DEL MAR, Calif. — Toyota is deep in a product “renaissance,” executives say, thanks to a new global platform that is remaking its cars and crossovers from the ground up. And that rebirth has come just in time for a couple of its fading car nameplates.
Fresh versions of the Avalon sedan reach dealers in May, and the Corolla hatchback is slated for the summer. Both vehicles move onto the Toyota New Global Architecture and get a complete overhaul with bolder styling and better performance.
Both vehicles also get sport versions with real hardware changes, effectively expanding the Avalon and Corolla families in much the same way Toyota has done with the new generations of the Camry sedan, RAV4 crossover and Prius hybrid.
The Avalon and Corolla hatch are the first Toyotas to offer Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa for smartphone integration, but no Android Auto yet.
“Right now is an exciting time in our history, because our product renaissance is here,” said Lisa Materazzo, Toyota vice president of vehicle marketing and communications, at a media drive of the vehicles near San Diego.
The Corolla hatchback and Avalon are the first Toyotas to offer Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa for smartphone integration.
Lexus ES preview
The relatively low-volume Avalon and Corolla hatch also offer a preview of stablemates that are more critical for Toyota North America: the reworked Lexus ES, which will debut this week in Beijing, and the coming Corolla sedan.
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Avalon sales fell 32 percent last year for a sixth-place finish in the large sedan segment. Sales for the Corolla iM, as the hatch is currently called, rose 15 percent but hit just 20,501 units compared with nearly 309,000 for the sedan.
Toyota wants the Avalon to break out of its midpack sales performance and shed its image as just a cushy cruiser for older buyers.
“We deliberately wanted to make a more driver-engaged car, and the TNGA platform enabled us to do that,” Kevin Hunter, president of Toyota’s Calty design studio, told Automotive News on the sidelines of the event, pointing to the more aggressive styling as an outgrowth of that.
“On the other hand,” he said, “we really didn’t want to alienate some of the Avalon loyalists, because there’s still a lot of strong buyers.”
All 2019 Avalons get the more powerful, more efficient six-cylinder engine and eight-speed automatic transmission out of the Camry, with the exception of the hybrid model. But the Avalon Touring gets a Toyota first: active suspension that adjusts the shock absorbers to tighten up the ride and handling in real time.
Toyota will release pricing and fuel economy for the 2019 Avalon this week. Executives are looking to steal buyers away from American automakers that dominate the segment but may not be committed to it.
“We’ve heard that other OEMs are, perhaps, walking away from this segment,” Materazzo said in an interview. “So, obviously, that would leave an opportunity for us.” Toyota expects cars to remain about a third of the U.S. market, and General Manager Jack Hollis has said it’s ready to pick up sales from discontinued rivals, such as the Hyundai Azera and, if media reports prove correct, the Ford Taurus and Chevy Impala.
The strategy with the Corolla hatchback is more modest: chip away at the market-leading Honda Civic five-door and the venerable Volkswagen Golf, which have set the bar for affordable, fun small cars in a useful package.
The outgoing Corolla iM originally came to the U.S. from Europe in 2015 to shore up Toyota’s now-defunct Scion youth brand. Its boy-racer body was a mismatch with underwhelming mechanicals and it captured only 6.4 percent of Corolla sales this year through March.
The Civic hatch, by contrast, accounted for 18 percent of the nameplate’s deliveries in the first three months of the year, according to Honda. The sales split between the Golf and sedan stablemate Jetta was nearly even. The Civic and Golf come in serious sport versions.
For now, Toyota isn’t stuffing the Corolla hatch with turbocharged engines, track-ready suspensions or four-wheel drive. But it is splitting the difference.
The new four-cylinder motor has 168 hp — a gain of 31 horses — and is at least class-competitive. The new continuously variable transmission has a physical “launch gear” before the pulleys take over. And there’s a new manual transmission.
“We’re here to keep the manuals alive,” said Adam Lovelady, a product expert at Toyota North America. The new six-speed has an intelligent mode to smooth its operation by matching engine speed with downshifts and upshifts.
The Corolla gets a version of the TNGA fully independent suspension that has won acclaim for ride quality and cornering ability on the Camry, the Prius and the new C-HR subcompact crossover.
And the look of the 2019 hatch is far more mainstream than the outgoing iM.
“The hatch body style allows us to bring in not just a younger buyer but a buyer whose profile is different,” said Materazzo. “We see them as authentic adventurers who are under 35 years of age and who believe their car is a way to bond with others and share passions.”
Materazzo expects the mix for the Corolla hatch to improve significantly, but she wasn’t making predictions or ruling out hotter versions in the future. “This vehicle can serve multiple purposes and goals for us,” she said.