According to Toyota, the 2009 Toyota Venza is an exception to the crossover vehicle rules. The automaker says the Venza--a name that combines "venture" and "Monza," an Italian racetrack--has the carlike looks and SUV flexibility to make it a new type of vehicle. In reality, the Venza's a fairly conventional crossover vehicle with five-passenger seating and a direct competitor to the likes of the Ford Edge and Nissan Murano.
In the Toyota crossover lineup, the Venza slots between the big, bloated Highlander seven-seater and the sportier five-seat RAV4. All of them are based on various other Toyotas; the Venza is part Camry, part Highlander, and partly its own creation. Despite its frankenbirth, the Venza looks tightly integrated and pretty interesting from some angles, particularly the side view. It's a boxy crossover, yes--but the multibar grille and fast silhouette make it far more attractive than the plainer Ford Edge and less controversial than the Nissan Murano. The Venza's interior takes a middle path as well, with an unconventionally shaped center stack of controls dividing driver and front passenger. Big, clear gauges and optional mahogany-grained trim dress it up better than its competition.
The Toyota parts bin also donates most of the Venza's running gear. Engines include a 182-horsepower 2.7-liter four-cylinder, teamed to a six-speed automatic and an optional all-wheel-drive system that splits power between front and rear wheels. This base Venza strains a bit to provide uphill and passing performance, but putters anonymously in most other conditions, though with a bit more engine noise than expected. The 268-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 is substantially smoother and more powerful, but comes with its own slight penalty: Fuel economy in front-drive V-6 Venzas is 19/26 mpg, compared to the 21/29 mpg delivered by the four-cylinder version.
Dynamically, the 2009 Venza is tuned to please riders, not drivers. Its wheelbase and curb weight damp ride motions well, and the Venza has ample braking. The electric power steering feels like something out of the hybrid Prius, though: artificial and lifeless. The bigger disappointment is the Venza's interior trim; it's oddly textured with lines that highlight its vast pieces of plastic, instead of diminishing them. The Venza's tall doors also feel thin and insubstantial--more like those on a Prius--and resonate with cabin noise.
The Venza's reason for being is interior room. The tall roofline even grants big drivers easy access to all four outboard sets. The Venza has plenty of knee room in front, as well as in the second row when adults are seated up front. The rear set also reclines 14 degrees, making a long road trip increasingly accommodating. The cargo area in back doesn't come with any standard organizers or flexible packaging other than a tonneau cover, but the rear seats--which don't fold entirely flat--do have levers that make folding them forward a breeze. Storage for cell phones is built into the center stack and the console, which itself has sliding cup holders and a deep well for all sorts of items.
The Venza's safety package is complete and rated highly pending federal and insurance-industry crash tests. The Venza has seven standard airbags, traction and stability control, and anti-lock brakes. Visibility ahead isn't an issue, thanks to a tall driving position, but to the rear, the Venza's thick pillars can obstruct the corner views.
The Venza leaves few features on the cutting room floor. Base versions include air conditioning, cruise control, dual-zone climate control, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel with audio controls, and a CD changer with satellite-radio prewiring and MP3 playback. V-6 Venzas have standard 20-inch wheels, a first among Toyota passenger cars. Options in audio and entertainment systems include a JBL system with Bluetooth and 13 speakers, as well as a JBL system coupled to a touchscreen navigation system and XM with NavTraffic. Other options include a rear-seat DVD entertainment system and an auxiliary audio jack, a power liftgate, a Smart Key system with push-button start, leather trim, a cargo mat, and all sorts of pet-friendly accessories. Left off the menu: a USB connection for MP3 players like Apple's iPod.
The Bottom Line:
The 2009 Toyota Venza adds another flavor to the crossover melting pot, but it's a mild one.