Historiography: Ode To The Toyota Avalon

Another sedan will be heading into the dustbin of automotive history in a year’s time. 

Recent news reports stated that the Toyota Avalon will be produced for another year at their Georgetown, Kentucky. After the 2022 model year, it will be eliminated from Toyota’s catalog. 

Of course, you can still get a pre-owned one. That is, if there is one in inventory to get one by then. And, we know all about vehicle inventories these days…

Some announcements like this are usually noted and taken as a news item. Sometimes, I just nod and put it in some mental Rolodex for good measure. This news item struck a chord with me. It is because the Toyota Avalon was a part of this website and my coverage of the brand. 

Here’s the thing, I actually liked the three generations of Avalons I worked with. However, its history was an interesting one. Sold as a longer version of the Camry for the 1995 model year to compete against the likes of the Chevrolet Impala, Nissan Maxima, Ford Taurus, Mitsubishi Diamante, Dodge Intrepid, and Mazda Millenia. 

The first Avalons were seen as pretty bland. While derived from the XV10 Camry, the XX10 Avalon seemed pretty pedestrian in design, while sporting decent power from its 3.0-liter V6 engine and smooth four-speed automatic. 

The “bland design” was justified when you consider what the Avalon replaced in the Toyota lineup – the Cressida. In contrast with the first Avalon, the MX83 Cressida was luxurious and played to both mainstream and premium customers. The Cressida’s 1992 cancellation in North America left a gap in the Toyota lineup that only Lexus was able to fill with another Camry-based model – the ES 250.

I first encountered the Avalon in 1995 during my brief flirtation with a long-distance romance gone wrong. I moved from Concord, California to Bremerton, Washington for a guy. I needed a job, so I ended up working sales at a local Toyota store – my only automotive retail experience to date. 

Though I never sold a unit in my short time at that Toyota store, I embraced the Avalon as a sellable unit in a market heavy on trucks, SUVs, Corollas, and Camrys. That dealer sold its share of Avalons on its side of the Puget Sound. 

After my sales experience, I saw the Avalon for what it was – Toyota’s Buick. A car for an older demographic who had no care for styling. They wanted a larger car that is reliable and can seat five-to-six people in its. 

The XX10-generation Avalon actually came in a six-seat configuration. There was a third seat in the middle of the front row with a column shifter for the automatic transmission. It was at a time when you can still get a split bench seat up front on some domestic models in its class – and larger. 

For the North American market, Toyota built the Avalon at the Georgetown plant. As the XX10 generation was about to be replaced by a new model for the 2000 model year, Toyota shipped the tooling down to their Australian manufacturing unit for their production of the Avalon. XX10 Avalon production continued in Australia until 2005. 

The XX20 Avalon arrived onto the showrooms in late 1999 – just in time for the Y2K madness. Designed to be more luxurious, the Avalon came out swinging with an in-your-face look inside and out. Some have said that it looked more Buick-like than a Buick. 

Yet, it was still built off of the Camry’s platform. Actually, it spawned the next Camry two years later. However, the K Platform that it was built off also underpinned the Highlander, the Camry Solara coupe, and the Sienna minivan. This would be the basis of three generations of Avalons from this point onward. 

Sadly, I never experienced the XX20 Avalon. Never got my hands on one to drive. I really have nothing to say about it, except for the times I saw it on the road and at Toyota dealers. 

Which brings me to the XX30 Avalon. Its 2005 debut showed us a different look for Toyota’s big sedan. It was more slab-sided, but sleeker than the previous generation. The first versions had an interesting modular design all around, which sort of put me off a bit. 

Power was increased to Toyota’s superb 268-horsepower 3.5-liter V6. Early models had the five-speed automatic, while a six-speed automatic arrived for 2008. Still, the “modular” look of the XX30 lent to an interior that featured digital screen that was the hub for the audio system, the climate control, and other information. What made this interesting was the background of the screen in a poorly chosen color of blue. This was not a good look for anyone who knows information technology. 

This where the Avalon really story picks up for me. In 2009, I rented one to see whether it was truly Toyota’s interpretation of a Buick for its demographic. I took that one towards Rochester, Minnesota to confirm exactly my thoughts on it. Another one came along with me on a road trip into Wisconsin from the Twin Cities. I found the car to be just fine for being what it is – a big sedan for a particular demographic. 

The next generation – the XX40 – saw a lot of work with me. Each one of them was as enjoyable as the next. Toyota did a great job of reimagining it and giving it more personality and swagger. In all, I worked with four – a Hybrid XLE, a V6 XLE Touring, and two V6 Limiteds. 

What made the XX40 enjoyable to work with was the combination of a sleeker body on the existing K Platform. It was also the first Avalon available with Toyota’s Hybrid Drive System, using the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine connected to an electric motor. The interior felt more upmarket and cleaner in design and control. This was exactly what Toyota envisioned the Avalon to be, even when its segment started to lose entrants over the course of its lifespan. 

This was the same generation my last ex bought. Believe me, I was surprised that he picked it over less expensive Camrys. It fit him right. I hope he still has it. 

By 2018, the XX40 served Toyota well. It got the attention of a lot of my colleagues and made us noticed how well Toyota executed their big sedan. Over the miles, I had my moments and enjoyed it thoroughly – including my ex’s own XX40 Avalon. 

Which brings me to the final Avalon – the XX50. The big sedan was shifted over to a new platform, Toyota’s New Generation Architecture GA-K. Granted, the GA-K underpins a lot of Toyota and Lexus models – including the Camry, RAV4, Highlander, Venza, Sienna, Lexus ES and NX. That platform was built on the premise of what Akio Toyoda said at the 2017 North American International Auto Show in Detroit about his company no longer making “boring cars.”

The Avalon took a further leap forward towards combining an interesting and controversial front-end design with an elegantly styled cabin. It would be Toyota’s tour de force on their vision of a large sedan should be without leaping into premium brand territory. 

However, the segment had been shrinking in terms of sales. Large sedan customers opted for SUVs instead. As sales dwindled, so has the Avalon’s competition. What’s left for it to be compared to? The Dodge Charger, Chrysler 300, and the Nissan Maxima. That’s it. 

Avalon customers have always used the big sedan to take the next step into premium brand territory. It is not unusual for an Avalon owner to trade it in for a Lexus ES. If they want to, they could go with one of the Germans or another luxury car brand. 

You hate saying good-bye to a car that have that given you some memories – personally and professionally. Just like the market itself, we have to move on. 

Just when Toyota finally got the Avalon where it was intended back in the mid-1990s, it will disappear from showrooms across North America.

Thanks for those great moments, Toyota Avalon. 

All photos by Randy Stern

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