Once a staple of the American highway, the full-size sedan is wasting away.
Big, cushy road yachts like the Chevy Caprice, Buick Roadmaster and Ford Crown Victoria are long dead. Dwindling demand is killing off their smaller counterparts as the Chevrolet Impala, Buick LaCrosse and Ford Taurus are all due to be discontinued soon. Several other large sedans are barely hanging on.
Full-size sedans faced attacks on multiple fronts. Carefully designed midsize models offered similarly roomy interiors and quiet rides in smaller, less-expensive, more-fuel-efficient packages. And buyers who wanted maximum size switched to SUVs along with many others who are abandoning sedans of all sizes.
But one full-size sedan niche continues to hold on. Rather than being spacious, relaxed and cushy, several of the survivors leverage their size for a different end: sporty styling and performance.
While many driving enthusiasts favor small, light cars, big ones can fit in larger engines and wide bodies, which lower their centers of gravity. And a large car can deliver imposing looks or long, low proportions that many buyers crave. At the same time, a full-size sporty sedan delivers a usefully spacious interior for fun-seekers who still need to carry people around.
The Dodge Charger typifies this trend. America’s best-selling full-size sedan, it backs up its menacing looks with standard rear-wheel-drive and available V8 engines.
We recently tested the 2019 Nissan Maxima, another big sedan that has long been popular for its style and performance, and two formerly mild-mannered models that are newly redesigned to follow suit: the 2019 Toyota Avalon and its higher-end counterpart, the 2019 Lexus ES.
Although it is the most expensive of the three, with a starting price of $40,775, the Lexus ES is more popular than the Avalon or the Maxima.
That is because the redesigned ES offers greatly improved driving dynamics and crisper styling cues without alienating buyers who still like the appeal of a spacious, quiet luxury car.
Rather than screaming performance, the ES has improved its composure. The steering has become responsive rather than loose and vague, and the car makes no complaints if you drive it fast. And the 302-horsepower V6 engine delivers smooth, strong power. (A four-cylinder gas-electric hybrid is also available for buyers who would rather sip fuel than go fast. The ES 300h hybrid gets a whopping 44 mpg in mixed driving, compared to the V6 ES 350’s still-impressive 26 mpg.)
More importantly, in the tested F Sport performance model, the ES also makes no complaints if you drive it slowly. Its improved suspension keeps the new ES more stable than last year’s model. It tracks straight and true on a smooth highway, while last year’s ES would sometimes jiggle with uncertainty.
Lexus also improved the new ES’s rear seating, creating extra foot space under the front seats to make the most of its generous leg room.
A few areas of criticism remain. Like other Lexus models, the dashboard controls could be easier to use. While the car includes Apple CarPlay smartphone integration for iPhones, it doesn’t support the Android Auto equivalent. Some folks will never love the big Lexus hourglass grille, though the rest of the ES design exhibits crisp lines with few busy details. And others dislike the idea of a luxury car that shares its mechanical components with a less-expensive mainstream one.
Overall, the ES has become a highly competitive big sedan that drives like anything that is roomy without costing a ton more.
Bargain-seekers and those who do not love the ES’s looks can consider the Toyota Avalon. Some will find it the obvious choice over the Lexus — with the same engines and suspension and the same interior spaciousness, it matches many of the same qualities for less money.
But make no mistake. The Avalon may wear a Toyota badge, but it is also priced like a luxury car, starting at $36,480. And the Touring model we tested reached $44,913.
With its composed ride, hushed cabin, spacious seating and a long list of available features, the Avalon does make a case for itself as a luxury vehicle. And some buyers might find the more overtly sporty-looking Avalon to look better than the more gracefully subtle Lexus.
Lexus earns its price premium in the cabin, though, with higher-end materials, larger and crisper infotainment displays, and more expensive-looking dashboard design. The Toyota has more user-friendly controls, but its blocky instrument panel — a big rectangle that juts out from the dashboard — fails to evoke luxury. That said, some buyers might appreciate the new Avalon’s thorough rejection of big luxury-sedan design norms.
Although the current Nissan Maxima generation is already several years old, it has a pretty similar feel to the new Avalon. Both are big cars with aggressive styling cues that might turn off some buyers, especially those who seek a more traditionally opulent interior design at this price point.
Nissan has updated the Maxima for the 2019 model year — with revised styling, upgraded upholstery and more- standard safety features — at a base price of $34,945.
All Maximas have a 300-horsepower V6 engine (no hybrid is available, unlike the Toyota and Lexus) that confidently propels the car forward. Its suspension gives you the confidence to drive this big car fast. Nissan has long called the Maxima a “four-door sports car,” but it is still more about everyday confidence-inspiring behavior than the epitome of high-limits driving excitement.
The Avalon has a roomier rear seat and trunk than the Maxima, which is roughly the same size as Nissan’s cheaper Altima — a model that has only four-cylinder engines and more easygoing handling. Unlike the Avalon or ES, the Maxima has Android Auto in addition to Apple CarPlay. The bigger reason you would choose it over the Avalon is if Nissan’s aesthetics are more to your tastes as both cars are quite competitive in most ways.
Visit tinyurl.com/sentinel-es350 to see more photos of recently tested 2019 Lexus ES 350s, visit tinyurl.com/sentinel-avalon to see more photos of the tested 2019 Toyota Avalon and visit tinyurl.com/sentinel-maxima to see more photos of the tested 2019 Nissan Maxima.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.