America's refusal to acknowledge some of life's truly underrated pleasures — open space, Mike Judge films, subtlety — is rivaled only by its one great automotive sin: the rejection of the station wagon. Real wagons like the classic Ford Country Squire or the Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser were vastly underrated examples of automotive utility and attitude, perfect expressions of what this country is all about. And yet these days Americans regard the station wagon with disdain.
Let's hope the 2009 Toyota Venza doesn't meet the same fate. It's a great wagon, to be sure. But no one, least of all Toyota, will ever call it that.
You see, the Venza is designed to compete with the likes of the crossover utility vehicle — think Ford Edge, Mazda CX-7 or Nissan Murano. Yet the Venza is decidedly less crossoverlike than these rivals. First, it's shorter than those CUVs, with an overall height of just 63.4 inches. Its wheelbase falls between the CX-7 and Edge at 109.3 inches, but its lengthy, wagonlike overhangs make it the longest of the bunch at 189 inches. Most important, the styling of the 2009 Toyota Venza says "wagon" the same way that the Chevy Suburban says "SUV."
This, sir, is a wagon. Right on.
Rewriting the Wagon Ignoring the wagon in the landscape of automotive novelties is no less offensive than pretending macaroni doesn't go with cheese, peanut butter doesn't go with jelly or smoke doesn't go with burning rubber.
Wagons were a way of life in this country until the 1980s. Then the advent of the minivan and later the family-oriented SUV saddled the wagon with an undeserved stigma as a vehicle of the past. Eventually, wagon sales dipped until there were virtually none remaining, and even Volvo struggled to maintain its presence in the wagon market. Dodge attempted to reinvigorate the wagon concept with the high-performance Magnum in 2005, but indifferent sales led to its demise for the 2009 model year.
And yet the wagon deserves to live. It delivers the practical utility Americans want in a package that doesn't forget it's supposed to be a car, not a storage container on wheels.
Toyota, it seems, agrees. The idea is still the same — a passenger cell with four doors and an extended cargo area accessed via a large gate in the rear. Within the Venza, you'll find the mechanical bits of the Toyota Camry, and this base model of the 2009 Toyota Venza features a transversely mounted 2.7-liter inline-4 engine rated at 182 horsepower and 182 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed automatic transmission drives the front wheels.
Around this platform you find a package that's smaller than a typical crossover, yet larger than a typical wagon. And the price is right in between, too. This 2009 Toyota Venza has no options and it will set you back $26,695, including destination charges.
Hey...Wait a Minute We spent two weeks and 1,000 miles with this Venza. We drove our families around with the same pride we would have in a 1971 Olds Vista Cruiser. We tossed strollers and bikes in its cargo area. We even put our kids in the backseat and used that old line, "If I have to stop this car...." It was enticing in a very Clark Griswold kind of way (though we didn't get a chance to do a real road trip).
The Venza's styling received nothing but praise. Neighbors dropped by our driveway to sit inside. People asked with a smile if this was the new Camry. One guy in an FJ Cruiser gave us a thumbs-up on the freeway.
The message, then, seems clear. Toyota has built a wagon that, by our estimation, meets with American approval.
Look What's Inside The Venza's designers haven't just built a modern, attractive wagon and called it good. Instead, they've fitted the Venza with the very latest conveniences. Probably the most useful of these is a center console that slides and folds to reveal two large compartments. The one in front contains both a 12-volt outlet (one of two available to front passengers) and an auxiliary input for MP3 players.
There's a covered recess in the center stack that will hold an MP3 player, and it features a pass-through into the console to access the auxiliary port. There's also a small-items tray with a similar pass-through. This means you can connect your MP3 player and charge your cell phone without a mess of wires cluttering the console — a clever feature we'd like to see elsewhere.
The Venza's soft, cloth-upholstered seats never made our butts numb, while the backlit displays for the uncluttered instrumentation proved easy on the eyes. Both the audio system and dual-zone climate controls utilize a large knob/small knob arrangement where the knob closest to the driver controls the most important function — volume and driver temperature, respectively. The shift lever on the center stack is ugly but functional.
The rear seats recline for added passenger comfort and also fold flat to reveal 70.1 cubic feet of storage space — more than the Edge, CX-7 or Murano. Even when the rear seat is upright, there are 34.4 cubic feet of storage space behind the seats, again beating the crossovers.
Most of all, we found the 2009 Toyota Venza roomy and easy to use. Its doors open wide and its seat height makes ingress and egress as easy as any crossover. Six-foot adults fit comfortably in the rear seats — even when there are equally large passengers up front. We put a huge rear-facing baby seat behind a 6-footer and all was well, too.
