As automakers search for innovative ways to disguise the station wagon, the crossover continues to grow in popularity. Toyota says a whopping 60 crossovers are on the market today, including its own Highlander and RAV4 utility vehicles. Even so, it seems there is room for another: Introducing the new 2009 Venza. Toyota says the 5-passenger Venza is 70 percent car and 30 percent truck. It feels like a larger version of the Camry, with more utility. That's certainly a good thing.
Toyota offers the Venza in one well-equipped trim level. Standard equipment includes cloth upholstery, a reclining 60/40 split-folding rear seat, an AM/FM/CD stereo with 6-disc CD changer, XM Satellite Radio with 90-day subscription, and an auxiliary input jack. Other comfort and convenience features include cruise control, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel with audio controls, dual-zone automatic climate control, an interior air filter, multi-information display, universal garage-door opener, rear spoiler, fog lights, a rear tonneau cover and alloy wheels. Four-cylinder versions have 19-inch wheels and the V6s have 20-inchers.
Toyota offers eight option packages. Among them are a Lighting package with auto-dimming xenon headlights; a Towing package; a Convenience package with a power rear liftgate and keyless access and starting; and a Security package with an anti-theft alarm and a rearview camera. A Leather package adds leather upholstery, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and satin mahogany wood-grain-style trim. Many of these features can be combined into two available Premium packages, and a Comfort package includes the Leather package plus heated front seats and exterior mirrors. Stand-alone options include a panoramic sunroof, a navigation system, a rear DVD entertainment system and a premium JBL sound system with Bluetooth cell phone link and audio streaming.
Standard safety features include dual front airbags, front side airbags, side-curtain airbags, a tire-pressure monitoring system, anti-lock brakes with brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution, traction control, electronic stability control and hill start assist.
Under the Hood
The 2009 Toyota Venza is offered with 4-cylinder or V6 power, each with front-wheel drive (FWD) or all-wheel drive (AWD). The 4-cylinder is a 2.7-liter engine that produces 182 horsepower and 182 lb-ft of torque. The 3.5-liter V6 makes 268 horsepower and 246 lb-ft of torque. Both engines come with a 6-speed automatic transmission. Toyota estimates Environmental Protection Agency fuel-economy ratings at 21/29 mpg (city/hwy) for the 4-cylinder with FWD, 20/28 mpg for the four with AWD, 19/26 mpg for the V6 with FWD and 18/25 mpg for the V6 with AWD.
The Venza's AWD system is front-biased. On dry pavement, it sends 100 percent of the power to the front wheels. When it detects slip, it can route up to 50 percent of the power to the rear wheels.
The Venza's interior makes particularly good use of space. Toyota's vehicles often lack headroom, but not in this case. Occupants in the front and rear seats have plenty of headroom and good legroom as well. The driver sits upright on a fairly flat seat that lacks the side bolstering to hold him or her in place during aggressive cornering. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes, but it might not telescope far enough for drivers to find their preferred driving position.
Front-seat occupants will appreciate the Venza's small-items storage. The center console is very long and deep — one the largest around. It has cupholders that slide forward and aft, and a small cubby next to those cupholders that houses an auxiliary input jack and a 12-volt outlet. Just in front of the console on the center stack is a pocket designed to hold MP3 players or cell phones. Two bottle holders are molded into each front door, the rear doors have one bottle holder each, and the back seat has a fold-down armrest with two cupholders for a total of 10. Toyota also provides map pockets in the doors, a large glove box, a cubby with a change holder to the left of the steering wheel, and a pocket on the right side of the center stack with another 12-volt outlet. No matter what you're carrying, you'll find a place for it.
The rear cargo area has a handy 34.4 cubic feet of storage space behind the second-row seats, and a more useful 70.1 cubic feet with the 60/40 split-folding second row down. Those seats fold mostly flat (they tilt up 4 ½ degrees), and they fold down with an easy pull on a pair of handles in the cargo area. Unfortunately the seats can't be folded from the second row. The rear cargo area is easy to access, though, thanks to a low lift-over height and a wide rear opening.
The Venza's interior is useful in other ways, too. It may be the easiest vehicle to get into and out of available today, thanks to a natural step-in height and short side sills. The controls are pleasingly simple to find, with large buttons and knobs that make them easy to operate. Even the multi-information display on top of the dash is straightforward. The large gauges are also very easy to read.
On the Road
From behind the wheel, the Venza feels like a bigger version of the Camry. Despite the large wheels, the Venza rides smoothly, though it's not quite as supple as the compliant Camry. Bumps and ruts seldom intrude on passenger comfort.
Like the Camry, the Venza isn't especially sporty. It leans more in turns than the lower-riding Camry, but eventually takes a set and tracks well around corners. With more size and weight than the Camry, it flops back and forth in quick changes of direction, though not as excessively as your average SUV. The electronic power steering feels natural, though it is rather light and not very quick. We'd call the Venza more car-like than the Ford Edge, but less sporty than a Nissan Murano or Mazda CX-7.
The Venza's new 2.7-liter engine is the largest four cylinder on the market. It is based on the 2.4-liter engine in the Camry, and the extra displacement helps. This engine has 182 lb-ft of torque compared with the 2.4's 158 lb-ft. The extra torque helps get the Venza moving confidently from a stop, though passing response is still a bit lacking. While other fours often feel inadequate in crossovers, we would not hesitate to recommend this engine, especially considering its thrifty fuel economy.
Still, many buyers will prefer the fine 3.5-liter V6 that the Venza shares with the Camry, Avalon, Highlander and RAV4. The V6 provides confident passing response and is capable of motivating the Venza from zero to 60 mph in an impressive 6.7 seconds. It's also smoother than the four, which can be coarse under full throttle. Both engines are mated to 6-speed automatic transmissions that require a deep stab of the throttle to coax downshifts for passing.
Right for You?
A well-designed crossover is right for most families, at least those of five or fewer. Crossovers combine car-like ride and fuel economy with the cargo utility of an SUV. The Venza is a particularly well-designed crossover, thanks to its useful cargo area and abundant small-items storage. Thanks to easy ingress and egress, the Venza will also appeal to older customers.
Kirk Bell has served as the associate publisher for Consumer Guide Automotive and editor of Scale Auto Enthusiast magazine. A Midwest native, Bell brings 18 years of automotive journalism experience to MSN, and currently contributes to JDPower.com and Kelley Blue Book's kbb.com.