2023 Toyota Crown First Drive Review: Nonconformist to a fault

When the 2023 Toyota Crown was revealed as the de facto replacement for the Avalon, we were a bit confused. We weren’t surprised that Toyota would be looking to drop the Avalon, a relatively unexciting model in a rapidly shrinking market. But, even with its tall profile, the Crown is, well, still a big sedan, not even a liftback. And then, the powertrains seemed unambitious. All models will be conventional hybrids, or at least that was the case at launch. A plug-in hybrid has since been announced. So it seemed like the Crown was just going to be an Avalon, but weird looking. But maybe it would all make sense when we finally got a chance to learn more of the details and actually drive the car.

Not really.

We did learn from Toyota representatives that company President Akio Toyoda decreed the Crown be something different from the usual line-up of vehicles. And while there have been tall sedans in the past (Subaru Outback SUS and Volvo S60 Cross Country), there’s no question that it sure is different. So at least the shape and even the bold two-tone paint job option make sense in that context.

What’s interesting, is that despite the significantly altered design, the dimensions of the Crown are not far off from the Avalon, with one exception: overall height. The Crown is about 4 inches taller than either the Avalon or the Camry. But in length, width and wheelbase, it’s less than an inch different. Also, all the height is in the body, not with added ground clearance. The Crown has just 0.5 inch more air between the rockers and the road. So although it has a roofline like an SUV, we wouldn’t try taking it on anything rougher than a well-graded dirt or gravel road, especially with the standard 19-inch wheels or the available 21-inch examples.

Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the interior dimensions are also extremely close to the Avalon. Differences in headroom are within an inch of each other and front legroom is identical. It does lose an inch and a half of rear legroom and a couple inches of shoulder room compared to the Avalon. That’s all on paper, though. In reality, the Crown’s interior feels a fair bit smaller. A major contributing factor is the headroom, which is very tight up front, at least with a sunroof. If you’re 6-feet tall or more, you’ll be rubbing the headliner. We don’t remember this being an issue in the old Avalon, and we suspect the problem here is that Toyota has jacked up the seating position for that SUV-like feel. And that’s also why it feels so tight despite the extra roof height. Fortunately, if you get a model without a sunroof, you get much more front headroom. 

2023 Toyota Crown Platinum2023 Toyota Crown Platinum

As for the back, headroom is still a schosch tight, but not bad. Legroom does feel reduced compared to the limo-like Avalon, but tall adults can sit front and back without too much trouble. The interior space isn’t the only thing downsized, though. Cargo room is down by about 1 cubic foot to a total of 15.2.

In addition to feeling smaller, the Crown’s interior isn’t nicer, either. The Avalon had a surprisingly striking and cool interior design, with a prominent center stack flowing right down into the center console. The dashboard on either side was fairly uncluttered, and on the right trim, you got really gorgeous natural finish wood. On the Crown, regardless of trim, you mostly get black plastic. It’s decent black plastic in most places, but it is just black plastic. The bronze-painted metallic trim is nice, but there’s nothing here that particularly wows. At least the fresh Toyota infotainment system is more modern compared to the Avalon’s previous-generation system. 

2023 Toyota Crown Platinum2023 Toyota Crown Platinum2023 Toyota Crown XLE

For better or for worse, the interior is mostly the same whether you choose a base XLE or a Platinum. Differences come down to the XLE’s cloth upholstery, which is a notably soft, woven fabric (pictured above, bottom right). The Platinum has leather upholstery and leatherette applied to the door panels. 

So if the interior is a misfire, how is it to drive? That depends on the version. The base option is the Crown Hybrid, and it feels very much like an Avalon Hybrid or Camry Hybrid. No surprise there as it’s based on the same TNGA-K platform and shares basically the same hybrid powertrain, albeit with 236 horsepower (versus 215) and standard all-wheel drive. It also has a nickel-metal hydride battery rather than the Avalon Hybrid’s lithium-ion pack. Fuel economy is a bit lower than the Avalon at 42 mpg city, 41 highway and 41 combined, though still no slouch.

