The Camry Gets With the Times
On this very day, 2009 Toyota Venzas will begin rolling off the assembly line at Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Kentucky. Toyota builds its newest five-passenger crossover on the same line as the Camry, and the 2009 Toyota Venza is indeed the tall Camry wagon it appears to be.
But to Toyota, the Venza is more than that. It's the product of almost seven years of deliberation and development work — an eternity in the car business. Nor is it a preordained, off-the-rack, three-row answer to family transportation like the Highlander and Sienna. In building the 2009 Toyota Venza, the Toyota planners have tried to read your thoughts years before you'd actually get around to thinking them.
"When we introduced the RAV4 and Lexus RX 300 in the 1990s, we were able to give customers something they didn't realize they wanted until they saw it," says Tim Morrison, corporate manager of marketing for Toyota cars and vans.
"The RAV4 and RX went on to create entirely new landscapes for car-based SUVs. In the same way, we think the Venza will make just as big an impact in the industry and will change the expectations of car buyers who were never able to find everything they wanted in one package."
Toyota Ventures to Monza
This package of everything is as long as a Camry (with the same 109.3-inch wheelbase) but as wide as a Toyota Highlander. All three vehicles ride on Toyota's K-platform architecture also used by the Avalon. The Venza has the same ride height as the Highlander, so it's 5.5 inches taller than a Camry, yet it's still 4.7 inches shorter than the Highlander. Toyota names the Ford Edge, Mazda CX-7 and Nissan Murano as the Venza's key rivals, and of these three, the Murano is closest in size, though it's still 3.6 inches taller. The Venza's maximum cargo space is 70.1 cubic feet versus the Murano's 64 cubic feet.
Formally unveiled this year in Detroit, the 2009 Toyota Venza traces its high-beltline boldness to the FT-SX concept shown way back at the 2005 Detroit Auto Show. Toyota's Newport Beach-based Calty studio gets the design credit. These are the same people who resurrected the FJ40 look for the FJ Cruiser.
Still, the Venza (the name is a combination of venture and Monza) is a fairly conservative design. Nevertheless, Toyota argues with some justification that it's more of an image car than its shapeless platform mates. Initially, Toyota expected its new crossover to appeal mainly to women, but 55 percent of early hand-raisers are male.
"We think it's the large wheels and the tight fender/tire gap," Bob Zeinstra, national manager of product and brand marketing, tells us, noting that you can't go any smaller than 19s on the Venza.
Whatever the gender mix, Toyota anticipates two-thirds of buyers will be aging baby boomers and one-third young families.
70 Percent Sedan, 30 Percent SUV
Both demographics have been forced to compromise in the past, says Morrison, "buying an SUV that was too much vehicle for them or a car that was just too small for their lifestyles." Whereas Toyota's earlier crossovers are full-on SUVs, company officials tell us the Venza is 70 percent sedan and only 30 percent SUV.
That kind of specificity only makes sense in marketing brochures, but the mere act of seating yourself in the 2009 Toyota Venza does feel different than in many other crossovers. It's not about the maximum passenger count here. It's about the utter ease of getting in and out.
The Venza has what Toyota calls "sweeping rockers" — a fancy way of saying that the rocker panels are as low and narrow as they can possibly be. You don't have to step up as much to get in as you would in a pure-bred SUV, and there's even less of a sill to step over compared to most sedans.
This level of detail continues around to the back of the Venza, where, says Toyota, the lift-over height for loading is 5.5 inches lower than on the Highlander and 2 inches lower than on the Camry. This not only spares your back when loading groceries but also makes it easier for your Labrador to hop up.
"Fifty percent of pet owners consider the needs of their pet before they buy a car," Zeinstra reminds us.
Naturally, you'll want to consider how quickly your pet needs to go from zero to 60 mph. Toyota gives you two engine options in the 2009 Toyota Venza.
