Toyota Venza — a breed until itself

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Several people questioned us about the Venza during our recent week behind the wheel of a V-6 model of the new Toyota.

It’s not unusual to get into conversations about a vehicle seen for the first time. It’s legitimate curiosity for shoppers of a family- type hauler or for people just mildly interested in new automotive products.

“It’s basically a Toyota station wagon,” was our general response to questions. Toyota officials probably wish we hadn’t put that idea in people’s minds. The wagon tag is not in vogue these days. The strict automotive definition is probably “mid-sized crossover.” Toyota says the Venza is 70 percent car and 30 percent sport utility.

Before trying to further define the Venza we can say it’s a job pretty well done by Toyota.

The Venza is a high-riding vehicle — there’s eight inches of SUV-like ground clearance — with four doors, two rows of seats and a hatchback that will fit such diverse lifestyles as those of empty nesters and young families with children.

It’s also available with all-wheel drive, a feature increasingly seen as necessary for bad-weather safety, and it can be purchased with 3,500 pounds of jet-ski towing capacity.

The Venza fills a niche Toyota felt it needed between the slightly smaller RAV4 and the slightly larger Highlander. It gives Toyota a three-tier crossover lineup, perhaps overkill in our sagging auto market. But then, like Honda, Toyota seldom makes mistakes and the world’s biggest automaker has the penchant for creating desire for a vehicle people didn’t know they wanted until it appeared in showrooms with a Toyota badge on the hood.

Venza is kind of a mixed breed. Its platform is derived from the likes of Camry and the Avalon with a chunk of Highlander thrown in to add balance for the 30-percent SUV portion. Like its platform mates the Venza offers appliance-like motoring.

That’s not meant as a criticism. Based on Toyota sales over the past decade the automobile-buying public wants this kind of practical drama- free driving in a passenger-friendly vehicle that is reliable with inoffensive styling and that carries a historically good re-sale value.

And perhaps more these days than at any time in recent history reliability and value reign supreme.

The Venza has appealing lines that draw attention. Bulging fenders and a short front overhang give the crossover a solid stance, kind of like a squished RX. The weakest part of the design to us is the Toyota grille, but we like the stylized headlights and the wrap-around taillights.

The modernistic center stack with its high-mounted shifter is different, but easy to get used to. It’s also practical because it creates space for a large bin under the climate controls and a smaller bin to the left of the cupholders.

In other words, we don’t think styling — inside or out — will turn many people off while it will be a strong selling point for some.

Like the Camry, the Venza comes with two engine offerings with a choice of front-wheel or all-wheel drive, a comfortable ride, quiet interior, decent performance and a long list of optional equipment to make your driving life easier.

The starting price for a front-driven four-cylinder is $26,695 including destination. The V-6 begins at $28,495. All-wheel drive will cost about $1,450 additional.

We drove both the new-for-2009 2.7-liter 4-cylinder making 182 horsepower and 182 pound-feet of torque and the standard Toyota V-6 rated at 268 horsepower and 246 pound-feet of torque.

While we only experienced about 100 miles behind the wheel of a 4- cylinder with just two of us on board, we concluded that it will suit most owners who do not haul more than two or three passengers and with a minimum of cargo. It should prove adequate for all of life’s driving necessities such as merging and passing while delivering 21 mpg city and 29 mpg highway on regular gas with front-wheel drive.

Our time in the 4-cylinder was spend on some very nice, but rain slicked two lane roads in western Pennsylvania. During lots of twists and turns and changes in elevation on the country roads the Venza proved itself stable even without the benefit of the four-wheel drive setup.

Our Venza behaved more like a car than truck, smooth a quick in the turns with minimal body roll. All in all it was a pleasant 100 miles of fun driving, sometimes pushing it hard only to find it quiet and easy to handle.

We spent a week driving the V-6 mated to a six-speed automatic transmission and it felt lustier than the I4 and most of its chief competitors such as the Ford Edge and Nissan Murano. It has been measured from 0- to-60 in 6.7 seconds — relatively quick for a vehicle that weighs in at two tons. Gas mileage is also on a par or better than most of the competition at 19 in the city and 26 highway for front-wheel- drive and 18/25 for all-wheel.

Unless you must fight serious winter conditions, we feel there’s no need for all-wheel drive. It will cost you nearly $1,500 going out the door and it will require an extra hundred or more gallons of fuel over a five- year ownership period.

Standard stability and traction control as found on the Venza give modern front-drivers a safety advantage not available just a few years ago.

Taking it over similar roads as we found in Pennsylvania sans rain the V-6 out performed its sibling I4 as expected; taut, compliant and quick.

The extra time we had with the V-6 provided us with a car that was easy to live with and high functioning for a family with lots to do.

Like most Toyotas, the Venza has a comfortable interior. The front bucket seats are big, designed we assume to accommodate wide bodies. And as we all know wide bodies are abundant these days. But not only is the driver’s seat large, it is comfortable. We found no discomfort that sometimes arises after 100 miles behind the wheel without a break.

Likewise, the rear seating area is comfortable. The Venza would make a good cross-country cruiser for four adults. For one thing, the rear seatbacks recline for long-distance comfort.

The Venza will hold nearly 31 cubic feet of luggage behind the seats, far more than any of the mid to big sedans. If you are looking for three rows of passenger space you will have to go elsewhere, perhaps to the RAV4 or Highlander.

We are elated that Toyota decided not to cram a third row into the Venza. For one thing, it allows for scads of second-row legroom. And with all seats folded flat, the Venza is capable of hauling 70 cubic feet of cargo behind the front seats.

Options abound and you will probably be hard pressed to find a Venza on the lot that doesn’t have some optional equipment although the base vehicle comes well equipped with 19-inch wheels, climate control, full power equipment, antilock brakes and the aforementioned stability control and tilt and telescoping steering wheel. The V-6 gets additional things standard including 20-inch wheels.

Options vary by region, and include a panoramic sunroof, keyless ignition, power tailgate, a navigation system with rear-view camera, 13-speaker audio system with Bluetooth connectivity, rear-seat entertainment and leather with wood trim.

Our front-wheel drive V-6 test car carried a base price of $28,495. With options the bottom line was $37,567. That’s a lot of money even for the high marks we give the Venza. But you do get scads of space not found on Camry or Avalon.

Base price, $26,695; as driven, $37,567
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Horsepower: 268 @ 6,200 rpm
Torque: 246 foot-pounds @ 4,700 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 109.3 inches
Length: 189 inches
Curb weight: 4,045 pounds
Turning circle: 39.1 feet
Luggage capacity: 30.7 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 70 cubic feet
Towing capacity: 3,500 pounds
Fuel capacity: 17.7 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 26 mpg highway, 19 city
0-60: 6.7 seconds (Edmund's)
Also consider: Ford Edge, Nissan Murano, Chevrolet Equinox

The Good:
• Powerful V-6 engine
• Comfortable accommodations for five
• Nicely styled dashboard

The Bad:
• Modest towing capacity

The Ugly:
• Options can push price well into the 30s.