So what is it?
The Toyota Venza is built on the Camry platform, and made in the same plant in Georgetown, Kentucky. But it would be unfair to say the Venza is just an upscale, contemporary rendition of a Camry station wagon. The Venza is more original than that, and more functional, loaded with a mix of highly evolved features and fresh design ideas.
We might be tempted to call it a smaller, nimbler minivan, but it's a five-passenger vehicle, and emotionally, much hipper than any minivan we know. If it's a minivan, it's one Dad won't be afraid to be seen in. And if it's a compact SUV, the Venza would be by far the quickest, slickest, hauler out there.
Truth is, it's really none of the above, but with attributes of all three. In simplest terms, the Venza is an upscale car, with a roomy, cleverly designed interior, that can handle lots of the tasks SUV owners might have become accustomed to. It's a family car, a good daily runabout that's easy to drive and park. And it's highly useful, for moving people, pets and grocery-getting. We found it spacious and comfortable.
That's why Toyota expects many Venza buyers will turn out to be people moving down from SUVs. Other than the ability to tow loads heavier than 3500 pounds, SUV owners won't give up much by getting into a Venza.
Venza is available with either a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine or a 3.5-liter V6, both backed by a six-speed automatic transmission. It's available in all-wheel-drive and front-wheel-drive configurations.
The standard engine is the 2.7-liter four-cylinder that makes 182 hp at 5800 rpm, and 182 pound-feet of torque at 4200 rpm. It is matched with a six-speed electronic transmission and, according to preliminary estimates, can deliver mileage as high as 21 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway. The optional engine for the 2009 Venza is the 3.5-liter V-6, which makes 268 hp at 6200 rpm, and 246 pound-feet of torque at 4700 rpm.
On the road, the Venza feels like a car. It rides smoothly and quietly and steers easily. We were impressed with its stability on slippery roads, whether equipped with all-wheel drive or not. Although there are some SUV attributes, such as the higher seat height and a high degree of cargo versatility, from the driver's seat you'd swear you were in a four-door sedan.
Standard equipment includes cloth upholstery; dual-zone automatic climate control with air filter and second row seat vents; cruise control; six-disc CD changer with roof-mounted XM satellite radio antenna; AM/FM audio with MP3/WMA playback and six speakers; tilt/telescopic adjustable steering wheel with integrated audio controls; vanity mirror; power windows with auto up/down function and jam protection on all four doors; cargo tonneau cover; rear personal overhead lamps; dual exhaust; 14-degree rear seat recline; rear spoiler; integrated fog lamps; HomeLink; rear windshield wiper; electrochromic rearview mirror with compass; and cargo area one-touch forward-fold seat levers. It comes standard with 20-inch aluminum alloy wheels. Also standard are multi-projector-beam headlamps with auto on-off; integrated fog lamps; power outside mirrors; chrome exhaust tips; UV reduction glass windshield, privacy glass on two rear side windows and back window; variable intermittent windshield wipers; rear window intermittent wiper; remote keyless entry system; carbon fiber interior trim; overhead console with map lights; center console with sliding cover and armrest; rear seat personal reading lamp; 12-volt auxiliary power outlets (two front, one cargo area).
Options are available in eight packages with four stand-alone options. Stand-alone options for the 2009 Toyota Venza include navigation system ($2590); JBL Premium Audio ($1090); a panoramic roof ($1050); rear-seat entertainment ($1680); and Blizzard Pearl paint ($220).
The Leather Package ($1600) includes leather-trimmed seats, shift knob, steering wheel with satin-mahogany wood-grain style trim; the Security Package ($570) features backup camera and anti-theft alarm; the Convenience Package ($860) adds a power rear lift gate and Smart Key; the Lighting Package ($815) adds HID headlights and automatic high beams; the Tow Prep Package ($220) includes engine oil cooler, heavy duty fan, larger alternator. The Comfort Package ($2100) combines the Leather Package with heated seats and mirrors. These packages can be combined and bundled. Accessories include racks, cargo nets, floor mats, wheel locks, and an extensive assortment of pet travel products.
Safety equipment is comprehensive, and includes seven air bags; Hill-Start Assist Control (HAC); active headrests (front). Also standard in all models is Toyota's Star Safety System, which includes Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) and Traction Control (TRAC) systems with a cutoff switch, plus Antilock Brake System (ABS) with Electronic Brake Force Distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist. A tire-pressure monitor system and child protector rear door locks are standard.
Viewed from the front, a high, wide grille that flows into flame-shaped headlamps functions to accentuate the overall wide stance of the car. The combination of lamp types combined in the headlamps, and the use of fog lamps, create a crisp, technical feeling.
In profile, the Venza appears sleek and contemporary, thanks to low rocker panels and narrow doorsills, much more like a car than a SUV. In keeping with the FT-SX concept vehicle that inspired the design, the wheels are placed out at the corners of the body, snugly positioned in the wheelwells, and there is minimal overhang on either end. The 20-inch wheels become especially prominent in the V6 versions, suggesting something surefooted in everyday driving, even sporty on a winding road.
