The 2020 Toyota Camry TRD and its larger Avalon TRD sibling are the natural next evolutions of the company’s sneaky push to inject more energy into its historically dull sedan lineup. It’s working, kind of.
This browser does not support the video element.
These cars are Toyota’s first real steps in testing what “performance” Camrys and Avalons could be, and that’s just what they are—marginally better sedans for folks who want a little bit of excitement in life, while also falling back on their safe norms.
And it must be noted the usual safe norms aren’t what they used to be. The Camry is always pretty resilient, but annual sales are off by six figures compared to a few years ago, with the car knocked off its top perch by the RAV4. Things are significantly worse for the Avalon; sales in 2018 were half what they were four years prior. One way to get more eyes on them: more performance, or the Camry and Avalon equivalent of performance.
These mildly hotted-up four doors won’t send a deep appreciation for performance pulsing through your feet, but they will make you slightly more fond of your drive.
(Full disclosure: Toyota held a big event at Texas Motor Speedway to show off its new Camry and Avalon TRD, providing a few meals in the process.)
You might recognize “TRD,” or Toyota Racing Development, as the company’s performance brand, whose logo goes on everything from Toyota’s NASCAR endeavors to its off-road trucks and other cars. The Camry TRD and Avalon TRD are meant to be thought of as “performance” variants, but the upgrades these cars receive are entirely focused on handling and aesthetics.
They’re sporty sedans, not front-wheel-drive BMW M5 slayers or Japan’s take on the Chevrolet SS.
On the Camry and Avalon, the TRD treatment includes handling, exhaust, and other performance tweaks. But compared to the other trims in the lineup, the 301-horsepower V6 engine, eight-speed automatic transmission and FWD configuration stays the same on both cars. (The V6 is an option on the Camry lineup but standard on the TRD trim, and a 203-HP four-cylinder engine can be found on cheaper versions of the model.)
Toyota’s representatives said the package on both cars includes: three stiffer underbody braces; wider and lighter wheels; exhaust, spring and damper tuning; dual-piston brake calipers and bigger rotors in place of the single pistons on the other models; lowered stances by 0.6 inches; appearance and aerodynamic tweaks; an Active Cornering Assist system to reduce understeer; and brakes tuned for better feedback. They’re also full of TRD logos, for speed.
Toyota’s people declined to answer questions about how much downforce the Camry TRD’s wing provides, or exactly how much stiffer the TRDs are than the regular car. “We don’t release that information,” a rep told the crowd when asked. But in stiffness, at least, the difference was promised as “significant.”
The cars also have exhaust tuning, but Toyota reps said they don’t pump engine noise through the speakers—a common curse, in modern times. (Toyota, for what it’s worth, marks pumped-in “engine sound enhancement” as part of an options package for the Avalon TRD online. The more expensive but cushier Touring trim has it listed as standard.)
The Avalon TRD sits on the higher half of the 2020 Avalon trim lineup and is on sale already, with its $42,300 starting MSRP falling just below the top Hybrid Limited trim’s price of $43,150. The Avalon lineup starts almost $10,000 below that, with the $35,800 XLE base trim.
A Camry TRD isn’t on the Toyota configurator as of this writing, but its $31,040 MSRP would put it more toward the middle of the current Camry lineup, which starts with the $24,095 L trim and tops out with the $34,850 XSE V6 for the 2019 model year.
The Toyota Camry TRD looks impressive parked next to the line-topping V6 XSE, even though the “sporty” version is actually less expensive. The XSE has comfort features the TRD doesn’t—like a power-adjustable passenger seat in addition to the driver’s seat and heated, but not ventilated, front seats—while the TRD instead goes for the stuff that’ll make it seem more fun and sporty.
The XSE, which does come with the option for a red interior for those who want to be daring but also can’t live without seat heaters, doesn’t make the best use of its V6 power. It has a sluggish response in acceleration despite its decent power rating, and even with the pedal to the floor, there’s a gap of emptiness between the action and a reaction from the car. That’s expected for a typical economy car, but with more than 300 HP and a mid-$30,000s price, the Camry leaves that realm with the V6 XSE.
The XSE also comes with a hum of road noise that’s dull but noticeable, and suspension that’s comfortable enough but is no pillow. Its instrument cluster is full of dark colors that make it nearly impossible to see during the day, and overall, it’s a nice car that’s not overly thrilling. That gripe, it seems, is where Toyota wants the TRD option to get some attention.
