IRON SPRINGS, Ariz. -- Iron Springs Road, a strip of asphalt carved into granite-crusted slopes, climbs across piney ridges and valleys of Arizona's Weaver Mountains west of Prescott.
We select this road on a day with scant traffic to impede our progress while testing the handling traits and feeling the frisky spirit of a new kind of car from Toyota.
Saddled with the unusual name of Venza, this mid-size vehicle mixes the plush comforts and easy-driving performance of a refined Toyota sedan with the cargo space, utility and trailer-towing capacity of a crossover utility vehicle.
In a twist away from the expected, the profile of Venza brings to mind those mid-century forerunners of the minivan -- the big and long five-door station wagon.
But there's something different working in Venza's design -- curves, curves and more curves imposed on the horizontal format of a two-box wagon.
Theme for the exterior shape of Venza is a fluidity of lines drawn in rectangular format but capped by an arching canopy over the cabin with low-slung windows and side pillars muted to create the impression of a sleek but long and low coupe.
Front and rear overhangs have been whittled away and the big 20-inch wheels on front and back corners convey an impression of strength and performance.
Overall, it seems as if Toyota's stylists in California borrowed the format of a station wagon and rearranged the structure to forge a slammed and entirely fresh variation skewed to a sporty stance.
We prefer to think of Venza simply as a contemporary easy-driving car which also carries the convenience of a wagon's rear cargo quarters.
The front-wheel-drive (FWD) platform of Toyota's popular Camry four-door sedan supports the slick aerodynamic structure of this low-riding wagon rigged with four flank doors like a sedan and flexible seating in a spacious cabin plus the cargo space in the aft bay with access through a tail-side liftgate.
Venza's body measures 3.3 inches wider and 5.5 inches taller than the Camry sedan, although it shares Camry's wheelbase length of 109.3 inches and has the same overall length of 189 inches.
The passenger compartment contains seats for five riders and the rear bay has 34 cubic feet of stow space.
And Toyota offers choices for powertrains -- a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine designed to deliver good fuel economy scores or a 3.5-liter V6 that romps -- as well as sure-grip traction from the optional all-wheel-drive (AWD) system.
There's only one trim level -- Venza -- but the two powertrains and FWD or AWD traction for either engine plus extensive standard gear and optional packages of add-on equipment clustered under labels of Comfort, Convenience, Leather, Premium, Lighting, Security and Tow.
Toyota developed a new base engine for Venza.
The aluminum-block 2.7-liter four-cylinder plant employs dual camshafts with dual VVT-i (variable valve timing with intelligence) to optimize cam timing and maximize power production at all engine speeds.
It produces 182 hp at 5800 rpm plus 182 lb-ft of torque at 4200 rpm.
The four-pack plant qualifies for ULEV-II (Ultra Low Emission Vehicle) status and delivers fuel economy numbers as high as 29 mpg.
Transmission for the four-pack engine is an electronically controlled six-speed automatic with intelligent shift control and sequential shifting.
Toyota's 2GR-FE aluminum 3.5-liter V6 engine becomes the optional power upgrade for Venza.
The V6 also totes dual camshafts with dual VVT-i.
And it zips with 268 hp at 6200 rpm and the torque pushing to 246 lb-ft at 4700 rpm.
The exclusive transmission for Venza's V6 is the electronically controlled six-speed automatic with intelligent shift control and sequential shifting.
For optional AWD traction, Toyota's electronically controlled system switches continuously and automatically between FWD and AWD for sure-footed traction.
It can distribute the engine torque equally 50/50 between the front and rear wheels for slow-go momentum in dicey situations, as well as apply extra electronic assistance from the hill-start assist control (HAC) device.
A four-wheel independent suspension system with MacPherson struts and low-pressure gas-charged shock absorbers produces the agile attitude for Venza but also blocks road harshness from intruding in the cabin.
Steering, through a direct rack and pinion system, draws power assistance through an all-electric device. It eliminates the conventional hydraulic apparatus along with the power losses of an engine-driven pneumatic pump, and also pares excess pounds.
Toyota maxes hardware for safety on Venza, with the cabin surrounded by hidden air bags -- up-front inflators for front seats plus seat-mounted side air bags and one more to shield the driver's knee, then curtain-style air bags concealed in headliners above side windows.
Standard on all Venza editions is Toyota's Star Safety System, which includes an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) and brake assist (BA), plus a vehicle stability control (VSC) device and Traction Control (TRAC).
The list of stock equipment on Venza is extensive and includes twin-zone automatic climate controls, power buttons to motivate the windows and door locks and exterior mirrors, electrochromic rearview mirror, cruise control, variable intermittent windshield wipers and rear window intermittent wiper, a remote keyless entry device, two 12-volt auxiliary power outlets, cloth seat upholstery, tilt/telescope steering wheel with audio control tabs, an audio system with six speakers and AM/FM/MP3/WMA plus a six-disc CD changer, integrated foglamps, twin exhaust pipes, a rear spoiler and those big 20-inch aluminum alloy wheels.
In addition to the packaged options, Venza shows five stand-alone options -- a navigation system, panoramic roof, backseat entertainment kit, premium audio gear and special Blizzard Pearl paint.
The base price chart for Venza runs from $25,975 (2.7-liter four-cylinder engine with FWD) to $29,250 (3.5-liter V6 with AWD).