All-new 2009 Toyota Venza: Sport sedan, SUV, minivan, or ???

By Lary Coppola

When I first saw the sharp looking 2009 Toyota Venza up close and personal, my first question was, “Who exactly is this vehicle aimed at?” It’s far more utilitarian than a passenger car, spacious like a minivan, yet smaller and lower than an SUV, while boasting all the usual high-end equipment usually found on an upscale sport-ute. Meanwhile, it rides, drives, and handles like a sports sedan.

It would be grossly unfair to say the Venza is little more than an upscale, contemporary Camry wagon — even though it’s built on the Camry platform in the same Georgetown, Kentucky assembly plant. The Venza is way more original — and certainly more functional — loaded with a mix of highly evolved features and imaginative design cues. It many ways, it’s an easy comparison with the Ford Flex, offering a cleverly designed, stylish, and roomy interior, featuring many of the same conveniences and functionality both minivan and SUV owners have become accustomed to. While only a five-passenger vehicle, it’s also smaller, nimbler — and certainly hipper — than any minivan on the planet. It’s more like a highly utilitarian family car capable of transporting people, pets and groceries, that’s easy to park — while being a vehicle Dad won’t be embarrassed to be seen in.

Yet it’s also one where he can put the pedal to the metal without fear of rolling it on the first semi-sharp curve. Toyota expects many Venza buyers will be people trading up from minivans and down from SUVs. That’s because other than its 3500-pound towing capacity, SUV owners don’t give up much, while minivan owners gain style and hipness without sacrificing functionality.

Walkaround: Not known as a style innovator, the Venza is slightly shorter and lower than most crossovers, with smooth, fluid, aerodynamic sculpting that’s certainly a departure for Toyota. The high, broad grille flows into flame-shaped headlamps that accentuate the Venza’s wide stance. The use of fog lamps coupled with a combination of headlamp types, create a crisp, high-tech feeling. Although the Venza is wider and taller than the Camry, it shares the same wheelbase and overall length — making it appear wider and lower, while permitting increased hip and head room with a higher seating position. However, legroom is actually slightly less compared to the Camry, even though interior volume is greater.

Low, car-like, narrow doorsills and rocker panels give the Venza a sleek, contemporary profile. Like the FT-SX concept vehicle that inspired the Venza’s design, the wheels are snuggly located at the corners of the body, with minimal overhang on either end. The standard 20-inch aluminum alloy wheels suggest the sporty, cat-like surefootedness of a sports sedan that isn’t betrayed by winding roads. The S-shaped tail lamps add to the sporty feeling, and convey a smart, modern, and practical design not likely to go out of style or become dated during the life of the car.

Interior: The Venza comes really well-equipped — in only one trim level — but can be personalized into a luxuriously refined alternative to the sedan, delivering more cargo and passenger room combining an unusual blend of attributes from a premium car with the high-utility flexibility of an SUV. An oversized speedometer, which is positioned dead center, dominates the instrumentation. There’s a slightly smaller tach to the left, and smaller fuel and temperature gauges on the right. The instrumentation is readable even direct sunlight, and easy on the eyes at night. The center console is simple and clean, with soft-touch controls for the information center, audio system and climate controls. The console has a soft armrest cover over an unusually deep storage bin, and the doors have bottle holders and a map slot.

Standard equipment includes cloth upholstery; one-touch forward-fold seat levers; 14-degree rear seat recline; dual-zone automatic climate control with air filter and second row seat vents; carbon fiber interior trim; overhead console with map lights; center console with padded sliding cover and armrest; rear seat overhead personal reading lamps; 12-volt auxiliary power outlets (two front, one cargo area); AM/FM stereo with six speakers, optional XM satellite radio, MP3/WMA capability, and a six-disc CD changer; tilt/telescopic wheel with integrated audio controls; HomeLink; cruise control; electrochromic rearview mirror with compass; vanity mirror; variable intermittent windshield wipers; rear windshield intermittent wiper; power windows, outside mirrors, and door locks with remote control keyless entry.

Also standard are multi-projector-beam headlamps with auto on-off; integrated fog lamps; UV reduction glass windshield, privacy glass on two rear side windows and back window; cargo area tonneau cover; dual exhaust with chrome tips; and rear spoiler. There are eight available option packages — including leather — with four stand-alone options — navigation system ($2590); JBL Premium Audio ($1090); a panoramic roof ($1050); rear-seat entertainment ($1680); and Blizzard Pearl paint ($220). Under The Hood: The Venza is available with either the standard 2.7-liter four-cylinder powerplant that delivers 182 horses at 5,800 rpm, and 182 pound-feet of torque at 4,200 rpm. Optional is a 3.5-liter V6 that puts 268 ponies to the pavement at 6200 rpm, and offers a muscular 246 pound-feet of torque at 4700 rpm. Both are married to a six-speed automatic transmission, with the Venza offered in all-wheel and front-wheel-drive configurations.

Behind The Wheel: We had the opportunity to put the Venza through its paces under a number of conditions and terrains. On the freeway, the Venza drives like a car, with a quietly smooth ride, and tight, sure steering and handling characteristics. Its stability on wet, slippery, two-lane winding roads — even in just front-wheel drive mode — is impressive. Although the Venza has some SUV attributes like its cargo versatility and higher driver and passenger seat positioning, it handles like a four-door sport sedan in many ways. While the Venza sits a little higher off the ground than a Camry, cornering at speed is achieved with minimal body roll (lean), and steering is light and accurate, so it transitions from side to side cleanly and easily.

Whines: None

Bottom Line: The new Toyota Venza is seemingly the best combination of car and SUV available today. It seats five, can carry a fair amount of cargo, is roomy and comfortable, delivering smooth, solid performance and handling — all combined with Toyota’s legend
ary reliability. What more could you want?