First Drive: 2009 Toyota Venza
Identity Crisis: Is it a Car? No. An SUV? Not Quite. A Station Wagon? Almost
When SUVs were all the rage, companies dolled up station wagons and relabeled them as SUVs. (Look at the first-generation Subaru Forester and Honda CR-V.) Now that the SUV market has cooled, the industry is going in the opposite direction-crossovers are being marketed as sedan alternatives. The all-new Toyota Venza is wider and taller than the Infiniti EX, longer and wider than the RX 350, and nearly the same size as the Ford Edge, yet Toyota doesn't want it labeled as a crossover. The idea is that the Venza is 70-percent car, 30-percent SUV. Further complicating things, the EPA classifies it as a truck.
The platform comes from a mix of Toyota components. The floorpan involves elements of three platforms welded together: Highlander up front and beefed-up Camry in the middle, with the rearmost portion unique to the Venza. However, its suspension, MacPherson struts in front and dual link/struts in the rear, was lifted from the Highlander, with retuned springs and shocks to provide a more carlike ride. Ground clearance is identical to that of the Highlander, at 8.1 inches, but it's rumored Toyota is going to lower that by as much as 0.75 inch for 2010. Nineteen-inch wheels are standard with the four (tires on our tester are Toyo Open Countrys), 20s with the six (Michelin Latitudes); in both cases, the temporary spare is a 165/90D18 Bridgestone, stored under the cargo floor. Despite the high ground clearance and large wheels and tires, one thing that does push this vehicle closer to a car than an SUV is its height: The roofline is nearly six inches lower than the Highlander's and four to five inches lower than that of the Edge. It even sits lower than the RAV4.
Propelling the Venza is a choice of two engines: a new 2.7-liter, 182-horse inline-four and a 3.5-liter, 268-horse V-6, seen in the Camry, Highlander, and RAV4. Both are backed by a six-speed automatic transmission, but because Toyota made serious changes to it to reduce weight when backing the four, the automatic has a different model designation with each engine, and Toyota considers them different transmissions. Four- and six-cylinder models are available with FWD or AWD. Toyota wouldn't confirm that a hybrid option is coming, but it would make perfect sense (so would using this platform as the basis for the next-generation RX).
On our drive loops, we tried the AWD Venza with the V-6 and the front-drive four. The new 2.7-liter has 182 horsepower and 182 pound-feet of torque and is now the largest four-cylinder in the Toyota line. Throttle tip-in is a little touchy, but power delivery is smooth after that, and the four works well with the six-speed with Sport mode and tap-up/down shifting. But this vehicle is heavy. A four-cylinder Venza with AWD nears 4000 pounds; add five people and gear, and a drive in Colorado or over Southern California's Grapevine would tax the engine.
The V-6 is a livelier choice, with 86 more horses and 64 pound-feet more torque. Even so, there were times on inclines when the six-speed was too quick to shift and ended up doing a lot of hunting. Sport mode helped, as it held shifts longer and also left things in the driver's hands. Steering is more responsive here than in the Highlander, and it is more fun in turns than in a typical SUV, but as far as driving satisfaction is concerned, the Venza is still no substitute for a car.
The five-passenger interior is roomy and tastefully adorned, with comfortable leather-covered seats, semi-gloss wood on the center stack and transmission shifter, plus brushed-metal-like accents along the dash. The Venza's h-point is about 4.5 inches higher than that of the Camry, providing a better view of the surroundings. Subtle hints implied that Toyota expects the Venza buyer to skew a little bit older, stressing that the doorsills are as low as a car's for easy entry/exit; anyone who has trouble reading the text in the multi-information display can make the font size bigger; and there is no third-row seating available, typically the ideal spot for little kids. Also, there is a bevy of pet-friendly Venza-specific accessories that can be ordered at Toyota dealerships, great for empty-nesters who travel with their dogs. When it comes to interior volume and capacities, it looks as if Toyota was aiming squarely at the Edge. Headroom is within 0.4 inch and legroom is within 0.5 inch in the front and rear. Cargo volume also is close: 70.1 cubic feet for the Venza, 69.0 for the Edge. This is one of the easiest cabins to reconfigure based on what you're toting. Standing at the liftgate, if you need to drop the second row, there's a door pull on either side of the cargo area, much like the interior door handles from a Tacoma. One pull, and each side of the 60/40 row folds nearly flat. A power liftgate also is available.
The base price is near $26,695 for the front-drive four, but that includes a lot of features that come standard: stability control, traction control, ABS, a six-disc CD changer with XM antenna; all four side windows auto up/down; 19-inch wheels (20s with the V-6); foglamps; reclining rear seats; dual-zone climate control with rear-seat vents, seven airbags; and Hill-Start Assist. There are no specific trim levels to associate the Venza with the car or the SUV lineup. Instead of XLE/SE/LE or SR5/Limited, buyers can choose the engine and FWD/AWD, then can select from eight accessory packages, including tow-prep that ups max towing from 1000 pounds to 3500 with the V-6 or 2500 with the four, two premium packages, a security package with backup camera and anti-theft, and more. Stand-alone options include navigation, rear-seat entertainment, panoramic glass roof, and upgraded stereo with six-disc in-dash CD.
This is no performance vehicle; it's highly functional and could be a logical purchase for someone who's outgrown the sedan yet doesn't want an SUV. (If station wagons were hot, the Venza could've been called the Camry wagon.) It's a sensible one for Toyota to build. It's mostly made from components that already exist, keeping costs down, and it may fill the space between the Camry and the Highlander in a package that's larger than the RAV4. But time will tell whether the Venza can separate itself from the sea of carlike crossovers that are already on the market.
|2009 Toyota Venza|
|Base price range||$26,695-$29,970|
|Vehicle layout||Front engine, FWD/AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV|
|Engines||2.7L/182-hp/182-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4; 3.5L/268-hp/246-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6|
|Curb weight||3750-4050 lb (mfr)|
|Length x width x height||189.0 x 75.0 x 63.4 in|
|0-60 mph||6.7 sec (V-6, mfr est)|
|EPA city/hwy||18-21/25-29 mpg (est)|
|CO2 emissions||0.81-0.94 lb/mile (est)|
|On sale||December 2008|