The driving experience is similarly competent but dull. The claimed 7.6-second run to 60 mph is perfectly believable. The cabin is very quiet, though some of the 2.5-liter’s low droning comes through when flooring it. And like most of Toyota’s hybrids, it has a rubber-band feeling when accelerating. The ride is soft and supple, and the handling is tuned for safety rather than fun. It’s responsive, but the last thing it wants to do is offer even the littlest bit of rear rotation. Some of this is likely due to the all-wheel-drive system that is front-drive most of the time, and simply powers the rear wheels as necessary (such as when slip is detected). But, as a comfy cruiser, it’s perfectly competent.

2023 Toyota Crown Limited2023 Toyota Crown Platinum

The Hybrid Max, though, is the one to get if you’re going to order a Crown. This powertrain is basically a less powerful version of what you’ll find in the new Lexus RX 500h: an entirely different type of hybrid for Toyota consisting of a turbocharged 2.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, a six-speed automatic, and a much larger rear motor that kicks in based on a variety of conditions and situations as opposed to simply when the car detects front-wheel slippage. Output is 340 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque. 

Toyota claims a 0-60 mph time of 5.7 seconds, and that again feels believable. It feels quite strong, even as the speeds climb. The transmission is a major improvement over the eCVT, too, providing more conventional engine revving and a more direct connection between what the wheels are doing and your foot. It also seems much quieter, most likely thanks to the turbo engine and the lack of eCVT droning. The transmission isn’t lightning-fast at shifting, and is actually a little sluggish on kickdown, but it’s smooth and prompt enough when shifting manually. You do lose a fair bit of efficiency compared to the base model. The Max returns 29 mpg in the city, 32 on the highway and 30 combined.

The extra power is great, but the other chassis tweaks are even better. The Hybrid Max always operates in all-wheel-drive with at least 30% of torque going to the rear wheels all the time, with a maximum of 80% possible. The suspension gets thicker anti-roll bars and, in the case of the Platinum, adaptive shocks. The result is a car that’s actually fairly playful. It’s more neutral, with the rear end coming around with the curve, rather than being dragged ’round it. Body roll is reduced and the ride feels a little firmer, though as it’s adaptive, ride comfort is maintained. It can also be adjusted based on drive mode, from super-crushy to mildly firm, along with throttle response, steering weight and shift timing. The steering is responsive and accurate, but quite light in effort – being able to make it heavier with the sport modes is appreciated even if there’s no extra feedback. 

2023 Toyota Crown Platinum

So as a Hybrid Max in the Platinum trim, which is the only way to get the Hybrid Max, the Crown has some attractive points. The problem is, it’s quite pricey, starting at $53,445. For about a $1,000 more, you could get into a 355-hp Acura TLX Type-S that’s better to drive and carries a luxury badge. Or, for $1,000 less, you could get a 368-hp Kia Stinger GT, which is loads of fun, certainly different in its own right and even a hatchback. Or save even more money with the 300-horsepower Stinger GT-Line. The VW Arteon is another offbeat choice that undercuts the Crown. 

Most of those options are certainly thirstier, so if you’re looking for something greener, there are very compelling electric options with similar power that are completely gas-free. A Kia EV6 with all-wheel drive starts at roughly the same price and has a more charismatic interior, more cargo space and similarly, if not more, striking style. It also doesn’t drink gas. A dual-motor Tesla Model 3 is a few thousand more expensive, but again, no gas.

2023 Toyota Crown XLE

As for the lower trim Crowns, the XLE starts at $41,045, and the Limited at $46,595. Large, hybrid cruisers that get 41 mpg combined aren’t exactly in large supply, but there is one at least, and it’s coming from within Toyota’s house: the Lexus ES 300h. It’s priced right in this range. And while it makes a bit less power and isn’t all-wheel-drive, the base hybrid is a bit more efficient, and it has much more premium interior options available. All are well within the prices of the regular Crown Hybrid models.

The Crown is not a bad car and we’ll always applaud a car company for trying to do something different. That’s how innovation happens and trends start. Trouble is here, the Crown’s main selling point seems to be that it is different. It’s only just fine at those areas that make a car a car. As a result, it may make sense for a slim niche of buyers that want a big car that’s kind of luxurious, kind of SUV-like, kind of sporty, and efficient, but not gas free. That seems like a pretty small group.

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