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2009 Toyota Venza Review

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MORE: Toyota Specs, Comparisons and Prices - Toyota Buyers Guide

2009 Toyota Venza

Life used to be simple. "Car" meant either sedan, with an emphasis on practicality and room for four or more, or coupe, with a sportier mien and space for four or less. Then came the station wagon, originally a specially-bodied vehicle on a production chassis made for the purpose of transporting groups of people from the train station to a hotel, and later a standard production model based on a sedan. Larger utility vehicles existed to carry more people, or more cargo, than could fit in a sedan or wagon.

Then, in the early 1990s, the evolutionary pace quickened with the "crossover" idea. At first, this meant a vehicle that was a cross between a car and SUV, with the comfort and handling of a car and brawny looks of the (then) truck-based SUV. Then, adaptive radiation at its finest, crosses of myriad, sometimes strange, kinds were offered for sale. Sport utility with sports car? It's been tried.. ("Sport" sells, right?) And to further confuse automotive taxonomy, long-established SUVs lost their body-on-frame construction and became crossover-like unibodies. Was "crossover" becoming passe'?

Not if indicated by what I've been driving recently, as most test "cars" fit in some manner into the crossover category. But there must be a way to distinguish yet another crossover, lest it be lost in the crowd... Which brings me to this week's subject, the 2009 Toyota Venza. It is, according to Toyota press materials, "a versatile five-passenger vehicle that couples the styling and comfort of a passenger car with the flexibility of a sport-utility vehicle to give customers a stylish alternative to the traditional sedan." It's built on the same platform as the Camry, Avalon, and Highlander, but is more car and less SUV than the "traditional" crossover Highlander. 70% car and 30% SUV according to Toyota. Its wheelbase is the same as a Camry's, and length is within a fraction of an inch of a Camry or Highlander. The Venza is higher than a Camry but lower than a Highlander, with the same 8.1-inch ground clearance as a Highlander.

Engines are the same as found in the Highlander, a 2.7-liter four-cylinder, here with 182 horsepower, and a 3.5-liter, 268-hp V6. Both drive either the front wheels or, optionally, all four wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission. For simplicity, one Venza grade is offered, with a choice of four-cylinder or V6 engine. But there are, at the time of writing, eight factory option packages and four standalone options, so there is plenty of variety available for different customer needs and desires.

I've been driving a Venza AWD V6 for the past week. What is it? Well, the window sticker says "V6 5DR SDN AWD". As in sedan. The, um, tailgate is called the "rear door". Words conspicuously missing from the product description are "wagon", "hatchback", "liftback", and "crossover" - but what it reminded me of the most was a larger, more upscale reincarnation of the Camry Liftback of yore, with a fine combination of interior space and versatility, easy access for both passengers and cargo, first-rate comfort, and good ride comfort and handling. It's interesting-looking, very functional, and capable - so does it really matter what Toyota calls it?

APPEARANCE: Designed, engineered, and built in the U.S. for the American market, the Venza definitely does not look like a sedan, wagon, liftback, or crossover. If anything, it looks, from some angles, like a custom-chopped version of its cousin, the Lexus RX. The ground clearance, high body sides, and lack of a trunk don't say "sedan" -- or "wagon", for that matter, but the low roofline, highly-sloped windshield and moderately-sloped backlight, interestingly-sculpted body panels, and high, short hood aren't typical crossover. A large version of the current Toyota corporate grille, with complex headlights well-integrated into the grille and body styling, graces the front. Huge wheels and tires -- 19-inch for the four-cylinder, 20 for the V6 -- fill the prominent wheel arches. From the rear, huge bulging wraparound taillights dominate.

