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[Test Drive] Avalon impresses more than Lexus in hybrids

Both perform well, but cheaper model offers driver more for money

July 31,2019
With talk of Japanese boycotts on the rise, Toyota might be in for a rough ride.

Interest is already showing signs of weakness, and if the movement to shun Japanese goods continues or deepens, the automaker may face significant challenges in Korea.

According to Getcha, an online car price information provider, price quote requests for Lexus cars fell by 64 percent in the first 15 days of July compared to the 15 days between June 16 and 30. Inquiries for Toyota overall dropped 38 percent during that period.

Before the boycott movement started, Toyota Korea posted healthy sales numbers.

From April 2018 to March 2019, its sales rose 14.2 percent from a year earlier to nearly 1.2 trillion won ($1 billion).

The Korean unit of the Japanese automaker credits its recent success to the popularity of its hybrid models with local consumers.

“Many of our customers are interested in our hybrid models, as they are at the high-end of the competition in many ways,” a Toyota Korea spokesperson said while presenting the automaker’s hybrid technology before a hybrid-special test drive session on July 9.

Since showcasing its first hybrid model at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1977 and equipping Prius with hybrid technology in 1997, Toyota has focused much of its energy on making high-quality hybrid vehicles, and the automaker is ahead of many in that competition.

All hybrid models from Toyota and its Lexus luxury brand boast high efficiency. As soon as a driver releases the accelerator, the vehicle automatically starts charging the batteries for the electric motor.

A digital display before the driver lets them know when charging starts and ends.

On the day of the test drive, during the early days of the now-nationwide boycott movement against Japanese goods, I got behind the wheel of the Toyota Avalon Hybrid and Lexus LC500h and came to realize that the spokesperson was actually telling the truth.

Their hybrid vehicles show that Toyota is on its game, especially in providing a pleasant, eco-friendly on-the-road experience with less noise for driver.


Lexus LC500h

For a 50-kilometer (31-mile) drive starting from Gwangju, Gyeonggi, this reporter hopped in the driver’s seat of a Lexus LC500h and put the pedal to the metal while driving east to Yangpyeong, Gyeonggi.

But it never felt as though I was driving at 140 kilometers per hour (87 miles per hour) on the highway. I often broke the speed limit without even noticing it.

With a 10-level automatic transmission and a 5.0-liter V8 engine, the two-door hybrid sports car can achieve up to 477 horsepower and 55.1 kilogram-meters (400 pound-feet) in torque.

The car is quiet when being driven, as the engine is designed to lower the ugly booming noise at medium speeds, but a sound generator produces sharp, authentic sports car sounds when the car is accelerating. At low speeds, there was no sound whatsoever, as the electric motor does all the work.

The reduced noise level helped this reporter enjoy the high-quality music from the 13 Mark Levinson speakers installed throughout the car. The audio system was good enough to deliver Foals’ live performance audio clips as clear and lively as if being at the concert myself.

Not that everything was great. It is given that seats for sports cars are designed differently from those in regular sedans, but even considering that, the seats felt a little too tight for me. The on-the-road experience could have been better if Toyota equipped the LC500h with wider seats.

It was also a bit mind-boggling that the sports car had backseats at all. The backseats seemed small for any adult regardless of their size, and Toyota could have used that space to shorten the vehicle or even make the trunk bigger.

The hybrid sports car is 4.76 meters (16 feet) in length, 1.92 meters wide and 1.35 meters high.

The lack of digital assets was surprising. In regard to infotainment system, Toyota stubbornly kept its remote control panel and stayed away from supporting a touch-based interface for its Lexus models.

The wide 10.3-inch display is a joy to look at - but only to look at. With a not-very-responsive and hard-to-maneuver remote touch pad, it was infuriating to navigate outdated menus with constant clicks.

The exterior was also fairly unimpressive, as I’m personally not a big fan of the LF-LC concept Toyota unveiled during Detroit Motor Show in January 2012. Since announcing the new design concept, Toyota has kept increasing the size of the front grilles and started morphing the rectangular lamps into triangular shapes.

With a wide front grille and sharp lamp design, the LC500h does look sporty, but not necessarily appealing, beauty, of course, being in the eye of the beholder.

Although the model’s hybrid engine technology is impressive, considering outdated digital gadgets and other counterintuitive features, the LC500h is definitely overpriced, as it starts at 177.6 million won.


Toyota Avalon Hybrid

On the way back to Gwangju, this reporter hopped into a white Toyota Avalon Hybrid and got to enjoy a more affordable hybrid option offered by the Japanese automaker.

The four-door sedan is priced at 46.6 million won, a much more mainstream price point.

Fuel economy is also great. The hybrid sedan can travel 16.6 kilometer on one liter of gasoline, even though it can hit 218 horsepower and 22.5 kilogram-meters of torque. The vehicle’s performance is the result of Avalon’s 4.0-liter gasoline engine and an electric motor working together.

While driving was not as sporty and powerful as in the LC500h, Toyota’s hybrid technology did its job in providing me with a safe, quiet and comfortable time on the highway.

The hybrid model is larger than its predecessor, but shifting lanes and making turns was never an issue. A low weight base helped the 4.98 meters long, 1.85 meters wide and 1.44 meters high premium sedan stay firm in the lane and cruise softly around corners.

In fully changing the Avalon model, Toyota moved the battery pack from the trunk to under the back seats and achieved better weight balance. By moving the battery pack, its trunk went from 16.1 cubic feet from 14 cubic feet.

With the larger vehicle, Toyota could promise a rather luxurious interior design for drivers and passengers. The vehicle was spacious enough for this 5 foot 6 inch reporter in both the front and the back, and the high-quality leather seats equipped with well-positioned springs made for a comfortable drive.

At no time did the sound bother me, as the Avalon Hybrid made almost no noise on the road, even when speeding above 120 kilometers per hour.

Safety sensors installed on the exterior of the Avalon Hybrid immediately notified me when other cars were coming close with alarms, and the lane-assist feature made me look good on curvy roads.

But as with LC500h, Avalon Hybrid’s exterior was not so appealing to this reporter, as its overwhelmingly large front grille accompanied with sharp headlamps failed to hit the mark. The luxury of the interior did not extend to the exterior: The vehicle did not look so “premium” to me.

Thankfully, the frustration I had using the remote touch pad for the LC500h was absent in the Avalon Hybrid, as the four-door sedan did come with a 9-inch touch-screen display. Menu screens were simple and easy to follow, requiring almost no brain power in finding features to activate or turn off.

But it could have been better, as the system is a little slow and unresponsive compared to infotainment systems offered in the Sonata Hybrid.

The Avalon Hybrid also comes with a wireless smartphone charging system.

As the boycott of Japanese goods continues, it’s unclear how many people are in the market for a Japanese car. But if someone does decide to buy one, the Avalon Hybrid is worth considering.

The midsize sedan seems to be a competitive and appealing option for prospective buyers, as the model provides a comfortable, quiet driving experience and offers a welcoming interior design.

BY KO JUN-TAE [ko.juntae@joongang.co.kr]


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