’t fit my trio of child-safety seats (a high-back Graco booster and two Evenflo convertible seats) in the backseat, however. Instead, I installed my kindergartener’s narrower Bubble Bum inflatable booster between my two rear-facing convertibles and all three fit.
Rear passengers also can be treated to a bevy of creature comforts, such as heated leather seats, climate controls and a power rear window sunshade, all of which are standard on the top, Limited trim.
Ergonomics & Electronics
Like the cabin’s design and materials, the controls are oddly mismatched and a lot to take in, both visually and tangibly. They’re a mishmash of physical buttons, touch-sensitive panels and a standard 7-inch touch-screen. Once you figure out what type of input controls which function, using the multimedia system for audio and navigation is easy thanks to a no-nonsense menu structure and responsive touch-screen. Changing the audio presets and inputting navigation destinations, for example, took seconds.
The learning curve for the climate controls below the multimedia system is steeper, though, especially with gloves on. The touch-sensitive panels that control fan speed and temperature settings were not very responsive, often requiring two or three touches, and they didn’t work at all with gloves on.
Below the climate controls is a small storage space covered by a tray that doubles as a wireless charging pad, which is standard on the midlevel and top trims. To activate it, press the wireless charger switch and place your compatible mobile device on the tray. An amber light means charging is in progress; a green one means charging is complete.
It’s a neat feature, but only a small percentage of smartphones have wireless charging capability. Mine doesn’t, so I was unable to test the system. One editor bought a special case and adaptor card that enables wireless charging for his iPhone6 and tested it in a Lexus NX; read that story here.
Cargo & Storage
The center console storage box is deep and has a flexible divider to organize the space. Under the wireless charger tray is a wide, hidden storage cubby with several different types of auxiliary, USB and 12-volt outlets.
The Avalon Hybrid’s trunk is enormous, implausibly swallowing my family of five’s Christmas road trip luggage, which included two large portable cribs. It has 14.0 cubic feet of space, besting the LaCrosse eAssist (10.8), Lexus ES 300h (12.1) and MKZ Hybrid (11.1).
The non-hybrid version offers much more, however, with an extra 2 cubic feet of trunk room; the placement of the Hybrid’s battery is the culprit. That battery also prevents the rear seat from folding, making the Avalon less flexible in terms of carrying longer cargo. The backseats in the Lexus ES 300h and Lincoln MKZ Hybrid don’t fold, either, but the Buick LaCrosse eAssist’s does.
The 2016 Toyota Avalon earned top scores in all the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s tests, earning the agency’s highest award, as did the Lexus ES 300h. The Lincoln MKZ didn’t do well in IIHS’ small-overlap front test, for which the Buick LaCrosse has not been tested. The Avalon Hybrid has not yet been tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
A backup camera is standard on all Avalon Hybrids. For 2016, new, optional safety features are also available, but only on the top, Limited trim. The Toyota Safety Sense-P system includes several driver-assist technologies: automatic high-beam headlights, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning with automatic braking that “sees” both cars and pedestrians and lane departure warning and prevention. Click here for a full list of safety features.
Value in Its Class
The 2016 Toyota Avalon Hybrid starts at $37,485 including destination — a lot, considering a base non-Hybrid Avalon starts at $33,485. The Lincoln MKZ Hybrid starts just more than $1,000 lower, and the Buick LaCrosse eAssist is around $3,000 less; the Lexus ES 300h starts higher, at $41,870. I tested an Avalon Limited, which starts in luxury-car territory, at $42,785.
If you’re buying the Avalon Hybrid to save on fuel costs, it’ll take years for its price premium to pay off at the pump, if ever. However, if you’re looking for a large, comfortable, poised fuel-sipping sedan — and don’t mind paying a little extra to check all those boxes — the Avalon Hybrid is a good candidate.