At the rear, S-shaped tail lamps contribute to the sporty feeling. The end result is to convey the impression of a smart, modern, and practical car. Most of all, the car conveys Toyota's long-view DNA, a way of saying that none of the Venza's design elements are cliches likely to quickly become dated or out of style during the life of the car.
Keyless entry allowed us to just walk up to the Venza and hop in; all five doors unlock at one touch. The Venza is easy to get into, because the step-in height is quite low, same as a Camry, but the higher roofline makes entry easier for taller people. Once in the seat, we pressed the Start button and the instrument panel comes to life. While the gauges are brightly lit and highly visible, the car is very quiet at idle.
Seat quality is appropriate for a car that might convey a family and their pets on long-distance drives. The cushion length and seat back width are designed for comfort, and there is just enough side bolstering to allow for side-to-side support when the driving is more spirited. The seating position is a tad higher than the average car, more like a minivan, which affords easier visibility of the road ahead. The power seats have a nice range of adjustment, easily accommodating our average frame, and the steering wheel telescopes and adjusts about an inch and a half, each way. It takes only a moment to adjust for legroom and seat angle, set the mirrors, and select Drive.
From the inside, the feeling is of spaciousness, especially in the front row. The front dash layout uses a cleverly arched console and centrally mounted information pod to make it appear as though 60 percent of the front space is devoted to each side.
There is not much difference in quality between the leather interior and the cloth. Both include a nicely textured dash; the cloth interior makes use of carbon-fiber accents for a high-tech appearance, while the leather interior has wood-grain accents to achieve a clean, modern take on classical materials. Both convey the look and feel of quality. The shift lever is canted slightly to the driver's side. There are two interior colors: ivory or light gray.
The instrument cluster prioritizes an oversized speedometer, which is at the center of the cluster, with a slightly smaller tachometer to the left. Semi-circular fuel and temperature gauges are smaller and located to the right. The shift position indicator is a modest LED display at center. The instruments look good, are bright enough even when the sun hits them directly, and pleasing at night.
Twisting stalks for lights, wipers and washers, and cruise control are mounted on the steering wheel.
The center console is designed to be simple, clean, and uncluttered. It contains low-relief, soft-touch controls for the information center, the audio system and the HVAC (heating/air conditioning) system. The console has a soft armrest cover over an unusually deep storage area, which is highly organized. There is a built-in MP3 player cubby designed to hold players such as iPods securely. The Auxiliary plug is located out of the way, under a retracting lid that houses cup holders, and the wire can be run so that it is hidden while in use, providing near-perfect integration of the iPod into the Venza's interior. There is also a covered slot that made a perfect place to put our Razor cell phone. The doors have bottle holders and a map slot.
The back row seats are surprisingly accommodating. With the driver's seat adjusted for a 6-foot person, we easily had enough legroom to be comfortable for long trips. While the Venza is wider and taller overall than the Camry, it shares the same wheelbase, and the same overall length. These dimensions make the Venza appear wider and lower, more powerful, and permit increased hip room, head room and a higher seating height. Interestingly enough, legroom is actually slightly reduced compared to the Camry, even though interior volume is greater.
The Venza is thoughtfully designed for people with pets. Among the available accessories are a selection of pet products, including a travel harness, rear pet barrier, a pet tent for smaller dogs, and seat cover for the rear bench seat. The harness, dog fence and tent add greatly to safety because the forces involved in a flying dog can be deadly to both dog and humans.
On the road, the Venza feels very much like a car, and not much like a truck. In ordinary driving it rides smoothly and quietly, just like a car, steers easily, and seems as quiet as a Camry. We drove smoothly from place to place, wipers and headlights on, observing speed limits between 35 and 55 mph, with minimal need to concentrate. At those speeds, cornering was achieved with minimal body roll (lean), and steering was light and accurate. The Venza sits a little higher off the ground than a Camry, so there is a bit more body lean in the corners, but suspension travel is more like a car than an SUV, so the car transitions from side to side cleanly and easily.
We were impressed with the stability of the Venza on steep, curving roads covered with wet leaves. We never felt a wiggle in these slippery conditions, under throttle or braking, all day long. As the day wore on, we tried out both four-cylinder and V6 models, and all-wheel-drive and front-wheel-drive versions, and drove the now-familiar roads harder, occasionally hitting speeds up to 70 mph. We still never got into the traction control, or the anti-lock brakes, which speaks well for the tires and the wide stance of the Venza.
The brakes respond to pressure with a nice, easy-to-control mix of pedal assist and firm feedback.
The Venza is not designed to be an off-road vehicle, although it does have 8.1 inches of ground clearance, comparable to compact SUVs. The all-wheel-drive system (also used on the RAV4) can bias torque equally on a 50/50 basis, front to rear. With that kind of flexibility, the AWD Venza has the capability to be an especially sure-footed, all-weather transport, and that includes snow.
John Stewart filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from Farmington, Pennsylvania.