Words and Pictures by Mitchell Weitzman
Throughout history, there have many things that society has seemingly not asked for. For example, there's New Coke, or whatever those weird circular Dyson hairdryers do that my Wal-Mart special can do for a few hundred less. Then we have the Avalon TRD. TR-what? Yes, it's an Avalon, a perennial geriatric-favorite, that has been fiddled by and adorned with a Toyota Racing Development moniker. What if it's good, though?
Well, that would depend on perspective, and from mine, the Avalon TRD has half the skills to qualify as a nearly-there sports sedan, but ultimately fails as an Avalon. To be fair, the standard Avalon that has now been us with for two years is quite good - excellent even. So you might be surprised that I wasn't won over with a TRD 'sporty' version of the current and excellent Avalon. And that's why perspective is so important in how you view this car and for whom it is for.
Rewind a couple decades and the Avalon was the most beige car you could buy in America, both literally and figuratively. Old people liked them because they were nice enough to be bordering on luxury, and high on comfort in the most inoffensive package possible. The current Avalon forgoes those founding principles, with a sharp and aggressive body, 300 horsepower, and a new, keen-to-corner chassis. Have the engineers and designers gone mad? No, just a newfound invigoration in Akio Toyoda's desire to make his cars more interesting. I mean, he races the Nürburgring 24 Hours each year after all...
Consider the Avalon TRD then as jumping the shark, of if you don't know your Happy Days lore, it's nuking the fridge. But it's not because the Avalon TRD goes too far, it's that it actually doesn't go far enough. Take the handling for example; It and the steering are better than a standard BMW 5-series, and this is front-wheel drive! The amount of grip on offer combined with the sure-footed confidence it instills in your fingertips are nothing short of a revelation for a large, front-drive sedan. But, it's also not noticeably any better than a lesser Avalon like the XSE or Touring; So good is the standard car. The ride quality won't break bones, but it is firmer with little tradeoff for an increase in lateral performance. So yes, handling is great, better than it has any right to be, but it's not exactly improved in this TRD-spec machine.
Then, with the handling that the Avalon is capable of, we're given a hopelessly unsupportive driver's seat. Really, it's woeful, offering next to zero support in the bolstering to hold you place. It also sits far too high, giving the impression of driving an SUV. You can't help but just feel like you're perched on top of it. You also might notice this Avalon TRD has been given red seat belts...hahaha. Right.
TRD also fitted a new exhaust system to let the 3.5L V6 be more vocal. Yes it sounds good, with a smooth and refined grumble to it, but it's simply too loud and booming. That's right, this Avalon has exhaust drone. A bypass valve would be a most welcome fixture to keep it quiet when cruising and loud when throttling on because as it sits now, the exhaust became downright annoying early into my short tenure with it.
That same V6 is unchanged from normal Avalon trims, providing the same reliable 301 horsepower and 267 pounds of torque as before. 0-60MPH happens in 5.7 seconds and 50-70 MPH 3 seconds dead, identical to the Touring model the Road Beat last tested. With a TRD badge attached, you'd expect a power increase...
Perhaps the biggest detractor to this car's sporting aspirations is the carry-over use of the 8-speed automatic transmission. A traditional torque-converter, this trans slogs its way through gears with the leisurely pace of a sloth. In normal drive modes, the Avalon actually takes off from a complete stop in second gear even, almost posing as a CVT. The brain behind the slushbox is always having an afternoon between-bingo nap, meaning it just isn't present.
A perfect scenario is accelerating onto the freeway in Cameron Park. With a slight uphill grade on this onramp, the Avalon TRD needs about 12 gear changes to reach 70 at a normal, civil rate of acceleration. If it only has eight gears...why does it change gear twelve times? Simple, it'll upshift, which bogs the engine and causes you to depress the accelerator more, which then triggers the car to now downshift to the gear you were just in. It's a back-and-forth war akin to playing a game of Pong; Up-down, up-down, up-down. I can't remember the last time I drove a car that hunts for gears more often than this. Now, selecting the 'sport' driving mode somewhat cures this, but that's like a band-aid for a much larger issue. This is the TRD - the transmission should already be programmed to be more energetic in all modes.
