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Is the Luxury Car Badge Worth the Cost?

Executive Wheels: Comparing the Toyota Avalon Hybrid and the Lexus GS350 F Sport deal killers


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2019- toyota avalon hybrid

The interior of the Toyota Avalon Hybrid

I recently drove the Toyota Avalon Hybrid and the Lexus GS350 F Sport a couple of weeks apart. I was excited to compare them because my recollection is that the Toyota Avalon – the marquee large sedan in the Toyota line – is really a Lexus for less money.

These two cars are indeed very similar in size and feel, even thought the Avalon is based on the Lexus ES, the front-drive and marginally smaller sedan in the Lexus family. But the Lexus GS350 F Sport and the Toyota Avalon Hybrid had similar driving and handling experiences despite major differences in the way the equipment was deployed.

Unfortunately for both vehicles, I found major (different) deal killers that somewhat skewed my comparison.

2019 TOYOTA AVALON HYBRID 4-DR LIMITED

The Avalon stunned me right off the bat because it was so beautiful. The tan and black leather interior is about the most luxurious layout I have ever seen, and I was pleasantly surprised by how the car drove on both highway and city roads.

The great thing about these marquee vehicles in the “standard” line as opposed to the “luxury” badge is that they are just as luxurious, and for my money, a better design. It seems to me that the car-makers define luxury with more difficult-to-use bells and whistles. The Avalon has all the technological components for both safety and entertainment that the Lexus has, but it all operates more simply.

This includes upgraded sound systems, Bluetooth, blind spot monitoring, lane departure and cross traffic alerts, hookups for smart phones and apps, all of which I like. And, they are easier to use and navigate than the Lexus, which has the cumbersome “luxury” access mouse.

The great thing about the front-drive and roomy Avalon Hybrid is the powerplant. It features a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine coupled to the hybrid electric system, and together, the horsepower rating is 178 hp. Like most hybrids, only more here, the power seems like much more than that. The Avalon Hybrid is powerful and quick, both on the highway and city streets. Plus, its mileage rating is 43 mpg highway/43 mpg city/ 43 mpg combined, so you get this performance in about the least-thirsty, big sedan on the planet.     

The Avalon is a front-drive, large sedan and has been in production since 1994, so at 25 years old this nameplate has achieved venerable status.

So what’s the deal killer? Well, my wife and I took the Avalon out for a Sunday drive up to Horsetooth Reservoir and around Fort Collins. But no matter how much we adjusted the multi-adjustable and electric bucket seats we could not get comfortable. After I was behind the wheel for an hour, my back hurt, my legs felt numb and I was just very uncomfortable. When I finally got out of the car back in Denver I felt as though I was 85 years old. Not a good recommendation for a road trip – and this should be the most road-trip-worthy car in the Toyota fleet. I was severely disappointed.

The 2019 Avalon Hybrid 4-door Limited – pretty much loaded with everything standard – carried a base sticker price of $42,800. Toyota added on, for $1,150, an Advanced Safety Package with a Bird’s Eye View Camera (very cool) with perimeter scan and rear cross-traffic alert with braking. Then, of course, the Delivery and Handling fee of $920. So, the bottom line was $44,870.

This would be a great price for a great luxury vehicle if the seating issue was not so bad. Maybe you’ll have a different experience.

RATING: 2 ½ WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR).

lexus-f-sport

2019 LEXUS GS350 F SPORT

I was very much looking forward to driving the 2019 Lexus GS350 F Sport. The GS, the mid-sized, rear-drive sedan in the Lexus lineup, has now entered venerable status in that it has now been on the market for 26 model years, so you’d think that Lexus (and by extension, Toyota) would have everything down. But this car is a perfect example of some of the things not happening at Lexus/Toyota.

First, the “F Sport” designation is purely cosmetic, with additional badging and logoed floor mats, but there are no performance enhancements.

Second, the GS is only in its fourth generation since inception, and has only seen slight, cosmetic revisions in this time. Like many vehicles in the Lexus/Toyota line, this one is beginning to show its age.

Once again, there is very little gained about going into grand detail about this car. It is a Lexus, a luxury car, and it has all of the modern bells and whistles in both safety and entertainment technology. But, of course, it has that annoying Lexus mouse-like device for getting to everything. Every one of the luxury brands does it, so no offense to Lexus, but it is not more technologically advanced than an upgraded Toyota Corolla, it just has fancier controls.

This Lexus GS 350 F Sport features All Wheel Drive, which is great, and a 3.5 liter V6 engine that has a horsepower rating of 311 hp. It is quick and responsive, and for the most part drives and handles magnificently. The car has a handsome, sporty exterior with a mean-looking front grille, and the interior – red leather seats, and doors, with black accents on the doors and a black dash – is simply beautiful. The GS also has one of my favorite features: instead of annoying “beep” when locking the car from the key fob, the mirrors simply fold in.

But the deal killer? Now, this is a Lexus and I expected it to be relatively expensive – as equipped here, a base price of $54,105 plus several thousand in options and delivery, for a bottom line of $60,749 on the sticker. However, during the test-drive week I drove this car on the highway every day, and it occurred to me that I was driving a $60,000 luxury car and the road noise was so great I had to yell to speak to a passenger and strain to hear the radio or the phone. I couldn’t believe it.

As I have often recommended, when test driving cars for a possible purchase, do more than go around the block. Drive it at night in the dark, hit the highway, put it through some paces. On this car, I would have loved it driving down Broadway of Havana away from the dealership, but once the rubber hit the road on the highway. I would have gone back to the dealership and gone to a different brand.

RATING: 2 ½ WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR)

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Jeff Rundles

Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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