At first, it's hard to put your finger on what the Toyota Venza is exactly. It's more car-like than an SUV but more SUV-like than a typical sedan. The Venza is mechanically similar to the Camry but clearly has its own look and feel. Essentially, the Venza redefines what a crossover vehicle is, largely by skipping the bold truckish styling cues and going for something that looks a little more sporty and sophisticated.

Of course, Toyota isn't the only automaker offering this sort of new crossover vehicle for the modern family. The Dodge Journey, Ford Edge, Honda Accord Crosstour, and newly redesigned Subaru Outback are just a few of the vehicles that are playing in the same sandbox. Like the Venza, each of these attempts to combine the best of a wagon with desirable characteristics lifted from SUVs.

 

A Lot of Features

The Venza is offered with either a 2.7-liter four cylinder engine or a 3.5-liter V6. While the smaller engine does top the V6 by one mile per gallon when it comes to highway fuel economy, it's really the V6 that's most in keeping with the true spirit of the Venza. If you're looking for a super affordable economy car, the RAV4 is probably a better bet. With standard features like a power liftgate, dual zone climate control, Bluetooth, power driver's seat fog lights and 19-inch wheels, the Venza might be as much about style as it is about versatility. Get the V6 and 20-inch wheels are standard. For added flexibility, all-wheel drive is an option as well.

Options and option packages include heated leather seats, a 13-speaker JBL audio system, rear view parking camera and push button start. You can also get a navigation system and rear seat DVD player.

One thing the Venza does not have is a third row seat. Both the RAV4 and Highlander have an available third row seat so if you frequently need room for more than five people, the Venza won't work for you.

 

Business Class Cabin

Toyota's Venza doesn't just blur the line between SUV and sedan, it also has a little more luxury than a typical Toyota. Like the full size Avalon sedan, the Venza could easily wear a Lexus badge if the right options are picked. Although the Venza is mechanically similar to the Toyota Camry, its interior looks and feels like a step above the norm. Still, there are a few hard plastic bits inside, especially around the center console area. Plus, the faux wood finish isn't very convincing. However, pick up a friend for lunch and they'll likely assume you have a luxury car. The leather looks and feels great, the seats are comfortable, there's plenty of legroom in the rear and the interior remains very quiet even on the highway. Again, it's not quite up the standard of Lexus or Acura, but it's close.

If you consider yourself even the slightest bit of an audiophile, you'll want the 13-speaker JBL sound system. It isn't cheap at $1,000, but the sound quality is very good. The same is true of the Venza's navigation system. It's hard to justify the $2,000 price tag especially given that your smartphone will likely work as a navigation device too. However, Toyota's in-car nav systems are among the best thanks to bright, clear graphics and easy to understand menus. On the other hand, Toyota disables many nav functions when the car is moving and that can be frustrating.

 

Feels Like a Toyota

Sleek bodywork, a low, wide stance and big wheels suggest a sporty attitude, but the Venza is not intended as a canyon carving sport sedan. The ride is soft and comfortable which communicates a decidedly luxurious feel. There is some body roll when cornering aggressively, but the suspension does a great job of giving the Venza firm, planted feel.

The 268 horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 delivers responsive acceleration and has a low, reassuring growl as the revs climb. The engine never sounds harsh or intrusive, but rather distant and reassuring. The four cylinder engine offers adequate power but has to work hard to maintain highway speeds up hill.

A front wheel drive Toyota Venza earns an EPA fuel economy rating of 21 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway for the 2.7 liter engine. Opting for the V6 brings that down to 19 city / 26 highway. All-wheel drive models are estimated to get 20 mpg city / 25 highway for the four cylinder model and 18 city / 25 highway for the V6. If fuel economy is one of your primary concerns, there's essentially no big penalty for getting the V6 in the Toyota Venza.

 

Crash Ratings and Cargo

Although the Venza seems to focus on offering a near-luxury experience, there's also a good deal of utility. For example, the rear cargo area is more spacious than a Ford Edge and Nissan Murano. Also, the rear seat can fold down which helps maximize cargo capacity. When those seats are up, they can recline making it that much easier to get comfortable. This is the perfect representation of the Venza dual personality - comfort and utility all in one vehicle.

The federal government's new, more rigorous crash testing means the Venza earns four out of five stars in the overall rating, three out of five stars in frontal crash testing, five out of five stars in side impact crash tests and a four out of five star rating when it comes to the Venza's likelihood to rollover. Last year the Venza earn five out of five stars but starting with 2011 model year, the testing has changed dramatically.

 

It may be hard to clearly define the Toyota Venza at first but a closer look reveals it to be the best of two worlds in more than one way. It effectively combines carlike handling with SUV utility but forces no compromises on either front. The Toyota Venza then combines it's sub $30,000 price with a level of luxury typically reserved for premium branded SUVs. Ultimately, the Venza is worth a look for those who want a little more than a sedan and a little less than an SUV.

author photo

Brian Moody heads up the AutoTrader.com editorial team. An automotive writer and presenter for more than 12 years, he's contributed to such media outlets as CNBC, Edmunds.com, Fox Business, Speed TV and The Today Show.

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