2009 Toyota Venza AWD V6 Review
By Chris Haak
I was in Detroit earlier this year when the Venza made its debut. At the time, Toyota hyped it as a “crossover sedan,” but it’s obviously just a car-based crossover tilted more toward the car/station wagon end of the spectrum, as opposed to offerings like the Honda Pilot on the more truck-like end. I frankly thought that the hype around this vehicle – which is yet another rebodied version of the Toyota Camry (adding the roster that includes the Camry itself, the Highlander, Sienna, Avalon, and now-departed Solara coupe) – was excessive.
Toyota has certainly taken criticisms about its lack of styling boldness to heart over the past few years, and the Venza is probably one of the more attractive shapes to come from the company’s design studios over the past several years. There seems to be a lot of debate about what category the Venza falls under, but really – who cares?
To me, it looks all right (better than the other vehicles from which its platform is derived) with aggressively large wheels, Buick-like “hips” bulging from the rear doors into the rear quarter panels, a bulging set of front fenders, and a giant moonroof that covers nearly the entire roof surface. The bottom line is that I’m probably not in a demographic that the Venza targets, but after spending a week and a half with one provided by Toyota for evaluation, I came to appreciate what a comfortable vehicle it is.
Aside from a few relatively minor gripes, I really came to like the Venza’s interior. I appreciate the fact that Toyota sweated the small stuff, like attractive low-sheen wood on the instrument panel, a wide cabin for chubby American rear ends, ample rear-seat space, and the trick MP3 player holder with a hollow bottom that allowed the USB cable to be routed out of sight into its jack in the center console. The giant dual sunroofs allow plenty of light into the car on sunny days, which make the Venza feel even more spacious.
On the downside, the upward-angled installation of the navigation screen and the giant hole in the roof conspire to create some of the worst navigation-screen glare that I’ve ever encountered. Also, more than half of the door panels and dashboard are constructed of hard, tan plastic. The charcoal-colored section at the top of the dash is soft to the touch, and overall, the Venza’s interior restored some confidence in Toyota interiors that I had lost after seeing their efforts in the Camry Hybrid, Highlander, and Tundra.
The car’s high-style theme continued to the seats themselves. The tan leather on the seating surfaces is textured with an interesting pattern, somewhat reminiscent of woodgrain, that matches the texture of the plastic on the lower dash and the horn button (as well as in the Prius), and the seats have contrasting-color piping on the four outboard positions. There are ample storage compartments in the Venza, including pockets in all four doors, a huge console with flexible configuration options, a large glove box, numerous nooks in the cargo area, and a pocket on the right side of the center console.
The Venza is the first vehicle I’ve tested in which I was able to try out Bluetooth streaming audio. Once properly paired (no small feat, as I later found out), certain audio players capable of streaming Bluetooth audio are capable of playing music on the Venza’s stereo wirelessly. Although I already had my iPhone paired with the Venza for phone calls, using Bluetooth audio required a second pairing process that was less-than-obvious. Nearly every Bluetooth (phone)-equipped car that I’ve tested has been simple enough to pair without digging out the owner’s manual, but I had to surrender and wave the white flag to get Bluetooth audio to work. After finally finding the proper menu on the navigation screen, it worked very well. On the iPhone, it was only able to play or pause the music, with the iPhone handling the actual track selection. Based on some photos in the manual, it appears that other devices have the ability to transmit song metadata to the Venza’s display as well as allowing moving to the previous or next track without touching the player.
Other infotainment options in the my Venza test vehicle included AM/FM/XM Satellite radio, a 4-disc CD changer, and auxiliary input. The auxiliary input could be in the form of either an analog 1/8 inch stereo jack or a USB cable. Connecting an iPod or iPhone via USB cable allows a digital connection to the car, charges the device, displays song and artist data on the navigation screen, and allows control of the device using steering wheel buttons or the navigation system’s touchscreen. The sound is enriched by a 13-speaker JBL system that sounded about average to my non-audiophile ears.
