Toyota's frumpy Venza came back from summer break with quite a makeover. This once-forgettable SUV is suddenly a standout in an ever-widening crowd.
It's quite common, expected even, that a given model of car will grow and grow as it ages through subsequent redesigns and refreshes. Like many of us, cars get bigger as they get older. But, it's not every day that a given model genuinely moves up-market, offering the same level of feature and function but in a nicer package. In this way, the new Venza is a bit of a rare bird, its 2021 model year reboot turning this machine from a frumpy family hauler to a clean, sharp and genuinely premium SUV.
And that's important because there are oh so many crossovers and SUVs to choose from these days. Hell, just keeping in the family you have the C-HR, RAV4 , Highlander , 4Runner , Sequoia and Land Cruiser to choose from. How, then, does a product like the Venza break from the den of anonymity?
Well, it starts off with a fresh new look that's sharp and distinctive while still honoring its Toyota DNA, particularly the gaping lower grille and aggressively pronounced rear fenders. Compared to its van-like, family friendly predecessor, it's a revelation.
The interior reboot is just as drastic, especially when equipped with the 12.3-inch touchscreen that's standard on the Limited-trim model you see here, optional on the lower specs. Beneath that, the Limited features a smooth panel of capacitive-touch buttons that looks great, though the lack of a volume knob is, as ever, a bummer.
Keep moving down to find a Qi inductive charging pad for keeping your phone topped up wirelessly, situated in a generous cubby into which Toyota engineers curiously saw fit to hide the engine start button. That storage compartment, plus the rest of the interior, is rimmed with subtle, colored lighting -- helpful, because it's awfully dark otherwise.
Also helpful is the panoramic glass ceiling, which not only lets in lots of light but hides the Venza's best party trick. That glass is (optionally) electrochromic, meaning at the touch of a button it clicks to a foggy opaque. This is guaranteed to get a "whoa" from your most jaded of passengers, and when's the last time a practical SUV did that?
Sadly, the software running in here isn't likely to garner such a response. Up on that big, pronounced touchscreen you'll find Toyota's tried-and-true Entune system. That's a polite way of saying it looks low-res and dated, especially the navigation interface. Thankfully, with both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay onboard, you can at least hide all that pretty quickly.
What's going on under the hood is far more modern, with every version of the Venza spinning the same 2.5-liter, Atkinson-cycle inline-four-cylinder engine paired up with not one, not two, but three electric motors. The two up front help the gasoline engine, while the one at the back provides this SUV's all-wheel-drive capability.
Together with the 0.9 kWh worth of lithium-ion batteries, Toyota says this system provides 219 horsepower, with 176 hp and 163 pound-feet of torque coming from the gasoline engine alone. That means a decidedly front-biased power delivery. Interestingly, despite the tiny battery and not being a plug-in, the Venza can be driven in a full-electric mode... sort of. Top speed here is somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 mph and, should you nuzzle the throttle with anything more than a kitten's touch, the engine spins up and you're rudely kicked from the the land that is free of emissions. Still, it's nice for calm cruises through parking lots or silent, early morning escapes from ninjas.
When pressed harder the Venza accelerates cleanly and smoothly, the CVT eliminating shifts but resulting in typical engine drone. Still, it's not much of a bother and, whether you're in Eco or Sport mode, the Venza has more than enough pep to get you ahead in traffic. Given that, I spent most of my week in Eco mode and got a more than respectable 40.5 miles-per-gallon. That's just a half a tick ahead of the Venza's EPA-rated 40 mpg highway, 37 city and 39 combined.
On the ride handling side, the Venza is definitely tuned for comfort, gliding through rather than carving corners and absorbing the worst of asphalt imperfections without transmitting them into the cabin. Whether seated up front or out back there's plenty of comfort to be had, plenty of headroom too, my only (minor) complaint being ventilated seats of the "Wait, are these actually on?" variety.
The 2021 Toyota Venza starts at $32,470 plus $860 delivery, while the Limited version I tested raises the starting price to $39,800. Limited adds treats like an overhead, 360-degree camera, trim niceties like the interior illumination, heated and ventilated front seats and access to that Star Gaze roof -- though that's an additional $1,400.
The great news is that Toyota's Safety Sense 2.0 ADAS system comes standard on the lowest trim, including lane-departure warnings, adaptive cruise and blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alerts. Given the powertrain also remains unchanged, it's really just luxuries you're paying a premium for, but given how pampered you feel in the Limited, it still seems like good value. That's especially true if you compare it to something like the corporate-cousin Lexus NX Hybrid, which starts at $40,060 plus $1,025 delivery.
So, then, consider this rebirth a success. The 2021 Toyota Venza impresses on multiple levels. It looks good, drives well and does a remarkably good job of playing the luxury game. It's a standout in an ever-expanding sea of me-too SUVs.