Road Test: 2009 Toyota Venza
This 2009 review is representative of model years 2009 to 2013.
By Aaron Robinson of Car and Driver
Behold Toyota's latest effort to pull another kitten from mama Camry. The Venza is seductively and beguilingly styled unlike any other Toyota, and it is exactly as seductive and beguiling to drive as the term "Camry station wagon" implies. Wake us for the redesign.
Like California "octomom" Nadya Suleman, the Camry lays claim to a sizable clan of offspring. It already donates DNA to the Sienna minivan, the Highlander SUV, and the Lexus RX350. The Sienna seats up to eight, the Highlander seven, and the RX350 just five. Respectively, they intimate, "bigger family," "smaller family," and "If we had a family, we'd shop at Baby Dior."
Wedged into the thinnest of hairline seams in this crowded lineup, the Venza — front-drive or all-wheel drive, four-cylinder or V-6 — is basically an RX350 Light. This audience wants a five-door wagon that doesn't look like a galleon for slaves to diapers and nose drip.
Venza is a conjugation of the Spanish verb vencer, which means to overcome, win, make trumps, et cetera. The base price, $25,740, shadows the more upright Highlander's almost to the dollar. The basic 2.7-liter, four-cylinder front-drive Venza such as the one tested here is decently geared up. Locks, windows, and the driver's seat are electrified at no extra cost. A six-CD changer with an auxiliary jack is standard, stability control comes with, and the rear seats — which split and fold in one fluid articulation — have three-position recline. Tilt and telescope the steering wheel until comfort is achieved. Our one option, the expansive twin-panel window up top known as the "panoramic roof," cost $1050.
Toyota is chasing the Nissan Murano/Mazda CX-7/Ford Edge/Dodge Journey demographic — mainly comprised of cosmopolitan women, mostly with one or fewer children. The Venza has the prerequisites: a lofty driving position, optional all-wheel drive, two rows of adult-size seats (the Venza's vast rear bench has leg-stretching room not found in many front seats), and I'm-not-a-mom styling. The Murano in particular has struck gold mining these hills, and Toyota wants in.
The Venza shows how challenging it is to extract cool from a big form. It's a tall box, with the roof 5.5 inches higher than a Camry's. It's also 3.3 inches wider. But Toyota trims the side glass narrow in pursuit of a flattened, Hot Wheels look. That leaves about 10 to 15 acres of naked sheetmetal hanging below. Slab siding won't fly, so the vast flanks are toned up with bulges and broken up with creases and dugouts.
Despite this visual massaging, a Venza on normal-size wheels would look like a manatee, so even the base car rolls on 19-inchers. Remember when 19s were a shout-out on a Viper? Well, the Venza V-6 gets 20s. With a bull nose made intriguing by its Daliesque grille, the Venza is an adventurous design for Toyota. It certainly beats — venza! — the funeral hearse Toyota passed off as the 1992-96 Camry wagon.
Thus far, mission accomplished.
And innovation halted. The rest of the Venza is no more provocative than a Camry with a Twinkie habit.
The steering and brakes are just as innocuous as a Camry's, as is the understeer and general lack of enthusiasm for fast driving. When to-ing and fro-ing around town, the brain almost immediately switches to autopilot in the cabin's hushed tranquillity. Perhaps to keep the big Toyo tires from bounding around, the ride is edgy. The Venza bucks and bumps a bit too actively over all but the most groomed surfaces. So does the more expensive, V-6-only Murano, but Nissan also pays back with athletic handling.
We wouldn't predict fireworks from a vehicle packing 21 pounds for each horsepower, so call us satisfied with an 8.4-second bolt to 60 mph. A V-6-equipped Hyundai Sante Fe Limited AWD is no quicker. The Venza's double-overdrive six-speed isn't shy about downshifting to preserve momentum, so the quiet, efficient four-cylinder works hard to make you forget it's a four-cylinder. With stern use, the Venza still returned 26-mpg fuel economy, unexpectedly thrifty considering the 2.7's busy life. No V-6 competitor except the CVT-equipped Murano (23 mpg in our last test) comes close.
In photos, the Venza's interior looks platinum class, the shifter rising like a chairlift pole out of a slope of steel-gray and funky tobacco-hued trim. Oversize gauges and a center digital screen clearly deliver the mechanical news. With 34 cubic feet behind the back seats, 70 with them folded, the Venza's cargo figures are on the high side of its peer group.
Up close, the Venza's bargain price manifests itself in some hard plastic; also, the cup holders proved too shallow to hold a water bottle upright in a turn (better ones are in the doors). A "cell phone/iPod holder" (we had to confirm its purpose with Toyota PR because it's not obvious) hides behind a door near the shifter.
An icebreaker for Toyota styling, the Venza's daring look isn't matched by its Camry-calibrated dynamics. Is that also a deal breaker? Probably not for many in the intended audience who will be happy with its low-stress demeanor, curbside allure, friendly price, and comfortable if gee-whiz-free interior. The Camry is pleased to announce the birth of another chip off the old block.