Pros: Fantastic optional V6; appealing styling; pleasant driving dynamics; available towing package

Cons: Hit-or-miss interior quality; so-so base inline-4 engine; no third-row seat

What exactly is the 2012 Toyota Venza? Toyota would have you believe that it's a crossover SUV, but with its carlike looks and handling, the Camry-based Venza seems more like a modern version of the old Camry wagon.

Or does it? After all, the Venza has more ground clearance than a wagon, available all-wheel drive, and seats mounted higher than those in any wagon we know of. Ultimately, there's no avoiding the conclusion that the Venza is neither an SUV nor a wagon; it's something in between. But for some car shoppers, in between will be just right.

The Venza has some limitations that are worth discussing. It's strictly a two-row vehicle, for one thing, so if you want the flexibility of a third seating row, you'll need to look elsewhere. Also, we weren't overly impressed with the Venza's interior materials. And although it has a world-class optional V6, the standard inline-4 is neither quick nor particularly fuel efficient.

But if you're mainly looking for a carlike driving experience with some practicality and ride height thrown in for good measure, the Venza is a top choice by anyone's definition.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Toyota Venza is offered in LE, XLE and Limited trim levels. The base LE comes standard with 19-inch (with the inline-4) or 20-inch (with the V6) alloy wheels, dual-zone automatic climate control, a six-speaker audio system with iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity, a 3.5-inch information display, an eight-way power driver's seat and Optitron gauge illumination. The XLE adds a power liftgate (optional on the LE), a higher-resolution 3.5-inch display with a rear-view camera, leather upholstery, keyless entry with push-button start and simulated wood interior trim; also, the XLE is eligible for JBL premium audio and a DVD-based touchscreen navigation system. The Limited comes standard with both JBL audio and the navigation system, and it adds xenon headlamps and a panoramic sunroof (optional on the XLE).

The Venza's front seats are wide and flat, so they're good at accommodating a wide range of physiques, although we'd appreciate a bit more lateral support. The driving position isn't as elevated as in some full-on SUVs, but it's appreciably higher than in any normal car. The Venza's dashboard is odd: stylish and different at a glance, it reveals some questionable materials on close inspection, including strangely textured plastics and highly unconvincing wood trim. We still like the bold design and the admirably sharp Optitron gauges, though.

The Venza's adult-size back seat doesn't slide, but it does recline, and it folds in a 60/40 split to accommodate larger items. Cargo space, at 34.4 cubic feet behind the back seat and 70.2 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks folded, is roughly comparable to that of the commodious RAV4-so in cargo capacity, at least, the Venza is a match for many crossover SUVs.

Technology

We're pleased to see that the Venza now has standard iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity. However, the optional navigation system is a DVD-based unit, which means it's not as up to date as the latest hard-drive-based systems with their built-in digital music storage. Note that Toyota's new smartphone-based Entune mobile-app interface is not currently offered on the Venza, although that is subject to change.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The Venza starts with front-wheel drive and a 2.7-liter inline-4 that's good for 182 horsepower and 182 lb-ft of torque. We'd be more forgiving of this engine's mediocre acceleration if it delivered exceptional fuel economy, but 21 mpg city/27 mpg highway isn't all that great when the new four-cylinder Camry is getting 25/35 mpg. Add the optional all-wheel-drive system, and the Venza's inline-4 drops to 20/25 mpg.

Don't get us wrong, we couldn't blame anyone for saving some money and getting the four-but keep in mind that the Venza's optional 3.5-liter V6 is really a thing of beauty. Rated at 268 horsepower and 246 pound-feet of torque, the ultra-refined V6 feels if anything more powerful than its numbers suggest, piling on speed with remarkable swiftness. Moreover, its fuel economy isn't much worse than the four's, checking in at 19/26 mpg with front-wheel drive and 18/25 mpg with all-wheel drive. All Venzas, by the way, employ a six-speed automatic transmission. A Venza V6 can tow up to 3,500 pounds.

Safety

The Venza comes with standard stability control, seven airbags and active front head restraints. In government crash testing, the Venza received an overall rating of four stars out of five, including three stars for frontal impacts, five stars for side impacts and four stars for rollover safety. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety had a higher opinion, awarding the Venza its top rating of Good in every category.

Driving Impressions

We've said that the Highlander SUV, also a Camry derivative, drives like "a really tall Camry wagon." Scratch the "really tall" part and you'll have the Venza's driving dynamics in a nutshell. From the driver's seat, you're simply not aware of the Venza's added height-except when you glance around at stoplights and realize you're looking down on regular cars. The Venza's steering is surprisingly precise and responsive for this kind of vehicle, and body roll is held to moderate levels as long as you're not pushing too hard. But just as important, the Venza retains the Camry's smooth, quiet ride, even if road noise is elevated a bit. It's like a Camry for people who have outgrown one.

Other Cars to Consider

Honda Crosstour - The Crosstour offers a similar choice of four- and six-cylinder engines along with a classy, restrained interior. The exterior styling is polarizing, though.

Subaru Outback - Enduringly popular in snowbelt states, the Outback sets itself apart with standard all-wheel drive and quirky "boxer" engines. It's a pretty sizable vehicle now, too.

Toyota Highlander - The Highlander is more of an SUV than the Venza, for sure, but it also offers a third-row seat, and it uses the same engines. We'd recommend test-driving both.

AutoTrader Recommends

Since the Venza comes very well equipped even in base trim, we'd go with the LE V6. That way, we'd get the superior engine and all the technology we needed at a sub-$30,000 price.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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