2009 Toyota Venza

Breaking the crossover mold

A handsome vehicle, especially with big wheels. Photo © Aaron Gold

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Described by its designers as 70% car and 30% crossover, the Venza is a very different kind of SUV and a very different kind of Toyota. Outside, the Venza's radical styling breaks loose from Toyota's traditional conservative mold; inside it's brimming with unusual design cues and innovative features. So how does the Venza work in the real world? Let's drive it and find out.

Price range: $26,695 - $38,805. EPA fuel economy estimates: 18-21 MPG city, 25-29 MPG highway. Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles bumper-to-bumper, 5 years/60,000 miles powertrain.

First Glance

Larger Exterior Photos: Front Rear

Toyota's PR people cringed a little every time I used the words "Venza" and "Crossover" (as in crossover utility vehicles, a less SUV-like SUV) in the same sentence. Toyota wants buyers to think of Venza as a car. Bad news, guys: The Venza is not a car. It's a crossover. But there's good news, too: It's a very, very good crossover.

The Venza represents a new direction for Toyota. From the big, bold grille up front to the sinewy, Volvo-like taillights out back, the Venza doesn't look much like a Toyota -- it certainly stands in sharp contrast to Toyota's own conservatively-styled Highlander, even though the two vehicles share many components under the skin. The Venza is a very handsome vehicle, especially with those big wheels (19" on four-cylinder Venzas, 20" on V6-powered Venzas; the latter are the largest wheels ever factory-fitted to a Toyota).

Park the Venza next to a Subaru Outback -- without question the most car-like crossover on the market -- and it's hard to understand why Toyota would refer to it as a car. But seen on the Toyota dealer's forecourt amid RAV4s, 4Runners, Sequoias and Highlanders, I can almost buy Toyota's argument that the Venza isn't really a crossover.

Toyota plans to offer the Venza in a single model -- no LE, XLE, SR5 or Limited trim levels as per standard Toyota practice -- with eight option packages and four stand-alone options. Pricing starts at $26,695 for four-cylinder front-wheel-drive models, and an all-wheel-drive V6-powered Venza with all the trimmings will set you back $38,805.

In the Driver's Seat

Larger Interior Photo

Unlike the seven-seat, family-friendly Highlander, the Venza is designed for grown-ups . Which is not to say that it isn't family friendly, but the Venza's designers focused on providing space for five adults (there is no third-row option) and a big cargo bay. Both front and back doors have sills that are level to the floor, so ingress and egress are exceptionally easy.

Interior décor is a departure from typical Toyota practice. I grew to like the elephant-skin texture on the dash and steering wheel, but I thought the hard plastic door panels and shiny black dash-top looked cheap, cheesy and very un-Toyota-like. Luckily, the clearly-labeled gauges and switch gear are up to Toyota's usual standards, as is the innovative center console, which features a deep storage well and a dedicated iPod holder with a hole in the bottom to accommodate the audio cable.

Dual-zone climate control, a power-adjustable driver's seat and a 6-disc in-dash CD changer come standard. High-tech options include high-beams that automatically dim for oncoming cars and a stereo that supports wireless music streaming from Bluetooth devices.

The Venza's second row is extraordinarily comfortable, providing plenty of leg- and head-room, reclining seats, and an optional dual-pane sunroof. The cargo bay offers 34.4 cubic feet of storage space, a bit less than you'll find in a Highlander or 4Runner. The rear seatbacks can be lowered into the floor via easy-to-reach handles in the cargo bay. A window-shade-style cargo cover comes standard, and a power-operated liftgate is optional.

On the Road

The Venza is offered with two engines. First is an all-new 2.7 liter four-cylinder that puts out a V6-like 182 horsepower and 182 lb-ft of torque.

Next is an old familiar friend, the 268 hp 3.5 liter V6 from the Highlander. Both come with six-speed automatic transmissions and a choice of front-wheel-drive (FWD) or all-wheel-drive (AWD). I really liked the 4-cylinder; it offered all the oomph needed to hustle up and down the hilly back-roads of southern Pennsylvania, though steeper grades kept the transmission busy and the four-cylinder's characteristic buzz seemed a little out of place in such a big, plush CUV. The V6 offers a better soundtrack and an excess of power; Toyota claims 0-60 in 6.7 seconds. With the optional tow prep package, towing capacity is 2,500 lbs for the 4-cyl and 3,500 lbs for the V6.

EPA fuel economy figures for the 2.7 were not finalized at the time of writing, but Toyota's estimates were 21 MPG city/29 highway (FWD) and 20/28 (AWD). V6 figures are 19/26 for FWD, 18/25 for AWD. During my test loops, I saw mid-20s with the 4-cyl and low 20s with the V6, impressive for such a big car -- er, crossover.

Toyota built the Venza for car-like handling. The variable-assist electric power steering is one-finger-light at parking speeds and firms up as you speed up. It's not as precise as a sports car, but the Venza responds more crisply than most vehicles its size. The ride is excellent -- taut but not overly firm and very quiet. If you're used to a car, you'll find the Venza comfortable and familiar; if you're used to an SUV, it'll be a revelation.

Journey's End

I was impressed by the Venza, and that's saying a lot -- I prefer smaller vehicles, and the Venza takes up a lot of space for a five-seater.

From behind the wheel, the Venza feels as tall and wide as a mid-size SUV, and maneuvering in tight spaces can be trucky -- er, tricky -- for those used to something smaller. Toyota offers an optional backup camera, but the display on the Venza's small information screen is too tiny to be useful. If you opt for the navigation system, the backup cam uses the nav's larger display screen. But I liked the Venza's attention to detail -- things like the low doors sills, versatile center console, and easy-to-fold seatbacks are features that make a vehicle a joy to live with on a day-to-day basis. And I like the Venza's commitment to safety: Six airbags, antilock brakes and electronic stability control all come standard.

Toyota is pitching the Venza against CUVs like the Mazda CX-7, Nissan Murano and Ford Edge. The Venza doesn't quite have the sports-car-like feel of the Mazda or the Nissan, but it's definitely better to drive like the Edge. Though designed for adults, the Venza will do fine for a family of four; if you plan to haul your kids and their friends, you'd be better off with a seven-seater like the Hyundai Veracruz, Mazda CX-9 or Buick Enclave. But if you're looking for something in the middle -- roomy but not huge; sporty but not punishing; handsome but not showy -- you should definitely check out the Toyota Venza.