The Soul of a Station Wagon One of the reasons many Gen-Xers fondly remember the wagons of their childhood in the early 1970s is that they had personality. (Or, perhaps, it's just that their father's arms weren't long enough to reach them from the driver seat.) Of course, these wagons were unwieldy, massive beasts with overboosted steering and cargo areas that were the size of football fields.
Nobody will ever call the 2009 Toyota Venza a beast. But there is something missing: soul. In typical Toyota fashion, the Venza rides comfortably, offers practical features and efficient, functional packaging. But, damn, is it ever boring to drive.
The steering is unencumbered by anything resembling feedback. The brake pedal gets the job done with equal parts effectiveness and indifference, and the transmission is slow to respond even when you use the manual gate. But this isn't a sports car, and other companies have already reaped the thankless reward of trying to build sportiness into a vehicle where it has no place (Mazda MPV, anyone?).
We get the same "who cares" feeling driving the Venza that we do in a Camry, a vehicle that America has made one of the most popular sedans ever. There's nothing truly out of place here in the Venza, but its desirable qualities just aren't found in the driving experience.
The Numbers At the track the 2009 Toyota Venza is respectably quick and well behaved. The 60-mph mark requires 9.3 seconds (9.0 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip). The quarter-mile arrives in 16.8 seconds at 82.5 mph. That's about a second slower to 60 mph and 0.6 second slower in the quarter-mile than the last Nissan Murano we tested. But remember, this particular Venza has a fuel-efficient 2.7-liter inline-4 instead of the optional 3.5-liter V6.
By circling the skid pad at 0.77g, the Venza proves that its massive 19-inch wheels and 245/55R19 rubber might serve it in more than just load-carrying capacity. Its relatively low height helps it dispatch the slalom at 63.6 mph — 4 mph faster than the tall Murano.
The Venza stops in 121 feet from 60 mph, which is above average for the segment. The brakes also exhibit good fade resistance thanks to relatively large 12.8-inch front rotors.
But we're guessing most prospective Venza buyers care as much about the skid pad and drag strip as they do who won the SCCA Solo 2 Championship or the NHRA Pomona Winter Nationals. Instead they'll appreciate knowing that in 850 miles driving, this Venza produced an average of 22.6 mpg. In the hands of our more light-footed editors, it even yielded a best tank of 27.5 mpg. The EPA rates the four-cylinder Venza at 21 mpg city/29 mpg highway.
Soul and Stigma The 2009 Toyota Venza might be ho-hum to drive, but it handles better than most CUVs and is certainly safer than any of those station-wagon beasts of the 1970s that the Gen-Xers can remember. Besides, let's face it; when it comes to old cars, "soul" is less an endearing quality than it is a state of mind.
Once you add up the Venza's undeniable utility, relative efficiency and popular styling, its future certainly looks promising. Only time will tell whether all this is enough to overcome the fact that wagons have suffered wholesale rejection at the hands of American buyers for more than 15 years. Still, we can't think of a better way to sell a wagon to Americans than to tell them it's a crossover. Because those, friend, are so different.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Inside Line Senior Editor Erin Riches says: Though I'm not yet ready to welcome a 2009 Toyota Venza into my family, I like this tall Camry wagon. I like it because it is better than the Camry sedan. Notably, it has higher-quality interior materials that are more in line with my expectations for a Toyota. The Venza is also a more useful five-passenger vehicle than the Camry thanks to the fore-and-aft adjustability of the rear seat. And as big as the Camry's trunk is, the Venza's easily accessible cargo bay will always be more convenient.
Given the Venza's genetics, I don't expect it to do more than ride smoothly on the freeway and feel secure around the occasional fast corner, and the big wagon meets both requirements.
What does surprise me is how much I like the combination of the 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine and the six-speed automatic transmission. Our test car's 9.3-second 0-to-60-mph time might give the impression that the drivetrain is nothing special. But at full throttle on a freeway entrance ramp, everything comes together perfectly. The four-cylinder is unflustered and refined, and the transmission delivers extremely smooth upshifts. This is the first crossover I've driven that doesn't feel like it would really be better off with a V6.
The total absence of excitement in driving a 2009 Toyota Venza might put off any of you hoping to combine practicality and passion in one crumb-encrusted family vehicle. But sometimes singular focus is a good thing, and when it comes to utilitarian five-passenger transportation, Toyota might have just outdone everyone.
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