COMFORT: From the outside, the Venza's long passenger cabin promises great room inside, and that's no illusion. It's a cut above a Camry in space, design and standard equipment, with dual-zone automatic climate control, a multi-function gauge/trip computer, remote keyless entry, power doors, windows, and mirrors, a tilt- and reach-adjustable steering wheel, cruise control, and brightly-backlit "Optitron" main instruments among the standard equipment. Small windows that are nearly invisible from the outside add visibility in the critical lower front-quarter direction. Despite the better-than-car ground clearance, step-in height and seat hip point should pose no difficulties, even for very short people. Worthy of special mention is the center console, with two large compartments that take up its full length and provide hidden storage and a power point and auxiliary audio jack. The glovebox is similarly large, and all door pockets have built-in bottle holders. "Spacious" barely begins to describe the rear seat, with excellent legroom and good headroom. It's split 60/40, and each section can recline a bit or fold flat for cargo duty. Lift height to the cargo area is comparable to that of a minivan, not an SUV, and the space-saver spare tire is under the large, covered cargo area. Power points are strategically located, and rear seat reading lights add convenience. My test example was fully-equipped, with the "Premium Package #2" that includes most of the contents of the other option packages, with leather seating, satin woodgrain trim, power adjustment for the front passenger seat in addition to the driver's, heated front seats, push-button starting, and a backup camera. It also had the navigation system, with a simple touch-screen interface and JBL Synthesis Surround Sound audio system. Very good seat comfort and an entry-luxury level of fitment there.

SAFETY: The Toyota STAR Safety System(tm) is standard in all Venzas. It includes four-wheel antilock disc brakes, brake assist, traction control, vehicle stability control, electronic brake-force distribution, and Hill-Start Assist Control. Front, driver's knee, seat-mounted front side, and full-length side curtain airbags and front active headrests are among the further standard safety items.

RIDE AND HANDLING: A strong, rigid unibody structure that makes much use of high-tensile steel and contributes to the Venza's low center of gravity. Which, with a fully-independent strut-type suspension that is tuned moderately but with good damping, means the comfortable ride Toyota buyers expect, and handling that is better than expected. It's not "sport", and I wouldn't expect any TRD packages, but the Venza AWD is more competent and enjoyable on a good road than your average crossover. Electronic power steering keeps effort light, and the AWD system varies the front/rear power split from pure front-drive most of the time to 50/50.

PERFORMANCE: With 182 horsepower, the Venza's 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine should provide reasonable performance and fuel economy. My test car had the 3.5-liter V6. With 268 horsepower (at 6200 rpm) and 246 lb-ft of torque (at 4700 rpm) driving through a six-speed automatic transmission, there is no power shortage. VVT-i variable cam phasing on both intake and exhaust camshafts and other internal improvements compared to earlier versions allow it to be powerful, low in emissions, and reasonably fuel-efficient. In "D", there is plenty of low-end power for effortless driving, and shifting is smooth and uphill/downhill shift logic minimizes shifting on hills and keeps a lower gear for climbing ability or engine braking. Manual-shift mode allows best use of the engine's power if more spirited driving is desired, and the chassis is up to the task.

CONCLUSIONS: Toyota took function and wrapped it in form to create the Venza.

2009 Toyota Venza V6 AWD

Base Price			$ 29,250
Price As Tested			$ 37,394
Engine Type			DOHC 24-valve aluminum alloy V6 with variable
				 cam phasing on all camshafts
Engine Size			3.5 liters / 211 cu. in.
Horsepower			268 @ 6200 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			246 @ 4700 rpm
Transmission			6-speed automatic
Wheelbase / Length		109.3 in. / 189.0 in.
Curb Weight			4045 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		15
Fuel Capacity			17.7 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87-octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires				P245/50 R20 102H Michelin
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc, ABS standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut /
				  independent dual-link strut
Ground clearance		8.1 inches
Drivetrain			transverse front engine, 
				  front or all-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		18 / 25 / 19
0 to 60 mph				est. 7  sec
Towing capacity			3500 lbs with towing package (V6)

Premium Package #2 - includes:
  leather seating surfaces, 4-way power front passenger
  seat with lumbar support, front seat heaters, satin
  mahogany-style woodgrain trim, leather-wrapped
  steering wheel and shift lever, HID headlamps with
  automatic high-beam feature, Smart Key system 
  with push-button start, power rear door with jam
  protection, chrome-accented door handles, back-up
  camera, anti-theft system, color-keyed folding
  heated outside mirrors, windshield wiper de-icer	$ 4,345
Voice-activated touch-screen DVD navigation
  system with JBL Synthesis surround sound
  audio							$ 2,590
Tow Prep Package - includes:
  engine oil cooler, larger radiator fan, heavy-duty
  alternator						$    220
Floor mats and cargo mat				$    269
Deliver and processing fee				$    720

MORE: Toyota Specs, Comparisons and Prices - Toyota Buyers Guide

Click PLAY to watch The Auto Channel's Road Trip with the Toyota Venza