As soon as you see the 2009 Toyota Venza V6, you know what it is. So how come there are all these questions about whether it's a crossover, a minivan in disguise, a tall wagon or a soft-riding SUV? Really, get over it. Toyota brought it to us, not aliens from another planet.
Mark Cooledge knows what it is. The 34-year-old insurance network manager from Texas is finding life a little tight in his Toyota Camry with his wife and two small children. He isn't convinced his family needs a minivan, but he wants more space, more practicality. And maybe the Venza is it.
Cooledge is just the buyer Toyota was counting on when it designed the 2009 Toyota Venza, so we let him take the wheel with us so we could get past the labels and figure out what it does best.
Taking Its Measure Built on the same platform as the Toyota Camry, the five-passenger 2009 Toyota Venza offers yet another alternative for families outgrowing the single man's sedan.
Some might call it a tall wagon instead of a crossover, but that's really just marketing semantics. Call the Venza whatever you want. The reality is that it costs just a few thousand dollars more than a V6-powered Camry sedan, and offers some of the most compelling attributes of an SUV, only without getting too trucky.
The Venza has a wheelbase of 109.3 inches, and it's 189.0 inches overall, 75.0 inches wide and 63.5 inches tall. In comparison, a comparable Toyota Highlander V6 rides on a 109.8-inch wheelbase and measures 188.4 inches overall, 75.2 inches wide and 68.1 inches tall. So the carlike Venza is roughly the same size, only 4.6 inches lower.
For a $27,800 base price, this front-wheel-drive Venza V6 provides the same elevated ride height as the comparably priced SUV, so you get the commanding view of traffic that makes drivers feel safe, yet without the feeling of a bulky package that makes you wonder where you can park.
Enthusiasm From an Enthusiast Cooledge likes cars a lot (don't let his Camry ownership fool you), but he knows that it will be another decade before Abby and Ellie are old enough for him to succumb to his fantasies of driving a roadster. As an enthusiast, he's open to every possible family-car option.
The Venza's 3.5-liter engine makes 268 horsepower and 246 pound-feet of torque, strong enough numbers to do justice to this 3,870-pound vehicle. The combination gives Cooledge hope that he wouldn't be humiliated in traffic with the Venza. "I'm not looking to make serious time when I'm driving with the girls in the car," Cooledge says. "But I do want to feel some juice on the freeway."
Typical of Toyota powertrains, the Venza's DOHC V6 and smooth-shifting six-speed automatic deliver some juice, yet without giving you the feeling that you're working too hard. It runs to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds (6.8 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and crosses the quarter-mile mark in 15.2 seconds at 92.8 mph. These are very good numbers for a crossover, and put the Venza neatly dead center between the Camry and the Highlander.
Maneuvering Through Daily Life The slalom is a real test of maneuverability for a tallish vehicle. The Venza V6 does the task at 57.1 mph, slower than the four-cylinder variant. This is probably due to the extra 130 pounds this V6 version is packing. Still, the Venza V6's speed is on par with most crossovers.
Around town, the Venza steering offers light effort at parking speeds, but as velocity increases, the steering quickly gets heavy as you dial in more steering lock, perhaps in an effort to prevent the uninitiated from trying to toss it around as if it were a Camry. The Venza V6 pulled 0.73g around the skid pad before its P245/50R20 Michelin tires started squealing in protest, and we noted that the Venza felt a little nose-heavy and provided very little steering feel — the sort of thing you expect from a family vehicle, especially a Toyota.
The Venza V6 stops from 60 mph in 122 feet, cutting 9 feet from the effort of the Toyota Highlander.
Cooledge noted, "It feels bigger than the Honda Pilot I recently had as a rental. Not as high, but bigger all around. As a passenger, the slightly bumpy ride quality is lulling me to sleep. I'd need another Diet Coke to stay awake for a long trip."
And when it comes to trips, the front-wheel-drive Venza V6 is rated at 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway, which compares to the front-wheel-drive Highlander V6's 18 mpg city/24 mpg highway.
People Package Our guy Cooledge really came alive when he spent some time inside the Venza, which frankly is far more important to a family's daily life than driving dynamics.
The cabin is wide and roomy, with plenty of head-, leg- and shoulder room. There's excellent visibility all around, and the small front-quarter windows help reduce the perceived thickness of the A-pillars, which must be stout enough to meet federal rollover standards and also large enough to package the curtain-type airbags.
