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2010 Toyota Venza Road Trip Review

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SEE ALSO: Toyota Buyers Guide
SEE ALSO:E-Carmony: Is a Toyota Venza Your Perfect Match?

A History Tour in a Great Traveling Car
By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

It’s a great time to get out of town this week. Halloween fills the streets with kids cruising for free sweets, and Election Day caps off the dirty business of politics . . . finally. So we’re escaping both those annoyances on the road to North Carolina in a nice, red 2010 Toyota Venza with our frequent traveling companions Rick and Kim.

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I’m not quite sure what we call the Venza but it’s a great vehicle on a road trip for four. Is it a crossover, a van, a station wagon, an SUV, . . . what? It sort of replaces the Camry station wagon but it’s bigger than that. It’s almost the size of a Highlander but more car-like. Based on the Camry platform with the same wheelbase, it has more the dimensions of the Highlander but lower to the ground. Whatever we call it (and, does it matter really?) it’s a roomy, competent, stylish, practical vehicle.

Venza is a five-passenger, five-door wagon that comes powered by either a 2.7-liter four or 3.5-liter six-cylinder engine, and in either front- or all-wheel drive. Competing head-to-head with the likes of Nissan Murano, Ford Edge and the new Honda Crosstour, Venza is priced from about $26,500 to about $30,000 with impressive standard content. The all-wheel drive option will cost about $1,300 extra.

Our road trip to coastal North Carolina is this year’s installment of what has become our annual fall trip with my pretty bride’s brother Rick and sister-in-law Kim. We just pick a place we haven’t visited together before and book a time-share condo. Brother Rick likes history and Kim just likes to travel, so New Bern, a 14-hour drive away, sounded like a fun place. Located about 50 miles up the Neuse River from Atlantic Beach, New Bern boasts a complex of restored and reconstructed buildings dating back to the early 1700s.

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We have the all-wheel drive, V6-powered Venza. It comes standard with huge 20-inch, five-spoke alloy wheels (the 4-cylinder model comes with 19-inchers) that make for a dramatic appearance complimenting the attractive exterior styling. The front looks Camry-like and the rear resembles the new Sienna minivan. The sides are sculpted with character lines running upward to the rear for a dynamic look. Headlight and taillight housings are slanted rearward and forward respectively reflecting an up-to-date style. It almost looks like a minivan with its high roofline.

While I could have easily driven straight through to North Carolina from our Michigan base we decided to stay somewhere near Roanoke, Virginia to break up the drive and explore - maybe even shunpike a bit. So we turned east off I-77 onto I-64 then south onto Highway 113, the road from Crow to Roanoke. That 60-mile stretch was glorious. It’s obvious these people profoundly appreciate their old cars, we concluded, as we saw great examples everywhere. Also along this twisty route we discovered a variety of great old buildings in the little towns. It appears this was once a main thoroughfare and some great structures survive. It is easy to visualize horse-drawn buggies plying dirt paths between these villages.

Well paved with constant twists and turns climbing over at least two high passes, Highway 113 was a great test of the Venza’s handling. Fully independent suspension with conventional struts and stabilizer bars both fore and aft made for smooth, predictable transitions from left to right and back again as we challenged these roads nearly making Kim motion sick. The electric power steering felt entirely normal with just modest on-center feel. While no one would accuse Venza of being a sports car it is plenty competent with spring rates and suspension tuning about what we’d expect from this nice people-hauler.

We have 268 horsepower on tap with this 3.5-liter V6 and it makes a decent 246 pound-feet of torque mated to a smooth 6-speed automatic with a manual mode. I never felt like I needed more grunt. Even at higher rpms the engine pulled strongly and sounded sophisticated – no whining or thrashing. Rated at 18-mpg in the city and 25 on the highway the mileage is reasonable. The trip computer was not zeroed when the car was delivered and I see that it has been averaging 23.2-mpg, but we don’t know what kind of driving resulted in that number. We’ll reset it and get an average for this trip.

