Editor's note: This review was written in November 2008 about the 2009 Toyota Venza. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2010, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
It's rare for Toyota to release an all-new model, but the company known for popular sedans like the Corolla and Camry is hoping anti-SUV sentiment will draw people to its new Venza. The Toyota folks aren't calling the Venza a crossover, but they aren't sure it's a car, either. They're not even dubbing it a wagon or a hatchback — all they want to make clear is that the Venza is not an SUV.
Toyota, of course, has an array of SUVs, just like GM and Ford. And just like those automakers, sales of even Toyota's most efficient SUVs, like the Highlander, are dropping. Enter, Venza. It may be a typical Toyota — more practical than enjoyable — but in tough economic times — when people are scrutinizing every expense — practicality and usefulness may catapult the unlikely Venza to the top of a new segment: Non-SUVs.
Models & Trims
Toyota went simple with the Venza in terms of trim levels. There are only four, and they don't have alphanumeric designations like LE or S2. There's the base four-cylinder front-wheel-drive Venza, which starts at $25,975. It's rated at 21/29 mpg city/highway, which is close to the base Camry's 21/31 mpg. An all-wheel-drive version costs $1,450 more and gets 20/28 mpg.
The V-6 front-wheel-drive model starts at $27,800 and gets 19/26 mpg. All-wheel drive is once again $1,450 more, and the V-6 all-wheel drive Venza is rated at 18/25 mpg.
While the base Venza's starting price may seem high, the extra dough for a V-6 or all-wheel drive is reasonable. A front-wheel-drive V-6 Nissan Murano starts at $26,870 and gets 18/23 mpg with slightly less power.
I wasn't a fan of the Venza when it debuted on the auto show circuit, but like many of today's designs it looks much better in person and on the road. I'm still not in love with the vented, wing-like grille, which highlights a very snub-nosed front end, but the styling of the profile and rear is extremely elegant.
From the side, there is definitely a resemblance to the Lexus RX SUV and the Mercedes-Benz R-Class crossover. The back side shares a bit of Porsche Cayenne and BMW sedan chemistry.
Toyota did make one odd choice that accentuates the design but detracts from ride quality and price: The base four-cylinder model comes standard with 19-inch wheels and tires. The V-6 comes standard with 20-inchers. That's too big for most SUVs these days — the Highlander comes with standard 17-inch wheels. While large rims look good, smaller wheels and tires — even 18-inchers — would improve the Venza's ride quality and the tires would be cheaper to replace.
Regardless, all of this design talk comes down to one thing: This is a classy-looking Toyota.
The Venza's interior is very nice for a vehicle that starts just under $26,000. However, the bulky dashboard plastic stretches far forward and responds with a hollow sound when knocked upon. The panels on the doors do the same. Many readers may wonder why auto journalists always mention the plastic as such an important aspect of a car. To me, it is the one aspect that is both visual and tactile. If the plastic looks and feels cheap, your first impression of the car will be that the car is cheap.
Luckily for Toyota, its hollow plastic looks like it belongs in this car's price range. It's less impressive when you move up to a $30,000 version, but not drastically so. There are two interior colors, Ivory and Light Gray. To my eyes, Ivory was beige, and it looked much better than the gray. Four-cylinder models come with carbon fiber-like trim that is brown and black rather than gray and black, like most carbon fiber applications. It looks a little odd at first, but it grew on me. The simulated wood trim in V-6 models is quite handsome.
More important to me were the seats. In terms of comfort, both the standard cloth seats — which use far nicer fabric than the ones in the Corolla and Camry — and the upgraded leather seats are above average. Thigh support up front was a little lacking; other journalists testing the Venza with me agreed. However, because the seating position is a bit straight-up — like in a minivan, versus the more leaned-back position you get in a sedan — your knees are bent more, meaning you don't need much thigh support to begin with.
There's also an extreme amount of legroom in the second row, which is a major selling point for the baby boomer market at which the Venza is aimed. The second row struck me as roomier than even the specs suggest when compared to both two-row crossovers like the Murano (the Venza bests it by 3 inches in terms of rear legroom) and three-row crossovers from GM (it bests the GMC Acadia and others by 2 inches).
Back up front, there are a few surprises that make the Venza stand out. The shifter is mounted in the center of the dashboard instead of lower in the console, between the driver and passenger seats. This allowed Toyota to create a huge cargo area in the center console, covered with a sliding cupholder tray. It's a really interesting way of doing things, and one I haven't seen elsewhere. Oh, how is it to reach that shifter? Surprisingly natural. It isn't placed far away from the driver, like in newer minivans. Even using the manual-shift feature repeatedly was second nature.
A trip computer that displays the time, outside temperature and either driving range, mileage or average speed, along with air-conditioning settings, sits squarely atop the dash. This location is the perfect place for such a screen in terms of keeping the driver's eyes trained on the road, and it's unbelievably crisp and clear. This is also where the backup camera is located if you opt to get it as part of a $570 security package, without adding navigation. If you do get the nav system, the camera's image appears in the nav screen lower on the dash.