I was pleasantly surprised by the Venza’s observed fuel economy – 19.9 mpg – in over 200 miles of mixed driving. The EPA rates the AWD V6 model at 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway. When Autosavant reviewed the AWD four cylinder Venza a few weeks ago, we also observed about 20 mpg. The difference is likely that the four-banger requires a heavy throttle foot, while the V6 model has ample power. Apparently, reasonable throttle application in the V6 model yields similar fuel economy figures than a beaten and bloodied I4 gas pedal does, but without the driver frustration from the sloth-like four cylinder. Actually, I almost hate myself for saying this, but the corporate 3.5 liter V6 might almost be too much engine for the Venza. It’s a shame that Toyota doesn’t offer something like a 3-liter V6 as a mid-level engine choice, so customers could have a reasonably economical choice between the I4 and 3.5 liter V6 that still has V6 levels of refinement. The 3.5 liter V6 in the Venza application is more sprightly than it is in a Sienna, but not as much so as in a RAV4 V6, which may be the fastest application of that version of the engine aside from the Lotus Evora.
The as-tested price of my test vehicle, including destination charge, was $38,493. That included a $29,250 base price, the $4,345 Premium Package #2 (leather seats, heated front seats, satin mahogany woodgrain, HID headlamps, smart key system, backup camera, and power rear door), the $2,590 navigation system (includes JBL premium audio, Bluetooth phone and stereo), $1,050 panoramic glass roof, $220 tow package, $269 floor mats, and $49 cargo net. The destination charge is $720 and the Venza is built in Georgetown, Ky. Relative to its most obvious competitor – the Nissan Murano – the Venza is about $1,500 cheaper when accounting for equipment differences. Dimensionally, the Venza is remarkably close to the Murano, with most measurements within an inch of each other. The exceptions are the Murano’s superior cargo volume with all seats folded (81.6 vs. 70.1 cubic feet) and the Venza’s superior rear legroom (39.1 vs. 36.3 inches – and it was much-appreciated!)
As alluded to earlier, the Venza AWD V6 has a fairly strong engine for its size and weight. The Toyota corporate V6 is a strong one, although I’d rank it somewhere between Honda’s and Nissan’s V6s in terms of refinement and smoothness (with Honda being the most smooth). It’s quieter than the GM 3.6 liter V6, but perhaps slightly less smooth – not a problem, just something that I’ve observed. The six-speed automatic is a welcome dance partner with the 3.5 liter V6. It shifted smoothly and usually seemed to be in the proper gear. The transmission also has a manual shift gate with a +/- selector gate. Don’t be fooled into thinking this makes the Venza sporty; it is not a sporty vehicle, period. It doesn’t like to be downshifted so that the engine revs too much (you get a series of beeps instead of the gear that you asked for) and it refuses to hold a gear to the redline, but just shifts to the next gear in those situations. While we’re on the subject of performance driving, traction control cannot be turned off except when the vehicle is stopped, and it turns itself back on quickly even after being deactivated.
Driving behavior is reminiscent of a taller, heavier Camry. The Venza more or less drives like a car, except the car it drives like is a chubby one with giant wheels. The 20 inch wheels, while they look great proportionately, are too big for this application, and going over expansion strips or bumps tend to make their presence known in the form of loud thumps. Driving the Venza, I often had the sensation that the wheels were heavy – and they are heavier than they probably need to be. Steering feel is Sienna-numb, and the brakes don’t want to lock the wheels on a dry road in spite of very hard pedal pressure.
But the Venza isn’t designed to be a sports sedan. I’d be missing the point if I dinged the Venza too harshly for its lack of performance driving credentials. The fact is, it was a comfortable vehicle for a pair of empty-nesters to use for shuttling themselves and two friends to dinner and a night at the theater. The passenger compartment is spacious enough, and the seats reasonably comfortable, so that even big guys like me (6’4″, 190 pounds) can fit into any seating position comfortably. For the likely Venza buyer, comfort is probably what it’s all about.
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