It's hard to find a niche, let alone a segment where the Toyota Venza fits. When I first drove one at the introduction in Pennsylvania in the fall of 2008, I described it as an amalgam of Camry and Highlander parts that defied categorization.
Sort of a like a Camry on steroids, it is much taller than a station wagon, although it somewhat looks like one. It has the tall seating position, appearance and five-door utility of an SUV or CUV.
I tend to think of it as the latter. It has become a staple of the Toyota diet, attractive to those who don’t want the boxy appearance and perhaps stigma of driving an SUV.
The smoother, more rounded style initially separated it from the SUVs but the trend toward CUVs and more car-like appearance and behaviour has caught on, so Toyota should perhaps get some credit for that trend.
Whatever one calls it, the Venza is a very useful appliance built to exacting Toyota standards using well-proven components. It offers an amazing amount of distance-gobbling room and comfort.
Only in North America
Exclusive to North America, the Venza was designed at Toyota’s Calty studios in California, developed at its engineering centre in Michigan and is built in Kentucky.
As mentioned above the platform beneath is modular and thus shared with the Camry and Highlander, as are the engine, transmission, brakes, steering, suspension, et al.
It has the same overall length and wheelbase as a Camry but is taller, wider and offers more ground clearance.
The Camry, upon which it is based, received a mild makeover for the 2012 model year so it comes as no surprise a new Venza follows for 2013. The good news is that in addition to numerous upgrades, the price has been lowered.
The exterior styling has been subtly altered, too, but you’d have to park a new one alongside an old to tell the difference. The differences are confined to grille, mirrors, head and tail lights.
Inside you sit behind a new tilt-and-telescope steering wheel and might notice some simulated wood trim. The instrument panel now features Toyota’s amazingly-legible "Optitron" lighting and display.
Other changes include a new audio system with a 15-cm display screen and voice-recognition technology. An eight-way power driver’s seat, automatic climate control, integrated garage door opener, 19-inch alloy wheels and cruise control are now standard.
Despite these additions the price drops more than $700 for the front-drive, four-cylinder entry-level model.
My test vehicle was one step up the ladder with the addition of all-wheel-drive. At $30,490 it is priced $400 less than the outgoing model.
It also had a $6,000 Touring package which added heated leather seats, power cargo door, back-up camera, a giant sunroof, navigation system, power passenger seat, push button start, deriver’s seat memory system, self-leveling HID headlights and LED daytime running lights.
The Venza continues as a five-seater even though its size would permit room for three rows. But instead of trying to squeeze in a third row, the designers moved the second seat back, resulting in limousine-like rear seat space.
Like a limo it has loads of legroom, but unlike a limo, the Venza has as a very tall roof for extra headroom and the higher step-in height makes entry and exit much easier. Instead of scrunching down to get in and out, you simply step in and out.
Quiet and Smooth
On the road the Venza is a quiet and smooth long-distance machine. Very little wind, road or engine noise makes its way into the cabin.
The Venza is filled with reminders the designers knew their customers. The door panels cover the rocker panels so you don’t get your legs, pants, dress or skirt dirty when getting in or out, a sliding armrest cover reveals a variety of storage spaces including provision to hook up and charge your cell phone or MP3 player and you can even alter the font size of the information center for increased legibility!
There is plenty of room for five adults thanks to the tall roof and added width. The cargo area is similarly spacious and the flat cargo floor easy to access through the big rear door, or increase by folding one or both rear seat-backs down. A cargo net and tie-down anchors are standard so you can keep items from sliding around.
The standard engine is large for a four-cylinder at 2.7 litres. But the engineers have done a remarkable job of eliminating the shake that would normally be associated with a four of this size.
Smooth, quiet and relatively stingy in its appetite for fuel, the four provides adequate if not exciting motivation – at least it's enough if you are not regularly toting extra people and or towing something.
If that is the case, there is a V-6 engine available with almost 100 more horsepower. The Venza is rated to tow 1,136 kg (2,500 lb) for the four and 1590 kg (3,500 lb) with the V-6.
Ride comfort is exemplary. The electric power steering retains a modicum of feedback and only when pushed hard in the turns are you aware of the height and Camry-comfortable suspension, height and sheer size of the vehicle.
There is nothing exciting about the Venza. But it offers good value in a spacious, comfortable and exceptionally well put-together automobile.