It gets worse. Mounted behind the finely leather-wrapped (and pleasingly thin )steering wheel are a pair of plasticky paddle shifters. They're not the most gratifying thing for your fingers to tap, but that's not the issue at hand. Take your hand, slide the shifter to the side and into the +/- manual mode, flick the left-hand paddle down from eighth gear to fifth, nail the throttle and...it overrides you and downshifts to the lowest available gear on its own. Even in sport mode, gearstick in the manual mode, and using the paddles, there is no true manual mode, as the car's computer undermines you and assumes control like the evil Master Control Program in Tron. It's impossible to ride the wave of midrange torque on offer, because if you manually select third or fourth gear to hangout at the 3,000 RPM sweet spot, the moment you right foot goes past 30% pedal travel, the car will downshift on you. It's completely absurd, and also unsettling when it happens mid-corner. Why give manual shifting and paddle shifting if it's actually pointless? Other cars give you manual control, but not this Avalon TRD. This completely betrays any ethos of what TRD could mean.
Let's take a break from there and head to the outside, where the Avalon TRD is a complete winner. Painted Ice Edge, which is neither white nor grey, the Avalon TRD does look tremendous. Yes, the matte black wheels look cheap and should be gloss, but the photographs do not overplay the Avalon - it looks this good. So, it looks the part of a TRD-badged machine. But - and of course there's a but - it does take a hit in practicality in the shape of one item specifically: the side skirts. They look sharp, and in fact they are sharp, because I banged my leg on them numerous times on entry. Egress is less of an issue, but it does require an awkward step to clear. That aside, an Avalon TRD or XSE doesn't look much different which is great testament to the Toyota designers here. Geriatric, this the Avalon does not look.
Inside, it's typical Avalon fair, meaning it's a handsomely styled and a quality interior. Fit and finish is basically perfect and materials are commendable throughout though not outstanding. On the motorways, there was a decent amount of wind rustling by the driver's mirror and window, something I didn't expect to hear. Tech-wise, the Toyota infotainment does look dated with its large bezels and the graphics even more so, but it is useable enough. Toyota, of course, infuses their Safety Sense 3.0 into the Avalon so that is has the usual arrangement of blind-spot monitoring and collision warnings. Rear seat space is huge, with zero complaints from passengers and with miles of leg room.
Another plus is the remarkable efficiency of the Avalon TRD. Put simply, I averaged 28 MPG during my week with it. On the freeway, that number climbed to 35, both tremendous numbers for a car of this mass and with a supposedly 'archaic' naturally-aspirated V6. The transmission might be a total couch-potato, but the fuel economy is beyond incredible for such a sizeable car.
Perhaps if this 'sporty' Avalon was the cheapest/entry Avalon, it would make more sense. However, it's also the most expensive, with this car's bottom-line reaching $46,074 including shipping from Toyota's Kentucky plant. That's several grand more than the last Touring spec Avalon the Road Beat tested which didn't seem to be missing anything at all. It's one thing to recommend the TRD over other Avalons, but to pay more for it seems entirely unreasonable.
The hard truth is that older Avalon-loyalists will be turned off by the booming, droning exhaust and the almost boy-racer aesthetics. And those who are wanting an affordable, quality, large sedan will likely think the same. On the other hand, those that are wanting a true sports sedan will be disappointed because it doesn't fully commit. With better seats, extra grunt, and a smart and snappy transmission, this Avalon TRD review would have gone in a completely different direction. While not a bad car by any measures, the Avalon TRD struggles to make a case for its existence against the current crop of Avalons available, and its case as a real sports sedan.
2021 Toyota Avalon TRD
As-Tested Price: $46,074
Road Beat Rating: 3/5
Pros: Looks the part; steering and handling better than some BMWs
Cons: Dim-witted transmission; unsupportive seats; droning exhaust
Verdict: TRD didn't go far enough with this one; Other Avalons are better