The instruments are very legible, our guy notes, although the multifunction display at the top of the dash seems confusing. Cooledge says, "It's weird how temperature dials for the ventilation system are low on the center stack, but the display is high, just under the windshield. Hard to know where to look at first." We also found the HVAC controls to be designed for style, not usability.
Most of all, there's plenty of room. "Spacious rear legroom should avoid unnecessary shoe prints on the seatbacks," Cooledge tells us. "Of course, the high beltline makes it difficult for the kids to see out the windows. That is, if they even bother to try any more in this age of DVD players."
Speaking of DVDs, Cooledge notes, "The DVD slot is in the rear head unit, not the center console up front. Who's going to change out Barbie Princess for Elmo while we're on the road? Not the seatbelted little ones."
Take It With You As with so many people who embrace SUVs like the Highlander, Cooledge appreciates the cargo room that the Venza's configuration affords. There are 30.9 cubic feet of cargo capacity behind the second 60/40-split-folding rear seat, and it expands to 70.1 cubic feet when the second-row seat is folded flat. In comparison, the Highlander sacrifices passenger room and comfort to cargo space, and it has 42.3 cubic feet of cargo room behind the second-row seat and a total capacity of 94.5 cubic feet.
Cooledge tells us about the Venza, "There's lots of space for backpacks and stuff on the floor for the second seat, but no other rear-seat storage like you'd find in a minivan, although maybe there are some accessories in the Toyota catalog. The front storage is much better, and there are so many bins and cubbyholes that it looks like the Container Store designed everything."
In fact, the center console is superb, featuring twin cupholders and a small tray plus a huge storage compartment covered by a sliding armrest that incorporates twin pass-throughs for a cell phone and iPod. There are small storage pockets in the doors, each with holders for two small bottles. The glovebox is huge. Cooledge says, "Even the front cupholders are nice and deep, so they might actually keep the Diet Coke in the can instead of letting it spill all over the console."
Changing the Venza's cargo configuration didn't prove to be a problem, Cooledge tells us. "Using the regular door-type latch in the rear cargo area makes it super easy to flip down the seats. This is really logical and an easier method for doing this than pulling on the actual seat through the door. The button for electronically closing the rear hatch is handy just like a minivan, but it's a long reach up to the hatch to get at it, so I had to tuck in my shirt again every time I used it."
Overall, he says, "There's not as much storage room as I would have guessed from the exterior size, so it won't be replacing anybody's minivan. But there is a power outlet in the cargo area for my camping fridge or the Xbox, so it's about what you'd expect from an SUV."
But Do We Really Need Another Idea? Crossover, minivan, SUV, wagon — do we really need more options? When Cooledge first saw the Venza, he immediately said, "Chrysler Pacifica." And of course this innovative package, an attempt to combine wagon style with crossover practicality, proved notoriously unsuccessful with car buyers and was among the first vehicles to fall by the wayside when Chrysler restructured itself under new ownership last year.
Nevertheless, Toyota thinks there's room for this crossover that's more car than utility vehicle. And with the 2009 Toyota Venza V6, it's done a good job of designing a family vehicle that melds roomy passenger space with cargo capacity and enjoyable, if not spirited performance. Although traditionalists complain, the crossover still combines almost all the things that people want in a family car.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Senior Automotive Editor Brian Moody says: I'm not sure I totally get the Venza — I like it but I don't get it. Just as I'm prepared to label the Venza a crossover of sorts, I visit the Toyota Web site and see that the company classifies it as a car. That lack of clarity is disconcerting to me. Does Toyota know what the Venza is? Maybe it's like a Camry wagon?
The exterior styling is nothing special. Crossovers like Infiniti's FX do a better job of standing out in a crowd. One thing's for sure, the interior is first-rate — nicer and more luxurious than both a Camry and Highlander. Was this car supposed to be a Lexus? The JBL Synthesis audio system is excellent and adds to the premium feel. Same goes for the revised navigation system that now lets you perform more tasks while the car is moving, something the previous-generation system didn't do very well.
I like that the Venza doesn't have the high step-in of a Highlander so it's clearly more carlike in that respect. Yet the elevated driving position SUV owners like so much is also here, which I like. Maybe the Venza isn't confused at all; maybe it knows exactly what it is. After all, our friend Cooledge really likes the mishmash of car, minivan and SUV elements. Come to think of it, maybe the Venza isn't confused at all; maybe it's just me.
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