(December 15, 2008) - Even before the Venza was announced, Toyota had half a dozen SUVs and crossovers in its collection. Add the three from Lexus, Toyota's luxury division, and that's quite an overwhelming total compared to the lineups from other manufacturers.
Are all of them necessary? Probably not, but a case can be made for each one as a tangible step between the compact entry-level RAV4 and the mighty Land Cruiser. Making a comparable case for Toyota's latest model, the just-launched Venza, is a more daunting task.
Toyota calls the sizable five-passenger wagon a "stylish alternative to the traditional sedan," adding that it delivers the "value and reliability of a Camry, the comfort and upscale refinement of an Avalon, and the utility and flexibility of a Highlander." Available with front-drive or all-wheel drive, it comes in a single trim level. Toyota says rocker panels have been lowered and doorsills narrowed, to ease entry and exit.
Two engines are available: a 2.7-liter four-cylinder rated at 182 horsepower, and a 3.5-liter V-6 that produces 268 horsepower and 245 pound-feet of torque. Both engines drive a six-speed sequential-shift automatic transmission. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gives the four-cylinder Venza a fuel-economy estimate of 21 mpg in city driving and 29 mpg on the highway. The V-6 gets a 19/26 mpg EPA rating. Towing capacity is as much as 3,500 pounds.
All Venzas have seven airbags. Toyota's standard Star Safety System includes Vehicle Stability Control, traction control, and antilock braking with electronic brake-force distribution and Brake Assist.
Standard equipment includes dual-zone automatic climate control, a six-disc CD changer, tilt/telescopic steering wheel, rear wiper, and Hill-Start Assist Control. Rear seats are foldable. Dual exhausts are included with the V-6 engine. Four-cylinder models ride on 19-inch tires, while V-6 Venzas get 20-inch rubber.
Venza is one of those vehicles that does most everything right, benefits from a stylish profile, yet falls a bit short on personality and allure - partly because its purpose is on the hazy side. Except for ride quality, which is a little harsher than expected for a family-oriented wagon, Venza behaves admirably on the road. Steering feel is satisfying, and this wagon takes curves and corners without fuss.
Performance with the V-6 engine is another plus, and the automatic transmission does it job effectively with little notice. Instruments are attractive and easy to read. Seats are comfortable and sufficiently supportive, with bountiful passenger space: headroom, legroom, and elbow space.
Entry/exit is as easy as promised by Toyota. Brakes aren't quite as linear as they might be, making for an occasional sudden stop when the driver realizes the Venza isn't halting quite as rapidly as requested.
Granted, Venza clearly wasn't developed to create excitement. Besides, sensible shoppers would be wise to ignore the prospect (or lack) of thrills and pay attention to the Venza's undeniable merits. On that score, it ranks high. Venza looks shapely, too.
Still, as George C. Scott warned Paul Newman in the 1962 film The Hustler, the younger pool shark lacked sufficient "character" to beat the legendary Minnesota Fats. It's tough to measure, and no one can really define it in the automotive sense; but Venza just doesn't seem to have quite enough of that attribute to overpower the competition. On a 1-to-10 scale, it gets a 9 for common-sense motoring, but somewhere closer to 5 for overall appeal. When a company has a full stable of SUVs and crossovers, one so-so but highly capable, solidly-built model isn't a bad outcome.
Venza pricing starts at $25,975 for a four-cyinder front-drive model, reaching $29,250 for a V-6 Venza with all-wheel drive. Several packages and standalone options are available, including high-intensity-discharge headlamps,Smart Key with pushbutton start, a power rear liftgate, leather-trimmed seats, and a panoramic glass roof with front moonroof. Navigation and rear-seat entertainment systems also may be installed. Venza V-6 models went on sale in early December, and four-cylinders join in January. This latest Toyota model will be offered only in North America.
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