Editor's note: This review was written in February 2010 about the 2010 Toyota Venza. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2011, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.

Editor's Note: The 2010 Venza is included in Toyota's October 2009 recall concerning floormat and accelerator-pedal entrapment. If you're shopping for one, make sure your prospective car has been properly fitted with a reshaped accelerator pedal and/or redesigned floormats, as stipulated by Toyota.

The Toyota Venza has sold briskly since its introduction, and it's easy to see why. The crossover's five-seat cabin has the handsome design and upscale materials that are missing from the oft-criticized Camry interior. Its sheet metal is expressive — daring, even — in a way few Toyotas manage. It's fuel-efficient and quiet, roomy and utilitarian. For an automaker that's recently been stuck in a product funk, the Venza is good news.

How good is it really? I drove the car all week, and also spent some time in a Subaru Outback and Honda Accord Crosstour — both likely competitors. The Venza is good, but its driving experience left me wanting: It's unresponsive and uncomfortable, and that's not a combination that bodes well.

The 2010 Venza comes with front- or all-wheel drive; either setup can be had with a four-cylinder or a V-6 engine. I tested a V-6, all-wheel-drive model. Besides getting new stereo controls and a USB port for iPods, little has changed since Toyota introduced the Venza as a 2009 model. You can compare the 2009 and 2010 Venzas here, or read our review of the 2009 Venza here.

Outside & In

Fourteen months and 60,000 sales after it first hit dealerships, the Venza still looks interesting. The nose may take some getting used to — thanks mostly to its plunging headlights and zebra-striped grille — but the remaining three sides look sharp, with squat proportions and short overhangs. The Venza has the sort of ground-hugging stance you don't get even in some sports cars, aided in large part by the car's titanic wheel wells. Our test car's 20-inch alloy wheels filled them out, but just barely. Twenties are standard on the V-6 Venza, while four-cylinder models get 19-inchers.

Though not as adventurous as the exterior, the cabin does have a few style points of its own. The shapely dashboard flows into the center console; the two are so connected it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. It's a setup that encroaches a bit on knee room for those sitting up front, but the Venza is roomy enough you won't miss the space much.

Materials look good overall, with a high-quality grained texture on the dash and doors that far surpass the Camry's flatter-looking materials. I'm becoming a stickler for padded surfaces in areas drivers actually touch — like armrests and door panels — and the Venza has a lot of padding where it matters little; those door armrests, on the other hand, could use more.

New this year are vastly improved graphics for the trip computer display atop the dash, as well as friendlier stereo controls that display tags for your station presets. I only wish the car's stereo sounded as good. Our tester's JBL system provided little clarity at either end of the bass/treble spectrum. The system is optional — and probably worth skipping, seeing as the base stereo has steering-wheel controls and a USB/iPod port.

Seating & Cargo

Both rows of seats offer good headroom and legroom, though our test car didn't have an optional panoramic moonroof, which knocks off about an inch of headroom up front. Taller drivers may wish the front seats moved a bit farther back; I'm 5-foot-11, and I had the seat nearly all the way back. A power driver's seat is standard, as is a tilt/telescoping steering wheel. One editor found the wheel's adjustment range too limited.

The Venza's base cloth seats are supportive over long trips, and other small conveniences — backseat reading lights and A/C vents, one-touch down and up operation on all four power windows — will impress your passengers. Such niceties are usually reserved for more premium nameplates. With the rear seats in place, cargo room totals 34.4 cubic feet. The seats fold down via convenient cargo-area levers for a maximum of 70.1 cubic feet of cargo volume. Relative to the Venza's wagon and crossover competition, both figures are impressive.

Cargo Volume Compared (cu. ft.)
  Base price Behind 2nd row Behind 1st row
Subaru Outback $22,995 34.3 71.4
Toyota Venza $26,275 34.4 70.1
Ford Edge $27,420 32.2 69.0
Nissan Murano $28,050 31.6 64.0
VW Passat Wagon $28,755 35.8 61.8
Honda Accord Crosstour $29,670 25.7 51.3
Source: Automaker data for 2010 models

Going & Stopping

The Venza's optional 3.5-liter V-6 is a Toyota mainstay, seeing duty in everything from the Camry to the RAV4. With 268 horsepower on tap, it pulls strongly from a stop and continues all the way up to highway speeds, with a muscular exhaust growl under hard acceleration.

Alas, Toyota's recent six-speed automatic transmissions aren't known for their responsiveness, and the Venza's follows the pack. It upshifts smoothly, and its short lower ratios mean the Venza nails the whole go part of get-up-and-go. How long the get-up takes, however, can prove frustrating. Go for the passing lane, and the automatic takes too long to kick down to a lower gear; at lower speeds, other editors and I noticed hints of accelerator lag, too.