It’s obvious, upon the first push of the accelerator, that the Camry TRD is a departure from the regular lineup. It has a nice rip from the exhaust that can be heard from inside of the car, but not crisply, since noise isn’t being fed in from anywhere. It feels authentic in a world where we have to pull fuses to hear what a car sounds like without the extra audio help, and that’s nice.
But even with the more aggressive exhaust noise, there’s still a gap in throttle pickup when the pedal gets stomped. The TRD feels slightly more responsive than the V6 XSE, but that might be due to the fact that its wheels are each 3.1 pounds lighter, as Toyota said there’s no programmed difference between the throttle response or gearing in the two. The steering isn’t exactly twitchy but it’s fine for what it is, and the car is agile enough but won’t blow everyone away at your local autocross.
The instrument cluster, like in the XSE, is a chore to look at. It’s black and red, yet the gauges are just as dark as the ones in the XSE, making it hard to even see what you’re doing during daytime driving. But one color Toyota did get right is the TRD’s pearlescent white paint, which glimmers in a way that’ll make even the folks who go after the lime greens and Starburst oranges pause.
It’s a good paint color that’s made better by the Camry TRD’s exterior accents, even if Toyota doesn’t want to release information on whatever aerodynamic advantages they might, or might not, provide.
While idling, the Avalon TRD has a low rumble that’s not over the top, which is appropriate for what Toyota wants the car to be. It sounds incredible for an Avalon from the outside, while staying grounded in the fact that is an Avalon and not your neighborhood Hellcat. Its engine noise also doesn’t falsely erupt into the car’s interior—at least, not in the models Toyota provided at our test.
On an autocross course, there’s road noise and a little bit of body roll, and the TRD still feels laboriously large to throw around. But it has better steering response and far stiffer brakes than its more laid-back counterpart, the more expensive Avalon Touring, and it puts down its power uncharacteristically well for a FWD car. Torque steer isn’t a problem, and it the car plants itself as soon as the driver plants their foot.
The current Avalon Touring has a decent engine sound itself, along with heated and ventilated front seats and more seat adjustments than the TRD. Drivers can also adjust the steering wheel with a power toggle on the Touring while the TRD adjustment is manual, at least in the cars that were at our test, and passengers in the rear get seat heaters in the Touring models as well. The TRDs on site did have seat heaters up front, at least.
The Touring trim, in general, felt like “Avalon” and “Touring” might lead one to assume: It was big and comfortable, to the point that it was like swinging a boat around on the autocross course Toyota provided for it. The response of the steering wheel—and a lot of the rest of the car—was cushy and loose, it slid a lot more than the TRD version did, and the body roll was more than evident while lugging it through the coned-off corners. But that wasn’t surprising; it was expected.
The Avalon TRD is similar to the Camry version, just like the regular Avalons are similar to the V6 Camrys. The big difference is size, with everyone in the Avalon getting slightly more room.
The interiors resemble each other, and the Avalon TRDs simply have more toned-down accents than the Camrys do—as if the Avalon TRD, with its smaller spoiler and all-black side mirrors incasing a bunch of red interior accents, is for the person who wants to be more discreet, while the Camry is a tad edgier.
That’s aside from the Avalon’s massive, mostly-for-show “grille” that looks like it could cool down the surface of the sun, of course. That thing is a looker.
When showing off the two new trims, a Toyota representative called both the Camry and Avalon TRD “the vehicle TRD enthusiasts want, not the vehicle they need.” Toyota also alluded to the fact that they’re a small, test-the-waters step on the scale between baseline and performance.
Driving them, it’s evident that their appearance packages and handling tweaks accomplish just that. They’re not going to impress the crowd at your next track day, because they’re not meant for your next track day. They’re meant to be a step above the norm, for the person who wants practicality but the choice to be a little less plain than everyone else.
The Avalon TRD, for $10,000 more, seems less worth it for a buyer who doesn’t need the extra room. It’s more planted upon acceleration but is still a chore to toss back and forth if you’re ever in tight, fast, autocross-like corners, and its stats and aim as a TRD model are almost identical to its smaller sibling. If the space isn’t necessary, neither is the spend.
But together, the Avalon and Camry TRD are good for the mild performance options they claim to be—and that seems to have been exactly Toyota’s goal.