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Automakers really love their genre-bending new form factors. Our current example, the Toyota Venza, combines the commanding view of the road and interior volume of the Lexus RX SUV with the low step-in height and drivability of the Toyota Camry sedan. The result is something that is a bit of both, and a bit of neither.
Of course, when blending vehicle classes, compromises must be made. For example, the Venza isn't as nimble or as thrifty as your average sedan. It also doesn't have as much storage space or power as a full-size SUV. But while there are compromises, the Toyota Venza represents an interesting blend that, for many potential buyers, may be greater than the sum of its parts.
On the road
We tested the Venza over the course of a week around the San Francisco Bay Area.
Visibility was excellent from our high-seating position, allowing us to see further down the road and over many lower-roofed vehicles. The beefy V-6 engine made for easy freeway merges, but the Venza's extra length compared to a sedan had us wishing for some sort of blind spot monitoring.
The Venza carried us on our daily commute from Oakland to San Francisco in utmost comfort. Passengers commented on the roominess of the back seat, even as we stretched out in the front. The JBL Synthesis premium audio system was loud and clear, on par with the best of the Bose and Sony premium audio systems in other vehicles in this class.
The term "isolating" came up more than a few times during our time with the Venza, with both positive and negative connotations. For example, over the bumpiest of Oakland, California's highways, the Venza feel was smooth and isolating. The Venza could be directed with a single finger thanks to the electronic power steering, but as a result, communicated next to nothing about what the vehicle was doing beneath you. The automatic transmission was buttery smooth with the shifts, but dulled the throttle responsiveness.
The Venza communicates very little about what's happening outside of the cabin to the driver and passengers. But for many drivers, that's exactly the point. The Toyota Venza is a superbly comfortable ride that gets its occupants from point A to B without being intrusive. It's the kind of vehicle that does what is asked of it without complaint or fanfare.
In the cabin The Toyota Venza's cabin is typical Toyota fare of high-quality materials and thoughtfully convenient touches. The dash is covered in a rubberized plastic with an embossed, organic texture. The center console features inlays of some of the most convincing faux-wood we've seen. The steering wheel, shift knob, and seating surfaces are all swathed in leather, and the latter are heated.
The interior of the Toyota Venza features a variety of materials and textures, all pleasant to the touch.
At the dashboard's top center, there is a 3.5-inch full-color multifunction monitor that displays backup camera, climate control, and trip computer information, as well as a menu for adjusting various convenience features.
In our Venza, backup camera duties are taken over by the large touch screen in the center stack that is the heart of the cabin tech package. Here is where the navigation is accessed and the audio system is controlled.
The navigation system is Toyota's standard DVD-based system. In this incarnation, it gets a slight update that includes refreshed graphics, traffic data, and a few new convenience features. Destination entry is a bit convoluted and the map screen feels over-crowded with controls, but the system redeems itself with excellent predictive-text entry and voice-recognition software.
In particular, we like the quick view feature that automatically displays point of interest data for the next few exits as you drive along. For example, if you're speeding down the highway and your low fuel warning pops up, you can quickly tell if there's a gas station at that next exit without having to do a POI search. When you consider that Toyota's system won't let you search when the vehicle is in motion, the quick view is doubly convenient.
Rounding out our tech package is a 13-speaker, JBL Synthesis, premium audio system that accepts inputs from AM/FM/Satellite radio, a four-disc CD changer supporting MP3 playback, an auxiliary input, or Bluetooth A2DP stereo streaming. That last one caught us off guard, as the Venza joins the ranks of only a handful of vehicles to support the wireless-audio protocol, which almost makes up for the Venza's curious lack of an iPod/USB input option. Almost.
In our experience, getting the Venza's audio system to recognize a mobile phone that supported Bluetooth audio streaming required two separate pairing processes, one for voice and one for stereo audio. However, once paired, the system can seamlessly transition from audio playback to voice call and back with minimal fuss. Make sure you set your playlists up in advance on your device, because the A2DP protocol doesn't support file browsing and only supports very basic controls (play, pause, and skip).
We really like this dedicated phone/MP3 player pocket, complete with cable management.
The center console is home to a dedicated resting spot for a mobile phone or digital media player, with a cable pass-through leading to two very large storage spaces. We really like this, because it allows us to plug an MP3 player into the auxiliary input or charge a Bluetooth-connected mobile phone without cluttering up the cabin.
Five adults can be comfortably seated in the Venza, thanks to its spacious second-seating row. Owners in need of a third bank of seats should look upmarket to the larger Toyota Highlander or Sequoia.
When the time comes to carry bulky loads instead of people, owners will appreciate the Venza's optional power rear door and standard fold-flat seats that flip down at the pull of a lever.
Under the hood
Our Toyota Venza AWD V-6 was equipped with a 3.5-liter V-6 that creates 268 horsepower and 246 pound-feet of torque. Power flows through a single-option, six-speed, automatic transmission with manual-shifting mode before being distributed to all four standard 20-inch wheels.
With a few exceptions, Toyotas aren't known for their inspiring power and handing prowess. Despite its sporty 20-inch wheels and manual shift mode, the Venza is no exception to this rule.
The Venza's V-6 engine works behind the scenes, performing admirably without attracting attention.
The V-6 has good power for quick blasts and highway merges, but it can't mask the Venza's obvious heftiness. The automatic transmission creates a noticeable lag between accelerator-pedal inputs and drive train action. Handling tends toward safe and controllable understeer; and the electronic-power steering is overboosted to the point where the vehicle feels a bit squirrelly at speed.
Despite these shortcomings, we still came away with positive impressions from our experience with the Venza. It's safe and predictable, which is exactly what we think its target demographic wants.
We had an opportunity to drive the 2.7-liter four-cylinder model, which downgrades to 19-inch rolling stock, and found the engine to be merely adequate. Drivers wanting to put some grunt under their right foot should steer clear of this configuration. Both engines are available in front- or all-wheel drive.
Thanks to a combination of Toyota's VVT-I variable-valve timing and direct-injection technology, the Venza achieves an EPA estimated 18 city and 25 highway mpg when equipped with AWD and the V-6 engine. During our real-world testing, we averaged 18.3 mpg over a mixed cycle of city and highway commuting. Fuel misers will want to look to the FWD 4-cylinder, which manages to wring 21 city and 29 highway miles out of a gallon of fuel.
It won't carry as many people as a van, dance around corners like a sedan, or haul as much cargo as an SUV, but the 2009 Toyota Venza hits a sweet spot between the form factors.
We liked the spacious cabin and forward-thinking technology, such as the Bluetooth audio streaming, but detracted points from the comfort category for the omission of iPod/USB connection. While we weren't wowed by the Venza's performance, we weren't disappointed, either.
Pricing starts at $25,975 for the four-cylinder, front-wheel drive model. Our all-wheel driven V-6 Venza comes in at $30,425 before adding a monster of a $7,587 Premium package--which includes leather seating, power rear door, smart-key entry, the JBL Synthesis premium audio system, and DVD-based navigation--bringing us to an as-tested price of $37,720.
That puts the Venza in the same price range as a fully teched-out Nissan Murano SL or, for those who need a bit more people-carrying ability, the Ford Flex Limited. If that's too rich for your blood, check out Mazda's top of the line CX-7 Grand Touring, which costs about $6K less than the Venza, but also has considerably less tech.