First drive review: 2020 Toyota Camry and Avalon TRD inject fun into the family sedan

September 10, 2019

It’s 102 sweltering degrees at Texas Motor Speedway and I’m driving a 2020 Toyota Camry family sedan on an autocross. Not only that, but the next car I’ll toss from sharp, chalk-outlined corner to corner is a 2020 Toyota Avalon, a car with a famously elderly audience. What world is this?

It’s a world where Toyota has found buyers for sportier XSE versions of its two staid family sedans, and where the Japanese automaker has responded with TRD (short for Toyota Racing Development) versions of both.

Lowered 0.6 inch and riding on Bridgestone RE050 summer tires, the Camry pivots through tight turns with relative competence. I expect it to act like most family sedans and understeer horribly in the corners, but it rotates. I expect its brakes to give up on this blisteringly hot day, but they keep doing their job. I expect the grip to let loose, but it holds. I expect the 8-speed automatic transmission to dawdle and it does, at least until I move the shifter over to the left to engage the powertrain’s Sport mode.

2020 Toyota Avalon TRD

2020 Toyota Avalon TRD

2020 Toyota Camry TRD

2020 Toyota Camry TRD

2020 Toyota Camry TRD

2020 Toyota Camry TRD

Half-step to performance

To be clear, all of these characteristics go further than the Camry XSE but still only about halfway toward making the Camry a performance car. There’s no mistaking the TRD name for a BMW M badge or a Mercedes AMG moniker. The changes made to the 2020 Toyota Camry TRD give it a sporty flair. It could easily have been called the Camry Sport. Same goes for the Avalon, which doesn’t get as many performance upgrades.

Onlookers spotting the Camry TRD in the wild may think otherwise. It has a jagged rear spoiler that would look right at home on a Camaro ZL1. That’s complemented by blacked out side sills, a gloss-black mesh grille, a subtle front splitter, a rear diffuser that houses dual exhaust outlets, and good-looking 19-inch wheels that cover red brake calipers.

Usually, an automaker would boast about how much downforce this kind of aero kit adds. Toyota isn’t making any claims and a company rep told me it doesn’t add much measurable aero advantage. Mostly, those parts are there to make the car look cool. In the eyes of many, they will accomplish that goal at least.

The suspension work, however, has a clearer purpose. On the Camry TRD, Toyota engineers swapped in lowering springs to drop the car by 0.6 inch compared to the other “sporty choice,” the Camry XSE. They also stiffened the front dampers by 10 percent and the rears by 50 percent, switched from 25.4 mm hollow to 27 mm solid front and rear anti-roll bars (increasing roll stiffness 44 percent up front and 67 percent in the rear), strengthened three underbody braces, and added a V-brace behind the rear seats (no more fold-down second row). The Avalon received the same treatment, but it already had the 27 mm solid anti-roll bars and it didn’t get the rear V-brace. The Avalon TRD also doesn’t offer the summer tires that are optional on the Camry TRD, though both cars ride on 19x8.5-inch alloy wheels that are a half-inch wider than those of the Camry XSE and Avalon Touring.

2020 Toyota Avalon TRD

2020 Toyota Avalon TRD

2020 Toyota Avalon TRD

2020 Toyota Avalon TRD

2020 Toyota Avalon TRD

2020 Toyota Avalon TRD

For both cars, Toyota also added Active Cornering Assist, which is brake-based torque vectoring that clamps down on the inside rear wheel in corners, increased the size of the front rotors from 12.0 to 12.9 inches in diameter, and switched from single- to two-piston front calipers. The brakes are an improvement, but they’re not the kind of brakes you add to a track car.

Toyota won’t say how much the body braces add to the Camry’s overall structural rigidity—apparently because Honda or Hyundai or Nissan could somehow do something with that data—but the stronger body, lower ride height, and rear damper stiffness are likely the reasons the Camry can tackle an autocross with competence. A lower center of gravity equals more agility, a stiffer body means a car can react more quickly to driver inputs, and a stiffer rear end is more willing to follow the front end.

The Avalon isn’t as agile in my next run around the autocross. The longer wheelbase and greater weight mean it isn’t as agile through tight turns and esses, and its all-season tires are willing to give up grip more easily. Still, it doesn’t embarrass itself on the autocross. Like the Camry, though, it offers very little steering feel.

Toyota did nothing to improve engine performance, though it did inject some life into the exhaust note. Both models come standard with the brand’s 3.5-liter V-6 that makes a healthy 301 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque. Toyota added a TRD-tuned cat-back exhaust to both cars to give the V-6 a throatier howl, especially during hard acceleration.

The 8-speed automatic transmission sends its power to the front wheels and ladles it out smoothly but conservatively in its base drive mode. Move the shifter to the left and the transmission holds gears longer to make the power easier to access, but there is plenty of room for more aggressive transmission tuning. Oddly, the Avalon Touring model offers a Sport+ mode that does just that, but it’s not available on either the Avalon or Camry TRD. The Avalon Touring also comes standard with adjustable dampers that aren’t available on the TRD.

In addition to the exterior and suspension upgrades, Camry and Avalon TRD buyers get slightly sportier interiors. Both models feature synthetic leather front seats with thicker bolstering, red stitching, and embroidered TRD logos on the headrests. The Avalon’s seats have synthetic suede inserts, while the Camry’s have fabric inserts. The red stitching also appears on the door panels and shift knob, and the seat belts are red as well.

2020 Toyota Camry TRD

2020 Toyota Camry TRD

2020 Toyota Avalon TRD

2020 Toyota Avalon TRD

2020 Toyota Camry TRD

2020 Toyota Camry TRD

2020 Toyota Avalon TRD

2020 Toyota Avalon TRD

The family sedans to buy?

Neither TRD model is all that expensive. The Camry TRD is equipped like a base SE model and starts at $31,995, making it the least-expensive way to get a V-6 in a Camry. The Avalon TRD costs $43,255, which is $200 less than the top-end Touring.

For that money, Camry buyers get a sporty and almost sinister-looking family sedan (especially in any of the three two-tone colors, especially the red and black) that is sportier to drive though not truly sporty. It’s more controlled, more tied down to the road, and it is the entry level for the V-6, though it also delivers a ride most Camry buyers will find too hard. It’s the Camry I’d buy as a single automotive enthusiast, but it might not be the best choice for the family.

The TRD name feels less appropriate for the Avalon. This is a car that’s all about luxury, but the TRD elements disrupt its ride and come short of offering some of the better features from the Touring model, which costs only $200 more.

In both instances, however, the TRD equipment injects some fun into cars that aren’t known for it. Who’d have thought we’d have TRD versions of the Camry and Avalon five years ago. But now we do.

What a world.

Toyota paid for airfare and lodging for Internet Brands Automotive to bring you this firsthand report.

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