Midsize wagons are like Zubaz pants — they used to be all the rage, but now Americans avoid them like the plague. Fifteen years ago, the Accord and Camry were available as wagons, providing a highly practical combination of family-sedan goodness and station wagon functionality. Today, wagons are stigmatized as mommy mobiles that don't meet contemporary standards of cool, and the closest thing we've got to a replacement is the ubiquitous crossover SUV.
But there's a burgeoning anti-SUV sentiment afoot, and Toyota hopes to capitalize on it with the new-for-2009 Venza. American car shoppers are demanding more carlike fuel economy and handling, yet they still want the versatility that made SUVs popular in the first place. In other words, they want their wagons back — except they don't, because "wagon" is still a dirty word. That's where the strikingly styled Venza comes in: This Kentucky-built, Camry-based people mover is an American wagon for the 21st century.
Granted, it's a tall wagon. Ground clearance is 8.1 inches — same as the Highlander SUV — and the obligatory elevated seating position is present and accounted for. But the Venza shares its 109.3-inch wheelbase with the Camry, and it basically drives like one, too. That's a good thing, folks. The Venza doesn't exactly set our pants afire with its handling prowess, but it feels as stable as a Camry through corners while offering a similarly comfortable ride. What's more, the Venza has a nicer and more functional interior, with an exclusive avant-garde dashboard design and more than 70 cubic feet of maximum cargo volume.
Indeed, the more time we spent in the 2009 Toyota Venza, the more we wondered why anyone would consider buying a Camry instead. We found our answer when we looked at the bottom line. The base four-cylinder Venza starts at more than $26,000 with destination, and our V6 2WD test vehicle tacks on another $2 grand; Toyota's best-selling family sedan stickers for thousands less. Still, if you require the additional hauling capacity, the Venza V6 is one of our top picks at this price point. Take heart, America — the wagon is cool again.
The 2009 Toyota Venza is available with either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, and there are two engine options: an all-new 2.7-liter four-cylinder and a 3.5-liter V6. Our V6 2WD test car was powered by — you guessed it — the ultra-refined six-cylinder power plant, which sees action in numerous other Toyota products. It cranks out 268 horsepower and 246 pound-feet of torque in this application, driving the Venza's front wheels through a smooth six-speed automatic transmission with manual shift control. According to Toyota, the approximately 3,900-pound Venza V6 2WD will scoot from zero to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds, and we don't doubt it. The Venza's V6 feels stronger than its output rating suggests, as this family hauler really leaps forward when you give it the gas.
Fuel economy is also impressive — with EPA estimates of 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway and 22 mpg combined, the Venza is more fuel-efficient than many V6-powered family sedans, and it doesn't even drink premium gasoline. Towing capacity is a useful 3,500 pounds when the tow package is specified, though this figure pales in comparison to many crossover SUVs.
People don't buy vehicles like the Venza for back-road buffoonery, but if you need to make haste on a winding road — late for Junior's Boy Scout camp, perhaps? — this 2-ton Toyota proves a surprisingly willing partner. The electric power steering is short on feel but nicely weighted, and body motions are reasonably well-controlled considering the Venza's utilitarian purpose. More relevant to most consumers is ride comfort, and our Venza had it in spades despite its gigantic 20-inch wheels, smoothing out pockmarked pavement with unruffled composure. Overall, we found the Venza's ride-handling balance to be quite pleasant, and we think the average shopper in this segment will agree.
Road noise is noticeable in the 2009 Toyota Venza, but overall noise levels at highway speeds are acceptably low. Thanks to its higher roof line and greater width, the Venza has more passenger space than the already accommodating Camry, especially in back. Rear headroom and legroom are up by 1.5 inches and 0.8 inch, respectively, and rear hiproom grows by a significant 2.4 inches. The result is a cabin that's comfortable for passengers of all sizes, though we'd like to see rear-seat climate controls. We're also a bit surprised that Toyota didn't include a third-row seating option for larger families.
The pièce de résistance of the Venza's interior is its sleek center stack. The shifter sits up high in an attractively carved-out region opposite the elegant standard dual-zone automatic climate controls, which look as if they were lifted from a high-end stereo system. Speaking of stereos, our Venza had the unremarkable six-speaker base unit, but we did have a chance to listen to the uplevel JBL Synthesis surround-sound system, and that setup should satisfy all but the most discerning audiophiles. On the downside, a dedicated iPod interface is unavailable as a factory-installed option. (Note that for 2010, iPod connectivity has joined the Venza's list of standard features.)
There are no fewer than 10 cupholders front and rear, including two in a trick sliding segment atop the center console's forward storage bin. Thanks to convenient levers mounted in the cargo bay, the 60/40-split rear seatbacks fold down easily, opening up a healthy 70.1 cubic feet of cargo capacity. With the seatbacks in their normal upright positions, that figure drops to 34.4 cubes.
Design/Fit and Finish
The 2009 Toyota Venza's front-end styling is "inspired by the stances of athletes in competition," according to Toyota. If you ask us, the headlights and toothy grille are uncomfortably reminiscent of a melted Ford Edge. From most other angles, though, the Venza's styling is taut and upscale — kind of like a stretched Lexus RX. Interior styling is another high point, as we think the Venza's swoopy dashboard is also distinctly Lexus-like. Materials quality is notably higher than in either the Highlander or the Camry, and we were pleased to discover that the Prius' distinctively grained soft-touch dash and wheel covering has found its way into the Venza. Our tester was a preproduction vehicle, but fit and finish was nonetheless impressive, with consistent panel gaps and no audible squeaks or rattles.
Who should consider this vehicle
Toyota's own Highlander and RAV4 offer third-row seats and the same V6, so those with larger broods may find these models more suitable. The Highlander also has considerably more cargo capacity, and its tow rating is higher. But if five seats are enough, then the 2009 Toyota Venza is an excellent choice for families who want near-Lexus levels of style and refinement in a roomy, well, wagon.
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