While the trip computer is an exercise in brilliant simplicity, the Venza's gadget holder — while a good concept — isn't so well-executed. Located below the air conditioning controls, the holder uses a spring to keep a cell phone or an iPod tightly in place so it won't move in sharp turns or when riding over bumps. There's also a hidden notch to run wires into the center console below the cupholders. However, the Venza has no USB plug, just an auxiliary music input and a power plug. Because Toyota's cheapest Scion model comes with a standard USB plug, an all-new car starting at $26,000 should have one. Toyota's reasoning that its upgraded stereo with navigation — a $2,590 option — features streaming music capability isn't a good one in my mind. Very few phones and even fewer MP3 players are capable of streaming music. No iPod can stream music. It may seem trivial, but with so much thought put into gadget-holding and hiding cables, a simple USB plug should have been included.
Despite standard 19- and 20-inch wheels for four-cylinder and V-6 models, respectively, the Venza shows no other hints that it's a performance-oriented machine. The 182-horsepower four-cylinder engine has adequate power, but on inclines it felt burdened with just one passenger in tow. The six-speed automatic transmission hunted for gears during heavy acceleration and didn't provide the smooth experience one often associates with a Toyota machine.
For most daily driving, though, the four-cylinder would be adequate, especially in the 3,760-pound front-wheel-drive model. V-6 and AWD models are heavier. At highway speeds, four-cylinder Venzas cruised with pleasant quietness in terms of the engine and road, but wind noise overall was surprisingly loud. Granted, I tested both engines during very windy conditions, but I detected plenty of wind noise even during fairer spots of weather. The huge side mirrors didn't help in this department.
The V-6 was obviously much more enjoyable and fun to drive. It had plenty of power in most situations. The engine still erupted loudly when the gas pedal was hammered hard, but its 268 hp is put to good use. Drivers won't feel any struggle on inclines, and the same six-speed automatic is much smoother when paired with this engine. During my tests of both models, the mileage returned in the V-6 was about 2 mpg less than in the four-cylinder — 20 versus 22 mpg — in mixed driving.
The astonishing thing to me about the car was the decision to make 19- and 20-inch wheels standard. While the ride is generally smooth, there's little doubt 17- or 18-inch wheels would lead to a better ride. The Venza wasn't designed to offer a performance driving experience, which is the setting in which larger wheels would be valued. The only positive they add to this Venza is in the looks department.
The steering was surprisingly responsive. Most Toyotas these days have vague steering feel, but the Venza's electronic steering is pinpoint and sharp — dare I say it's like most Hondas? When taking sharp turns or traversing windy roads, there was little of the type of body lean you'd associate with an SUV. To me, the Venza outhandles a Camry any day.
Cargo & Utility
In the new battle for the hearts and minds of former SUV owners, cargo area may be the great decider. The Venza has more cargo room behind the second row than both the Murano and Ford Edge SUVs and the Subaru Outback wagon, undoubtedly its closest competitors.
I'd even venture that Toyota's 34.4-cubic-foot rating is conservative; the wide cargo area would be perfect for golf bags. I asked Toyota how many it could fit, thinking getting four back there would be a snap, making the Venza a terrific country club vehicle. Surprisingly, no one had thought to test that out.
There are handles at the back of the cargo area that fold down the rear seats with a simple flip. This is becoming more commonplace in vehicles, including in the Murano, and in my mind it's almost a must-have in this segment. The cargo floor's load height is also nice and low, about thigh-level. Toyota says it's only slightly higher than the floor of the Sienna minivan.
Toyota offers an array of accessories for the Venza, including dog-friendly gates to keep pets safely in the back of the car.
Features & Options
The Venza's high starting price should be offset somewhat by the car's long list of standard features. All models feature cruise control, a six-CD changer, 19- or 20-inch wheels, power windows (all four with auto up and down from the driver's seat), fog lamps, dual-zone climate control, stability control, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel with stereo controls and an auto-dimming rearview mirror.
I found the standard cloth seats quite upscale and comfortable, but leather seats would add an instant touch of class. They're part of a $1,600 option package that also adds mahogany trim and a leather shift knob and steering wheel. Heated seats and mirrors are an additional $500 as part of the Comfort Package which bundles in the leather package. Another nice option to add is a power liftgate, which is packaged with a smart ignition system for $860.
Less necessary is the $1,050 panoramic sunroof, which can't be combined with a rear DVD entertainment system, which goes for $1,680. Most parents won't have to wonder which is more important, a skylight for the kids in the second row, or "SpongeBob SquarePants" on the DVD.
There are two optional stereos: an upgraded 13-speaker JBL system for $1,090, and the same system with navigation for $2,590. Compared to the competition, both seem expensive for what they offer. The navigation does feature live traffic information and was relatively intuitive to use.
A fully loaded all-wheel drive V-6 Venza would cost $38,085. That number will definitely raise some eyebrows, but even at its base $25,975 price the Venza is encroaching on Toyota's own Highlander — which will soon have its own four-cylinder version that could cost even less than a Venza — as well as the Murano and Edge.
The Venza hadn't been crash-tested as of this writing, but it comes standard with stability control, active front head restraints, seat-mounted side-impact airbags for front passengers, side curtain airbags for both rows of seats and a driver's knee airbag.
Venza in the Market
Who would buy the Venza over its sportier, more attractive competition? Practical shoppers who value fuel efficiency, interior room, comfort, cargo capacity and Toyota's reputation over a thrilling driving experience.
Toyota's biggest problem may be educating buyers, especially boomers, on what exactly the Venza is. It looks like an SUV, it has wagon utility, and it gets car-like gas mileage. It's basically the car SUV drivers would want to drive — quite possibly making it the perfect car for today, when few people still want to buy an SUV.
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