More frustrating are the brakes. Four-wheel antilock discs are standard, but the pedal feels mushy and doesn't return much stopping power until an inch or so down. Then it bites suddenly, making it difficult to stop smoothly. Not good.

A 182-hp, 2.7-liter four-cylinder is standard. Our test car had the V-6, but I drove a 2011 Sienna minivan with the 2.7-liter four-cylinder last December. It's a capable engine, mustering good oomph off the line and only coming up short on power when passing on the highway. Considering the four-cylinder Sienna's extra weight — 330 to 515 pounds extra, depending on which four-cylinder Venza you compare it with — I doubt the base Venza feels gutless. (If you've test-driven it and found otherwise, however, shoot me an email.)

With front-wheel drive and the four-cylinder engine, the Venza gets a respectable 24 mpg in the EPA's combined city/highway ratings; the V-6 is rated at 22 mpg. All-wheel drive knocks both figures down 1 mpg. Here's how the numbers compare.

Gas Mileage Compared (combined city/highway mpg)
  AWD FWD Recommended fuel
VW Passat Wagon -- 25 Premium
Subaru Outback 20 - 24 -- Regular
Toyota Venza 21 - 23 22 - 24 Regular
Honda Accord Crosstour 20 21 Regular
Nissan Murano 20 20 Premium
Ford Edge 19 20 Regular
Source: EPA data for 2010 models

With the four-cylinder engine, the Venza can tow up to 2,500 pounds. The V-6 increases the rating to 3,500 pounds, which is competitive with similarly priced crossovers.

Ride & Handling

After driving the Crosstour and Outback in back-to-back loops, the Venza left other editors and I scratching our heads: Its ride and handling characteristics are at odds with each other, and not in a good way. I can't decide whether the 20-inch wheels — whose 50-series tires really should cushion things more — or the firm suspension deserves more blame, but whatever it is, ride comfort is closer to an economy sedan than a midsize crossover. Potholes and other bumps jar the cabin outright. On the interstate, you feel patches of grooved pavement — and you learn to avoid them.

This might be more acceptable if the Venza were fun to drive, but apart from straight-line acceleration, it isn't. Steering is well-assisted at low speeds, making driving in parking lots and city intersections easy. At higher speeds, though, it's as sloppy as a Camry, with little road feedback and the sort of turn-in precision you might get with a boat rudder. Freeway interchanges and curvy roads result in lots of body roll, and if you take a corner too fast the tires are quick to surrender their grip. Venza shoppers might not want a consummate driver's car — and this one sure isn't — but the problem is that the Venza won't reward them on the ride comfort side of things, either.

Toyota does build quiet cars, and this one is no exception. On smooth roads, the Venza's cabin is free of wind and engine noise. The 20-inch wheels start to create some noise at highway speeds. The 19s might change that — and ride comfort, too — but Senior Editor David Thomas drove both setups last year, and he didn't report any huge differences.

Safety, Features & Pricing

In crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Venza earned the top overall score, Good, for frontal, side and rear impacts. As of publication, the Venza hadn't undergone the IIHS' roof-strength test, which prevents it from being eligible for the organization's list of Top Safety Picks. (To qualify, it would need a Good overall score in the roof test.) Standard features include the usual front, front-seat side-impact and two-row side curtain airbags, as well as antilock brakes and an electronic stability system. Click here for a full list of safety features.

In the year it's been on the market, the Venza has notched good overall reliability marks. Consumer Reports reliability surveys peg V-6 models as Average in overall reliability, with four-cylinder models scoring Well Above Average.

With front-wheel drive and the four-cylinder, the Venza starts at $26,275. It's fairly well-equipped, with standard remote entry and one-touch power windows, an automatic transmission, 19-inch wheels, dual-zone automatic climate control, a power driver's seat and a USB/iPod-compatible stereo.

All-wheel drive costs another $1,450, with the V-6 and 20-inch rims running $1,825. Other options include a backup camera, a navigation system, heated leather seats, a power passenger seat and a panoramic moonroof. Check all the boxes, and an all-wheel-drive V-6 Venza runs about $38,500.

Venza in the Market

With the latest round of accelerator-related recalls making front pages and homepages worldwide, Toyota's reputation for quality has certainly suffered. Independent of such context — if it's possible to think like that — the Venza holds some appeal. It possesses the expressive design and creative interior that so many Toyotas lack, but it's still quiet, utilitarian and fuel-efficient. Those are familiar Toyota strengths, and if you can get past the driving flaws, there might be ample reason to consider it.

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