The obvious choice for a nearly 2-ton crossover is the company's sweet 3.5-liter DOHC V6, which is rated for 268 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 246 pound-feet of torque at 4,700 rpm in the Venza. Just like in the Camry, it comes with a smart-shifting six-speed automatic, this time driving either the front wheels or potentially all four if you order all-wheel drive. The AWD system adds 175 pounds, and the company expects a 45 percent take rate.
Toyota estimates a front-drive V6 Venza will rocket you and the yellow Lab to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds. It's also EPA-rated at 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway (18 mpg/25 mpg for AWD).
Surprisingly Good Four-Cylinder
There's nothing to complain about with the V6, but the Venza's base four-cylinder engine is better than you think it is. For starters, it's cheaper. A front-drive V6 model starts at $28,520 (including $720 destination), while a four-cylinder model will set you back only $26,695. AWD costs another $1,450 with either engine.
More important, it's a big inline-4 with 2.7 liters (2,672cc) of displacement, so it's able to develop the kind of low-end torque needed in a heavy vehicle. It's rated at 182 hp at 5,800 rpm and 182 lb-ft at 4,200 rpm. Even better, the 2.7-liter is also paired with a six-speed automatic.
The upshot is that the four-cylinder 2009 Toyota Venza rarely feels slow. It doesn't sound as good as the V6, but the engine is smooth even at high rpm. Toyota officials tell us a front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder Venza should run to 60 mph in less than 9 seconds. Fuel economy looks good, too. The company's internal tests suggest you'll get 20-21 mpg in the city and 28-29 mpg on the highway.
Originally, Toyota envisioned a 25 percent take rate for the four-cylinder. "Then we drove it," says Zeinstra, "and our mix went immediately to 50/50. We have the ability to go higher than that on the four-cylinder, and we think it might."
And we're told a hybrid version of the Toyota Venza involving the 2.7-liter is under consideration.
Aside from its aluminum control arms, the 2009 Toyota Venza has the same suspension as the Highlander, meaning struts up front and a dual-link strut arrangement in back. However, the Venza weighs about 400 pounds less, so we aren't surprised that it feels more balanced and agile on a drive through the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania.
As in the Highlander, the power steering is driven by an electric motor, though Toyota has rigidly mounted the steering gear in the Venza to improve road feel. It's still not a very communicative setup, but the wheel feels solid in our hands both on- and off-center.
No Trim Levels
Equipping a 2009 Toyota Venza is an uncommonly democratic process. There are no trim levels, so you'll start out with high-quality cloth upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control and all the airbags, regardless of whether you get the four or the six.
From there, you can add leather ($1,600) along with various other packages that bundle HID headlights (with automatic high beams), keyless startup, a power liftgate, a back-up camera and heated seats. An upgraded JBL audio system costs $1,090, while a Bluetooth-enabled navigation system will run you $2,590. In addition, you can have a panoramic roof (read: double sunroof) for $1,050 or a rear-seat entertainment system ($1,680).
A fully loaded AWD V6 Venza costs just over $40K, which is about where you'll end up with a Murano or Edge. A nicely outfitted four-cylinder 2009 Toyota Venza falls more in line with the smaller CX-7, and for buyers unconcerned about straight-line performance, it's something of a bargain.
Look for V6-equipped 2009 Toyota Venzas to show up at dealerships in early December. Four-cylinder Venzas start production January 19, 2009 and should be at most dealers by early February.
Even Toyota Is Playing It Safe
Although Toyota says it has tailored the Venza for a very specific audience seeking an elusive combination of SUV, wagon and sedan attributes, we don't quite buy that argument. Spend even a few minutes with this crossover and you realize it's a vehicle anyone would like. It's not sporty, yet even we kind of dig it.
In a normal year, we'd expect Toyota to sell 150,000 Venzas. But 2009 is probably not going to be a normal year, so Toyota is only counting on 60,000 of you buying 2009 Toyota Venzas.
When the market recovers, don't be surprised to see a spike in Venza sales. This crossover isn't just an SUV alternative. It's a Camry done better.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.