Review: 2009 Toyota Venza
If I didn’t know better, I’d bet carmakers choose model names via a Google simulation. A computer identifies search words that can be punted to page four within days of launch. In this case, it’s only a matter of a week or so before lornezovenza.com and Jac Venza slip into double digit obscurity. At the same time, I suppose Toyota settled on “Venza” because it sounds vaguely Italian– perfect for a car built in Georgetown Kentucky on a Camry platform. In truth, I don’t know what it is: the word, the car, the point. All I know is after spending time in the new Toyota Venza I’ve become a cautious and reluctant fan.
The Toyota Venza is either a jacked-up touring car or scaled down SUV. Depends on what you’re getting out of. Built on a Camry platform, it rides awfully high for a sedan. It can be crossed-shopped with a zillion cross-overs. Toyota put it in the ‘car’ section of its Web site.
Your opinion of just what the Venza is changes on angle of approach. From the front, it’s a Camry with edema. I actually walked passed my tester without noticing it tucked between other Toyotas. From the side it’s a Highlander with a couple yards of cargo space sliced off. The back is distinctive, swoopy but strong. You’d think something this unique wouldn’t come off so bland. And you’d be wrong.
On the inside, the engineers did much better. The interior swirls around the driver and passenger. It’s modern without being show car crazy. It’s dramatic without gimmickry. Gauges are centered, large and multicolored. The gear selector pops out of a plunging dash, putting the shifter and steering wheel racecar close.
Never having been in the car before, I immediately knew where all the functional gizmos were and how to work them. As for other things, like your iPod or sunglasses, write yourself a note. There are so many trap doors and secret compartments second owners are guaranteed a new flash light or breath mints on delivery.
There is no cruel third row seat. For this, the car gets an extra star. There is a curved rear roofline, with a cost of 12 cubic feet of cargo capacity. Star gone. Nice NC-17 back seats, though. You could drive your adults friends to a movie and not feel shame.
Our test Venza was a well-equipped, V6, all-wheel drive version. In an affable departure for Toyota, there are no arcane trim levels to confuse and bemuse. Pick front or four wheels to power from four or six cylinders. Option packages are the usual value meal menu that inevitably leaves me feeling like I could’ve made a better deal. Overall, Toyota made this easier to buy than other Toyotas or competitors.
Toyota’s 3.5-liter double overhead cam 24-valve dual VVT-i V6 reportedly makes 268 hp and 246 lb.-ft. of torque. The engine revs up quickly, with icy calm. A loaded Venza’s got 600 pounds on the Camry, though. After two entrance ramps you want to drive this to Weight Watchers. The 2.7-liter four won’t be available for another month. Dropping down 80 horses won’t be fun. Still, 2.7 is pretty fat for a four, promising 20 percent improvement in mileage. We’ll check back.
The six-speed electronically controlled automatic overdrive transmission with intelligence and sequential shift mode is the perfect servant. Competent and unobtrusive. The drive train is so enthusiastic, its easy to think the Venza might be thrashable. Don’t kid yourself.
Handling off-track, in normal conditions, this is a porky wagon on 20” wheels. It does ride lower than typical SUVs, or most current crossovers, and the center of gravity is beneath any minivan. When it’s tight – or more appropriately – in an emergency ball-in-the-street dodge, it keeps its composure. As the 4,000 pounds list, you’re reminded that lower would be better.
In not making a more traditional Camry wagon, Toyota gave in to prevailing misconceptions that higher is safer. The opposite is true. The Camry handles better and Venza’s extra inches aren’t enough for the driver to see over the Escalade in front. Lose, lose. Toyota compensates with electronics. It’s not fully effective.
I did test the electronic nannies, though. Luckily for you – not me – I had some seat time in a disgusting frozen rainstorm. The brakes (Anti-lock Brake System with Electronic Brake-force Distribution and Brake Assist) are exceptional. The all wheel drive, traction control and stability control performed admirably. In fact, the whole safety package prevented me from doing stupid things in the name of journalism. The car is a mom.
That realization reshaped my opinion of the Venza. It’s not perfect, but that’s because, like many moms, it’s trying to balance so much. It’s a pack of compromises, but: It carries more peat moss than a Camry, parks easier than a Highlander, seems more mature than a RAV 4, more svelte than a Seinna. No, it can’t perform butch SUV stunts. Why should it? That’s not what the Venza’s about. The riddle of the Venza is not what it is, but what it does. It does a lot. For a lot of people, that’s everything.
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