The town of New Bern, on the estuary called the Neuse River, is celebrating its 300th anniversary this year. It is the site of the first permanent settlement of Europeans in North Carolina and the reconstructed Governor’s Palace is the centerpiece of the historic district. Along with a half dozen surrounding historic homes we find interpreters and guides to tell the fascinating stories of the people and the history that made New Bern significant.

In downtown New Bern we found a great hardware store where we discovered lots of old things we remember from childhood but didn’t realize were still out there, like Fels Naptha soap, stamped metal toys and the dairyman’s tried-and-true bag balm. I bought some framing hardware at prices better than I can find at the discount stores at home.

We also took time for a leisurely sail on the river in a two-masted sailboat. The owner, Malinda, single handedly managed her 42-foot sale boat called Nirvana with adeptness that supports her claim to have been sailing since age 8. The afternoon was sunny and cool with brisk winds giving us a feel for this sport.

A leisurely drive up the Outer Banks filled our agenda mid week. It made for a mighty long day, though. From New Bern it takes a good two hours to make it to the tip of the peninsula east of Morehead City to catch the first car ferry of the day (7:30 am) from Cedar Island, across Pamlico Sound to the southern tip of Ocracoke Island. We had to leave two hours before first light and made it with five minutes to spare.

Of course, highlights of the Outer Banks include famous lighthouses, the most famous is the one at Cape Hatteras that was moved a quarter mile back from its original location in one of the most amazing engineering feats of modern times. We finished our drive at the National Park near Kitty Hawk dedicated to the Wright Brothers glider experiments and first flight. Along the Outer Banks we pulled off the long straight road to soak up the breezy Atlantic shore. A leisurely dinner at Manteo preceded the cross country drive back to New Bern and we were treated to a spectacular sunset as we crossed the estuary just west of town.

The Venza really stands out in this touring mode. Easy ingress and egress through large doors, an easy step in and out without having to step up or down, and generous, comfortable seats with plenty of room for cargo set it apart from most SUVs and regular sedans.

South of New Bern we drove through the160,000-acre Croatan National Forest where Native Americans once hunted and now the Venus fly-trap awaits its pray. The previous day’s rain left the white dirt road a bit messy and rife with chatter bumps. We got to test the tightness and compliance of Venza’s suspension on these washboard roads. This is not its forte. We experienced some unexpected rattles and the ride became coarse but these were terrible roads, after all. We found it mighty noisy inside as well. Though on normal roads it seemed as quiet as any car.

With our last few free hours we explored the Pamlico Peninsula just east of New Bern along Highway 55. The jagged coastline is dotted with a half dozen fishing villages where tourist don’t normally go. We wonder what it would be like to live there along the quiet, scenic, country two-lanes.

It was certainly a shame to leave after only a week. The power lift gate in the rear made it handy to load all our stuff into the 34.4 cubic-feet of cargo space behind the second seat. If we flip the seatbacks down making a flat floor we’d have a good 70 cubic-feet – but where would Rick and Kim sit? Interior volume ranks in the middle of the competition.

Our rear seat passengers reported being comfortable back there. They have a fold-down armrest in the center with a pair of cup holders integrated therein. Above, they have a DVD player but we brought no DVDs to entertain them. A vent in the rear of the front console allows them to share - or not share - our HVAC from the front.

Up front, we found the controls, gauges and conveniences as good as any we’ve tested. Once I realized the HVAC readout was high on the dash, just under the windshield, I had no trouble acclimating to the cockpit and managing all the functions.

We finished up with an average of 23.6-mpg. We seemed to be filling the fuel tank a lot usually adding about 13 gallons at a time into what we found to be a 17.7 gallon tank. I think the bottom ╝ tank is bigger than the top. Considering our driving style, the power available and our demands on the car that’s pretty good mileage for a 3,700-pound cruiser, and it’s good for an average 350-mile range.

So, I guess we can say it’s somewhere between an SUV and a sedan, but not a typical crossover.

Let’s just call it a fine traveling wagon.

ęSteve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved