Toyota has been called many things. Usually, the theme of the adjectives is some variation of "conservative, safe, consistent," or "reliable." The terms "daring, radical, unconventional" or "stylish" have rarely been applied to Toyota models of the past decade. Although the crossover utility vehicle is no longer the radically new concept it was seven years ago, Toyota's entry into this market niche is surprisingly unconventional and avant-garde for a company that has made its reputation on playing it safe, stylistically and marketing-wise.
However, the fact that the Venza debuted as a 2009 model, six years after Nissan's reveal of the then-swoopy Murano crossover, shows Toyota's methodical, calculated philosophy of entering new market segments. This puts its introduction two years after Ford's launch of the comparatively staid-looking Edge crossover. Compared to its peers, the Honda Crosstour, Nissan Murano, and aforementioned Edge, the Venza stands out as the hip urbanite of the group, in contrast to the Honda's odd exterior proportions, the Nissan's evolutionary shape, and the conservatively-penned Ford. Toyota's California-based CALTY design studio was largely responsible for the Venza's styling, and the West Coast flair is evident, both inside and out, although the exterior arguably makes a better case for itself.
Much like the more upscale Acura ZDX and BMW X6, it's best to think of the Venza as a highly stylized version of a more pedestrian model. In this case, that model is the Highlander SUV. Sharing near the same wheelbase and basic dimensions as its more reserved sibling, as is usually the case, the more comely Venza makes some sacrifices for its beauty. Simply put, the Highlander is more practical and capable. In total passenger volume, the Highlander trounces the Venza by more than 37 cubic feet. In cargo capacity, the Venza's Celtic-themed kin bests it by more than 10 cubic feet with the rear seats up, and by a substantial 25 cubic feet with the rear seats folded. Max towing capacity on the Highlander is also 1500 pounds greater than on the Venza, with a nearly identical powertrain. The key difference? The V-6 Highlander still soldiers on with a five-speed automatic, while the V-6 Venza gets a six-speed.
The one, and increasingly important, area in which the Venza bests its larger sibling is fuel economy. The all-wheel-drive V-6 Highlander rates 17/22 on the EPA cycle, with the sleeker, 400-pound lighter Venza AWD returning 18/25. For those seeking even greater fuel economy, the Venza is also available with a 2.7-liter four-cylinder shared with the base Highlander that returns 21 city and 27 highway mpg on the front driver, and 20/25 on the all-wheel-drive model. Considering the minimal fuel economy penalty with the V-6, and the fact it offers 86 more horsepower, go with the six.