2009 Toyota Venza is one surprisingly slick wagonoid

The wagons we all know, love and grew up with gradually fell out of favor as the minivan took hold in the '80s. Led by Chrysler's practical little boxes, the van became the king of Mt. People Mover, only to be usurped by the SUV, which took the wagon formula and added a heaping dose of machismo. The wagons have all but vanished, and today, both SUVs and minivans resemble Hollywood stars whose salad days are clearly behind them.
The so-called "crossover" is the new king, at least according to marketers who coined the maddeningly broad term, which now applies to everything from large, car-based pseudo-SUVs to what are by all rights traditional wagons, albeit with tall roofs and occasionally all-wheel drive. When Toyota elected to make the Highlander a substantially larger vehicle with three rows of seating, it left a void in its line-up for people seeking a utilitarian five-seater. The lack of a Camry wagon, which has been dead for ages, meant there was an opportunity for Toyota to fill-in the blank with something to compete against the Ford Edge, Nissan Murano and rest of the CUV set. And so we have the Venza.
Surprisingly stylish, particularly for a Toyota, the Venza is essentially the new Camry Wagon. It's derived from the bread-and-butter sedan's architecture and uses its familiar 3.5-liter V6 in its top level trim (a four-cylinder is also offered, and truth be told, we tried to acquire one as a tester. No dice only sixes were available). Toyota's designers were obviously trying to stay away from the traditional Lego-brick wagon profile, and it looks as if they may have had a little fun carving out the Venza. The car's face features an ornate chrome grille that comes across as being a bit Edgy in a Ford sort of way. It's sure to polarize, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Either way, it's not like the other visual sleeping pills that Toyota has pumped out as of late.

In profile, the Venza's slick wagonoid shape is ornamented with bulging wheel arches in front and powerful, rear-drive-looking haunches in back. There's a pronounced indent along the lower portion of the door panels that adds a veneer of muscle to the sheetmetal and keeps the Venza from looking overly slab-sided. The same goes for the wheel package: 20-inchers wrapped in 50-series rubber are standard equipment on the V6. Visually, this makes the Venza look like something you just ripped out of a Hot Wheels blister pack. While the dubs admittedly work well within the overall styling theme, they're certainly not a practical choice for a family capsule. Unassuming buyers will be in for a surprise when it comes time to replace the tires, as 20-inch rubber doesn't come cheap (the four-cylinder buyers are in a similar boat they get 19-inch hoops standard).

Working toward the rear of the car, the angled D-pillar flows down into the rear fender flare, which grabs light and adds some visual interest before terminating at the car's barbed taillamp. Dual polished exhaust tips are both the finishing touch and the visual telltale that there's a bent-six underhood. It's got a great stance overall, but there seems to be one small price to pay for the handsome sheetmetal: it might be hard to keep clean. During its stay with us, the Venza's bodywork excelled at collecting winter road grime on its various undulating surfaces.

Inside, the tarted-up Venza tries to play the Lexus-lite card. The tan leather seats are accented with dark, contrast piping; the black instrument panel has a soft-touch "give" to it; and driver instrumentation is very straightforward. The other interior plastics are simply okay. Most of the important spots look and feel fine, but some elements the little change drawer above the driver's left leg comes to mind smack of chintz. Secondary info (trip computer, climate settings, etc.) is found within a bright, legible LCD screen mounted high on the dash. Since our tester was loaded, the audio system added a second multifunction nav/phone/radio touchscreen.

All of the other important controls are mounted within arm's reach on the center stack. The shifter sits to the left and the climate controls sit immediately to its right. One nitpick: we kept reaching for the oversized main temperature dial, thinking it was the audio system's volume control. Ultimately, we overcame this habit by forcing ourselves to use the steering-wheel controls for the audio system whenever possible. Still, the temp dial's size and placement in the center stack really makes it look like a volume control, particularly at night.
Below the HVAC interface, you'll find a spring-loaded device holder designed to secure your MP3 player or phone. There's a rudimentary cable-management system included, which allows you to run a basic auxiliary lead from the device to the jack located in the capacious center console storage bin without cluttering up the console area. Be advised: it's just a basic AUX jack no USB so if you run your iPod, you'll still have to manage song selection from the device.

We found that our Blackberry Curve fit nicely in the cubby, but there was one occasion when it spontaneously launched itself from the holder and clattered into the passenger footwell. The car's Bluetooth connection meant it didn't make a difference, but it was annoying nonetheless. The entire center console surface, cupholders and all, slides back to allow access into the aforementioned storage compartment and there's a second bin under the armrest. In short, you can stow a lot of junk in the space between the front seats.
Piloting the Venza is a tale in Camriffic inoffensiveness. Road imperfections are soaked up with subdued thumps that might have been even less obtrusive if the wheel/tire package didn't hail from Dub City. The 268-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 propels the AWD Venza's two-ton mass without breaking a sweat. Power delivery isn't a problem, and the corporate six is smooth enough. You can manually shift the Venza's six-speed auto, but doing so doesn't appreciably spice things up and feels out-of-character for this vehicle. Steering effort is predictably low, yet the Venza still responds to inputs quickly. It makes for a pleasant, if unexciting, drive and a little less Novocaine would make it better still.

We took the car out in some pretty sloppy, snowy Connecticut weather, and it handled the rotten conditions with aplomb. That said, the traction-control electro-nanny isn't shy about making her presence known, and when the going gets slippery, she likes to blink angrily at you with her shame-on-you light in the gauge cluster. On dry pavement, the Venza behaves itself just as you'd expect. Push it in the corners, you find a helping of body roll and understeer. Trundle about town hitting the grocery store and returning the kids' books to the library, and it's the teacher's pet. It's a Toyota you know what you're getting here. Prospective Venza mommies hoping to unleash their inner Danicas should look elsewhere.

Seating up front is plush, if not especially supportive. Backseat passengers have comfortable legroom and bright surroundings especially with the pricey, optional panoramic roof option, which parks a second, fixed glass panel overhead. As for hauling duties, you can pack a little over 34 cubic feet of groceries and whatnot behind the rear seats. Bulkier stuff, like large boxes, will likely force you to fold down at least one part of the split second row an exercise made exceptionally simple thanks to doorhandle-style releases mounted on the sides of the cargo bay. With the second row flattened out, interior cargo volume jumps to a little over 70 cubic feet which, according to a Venza commercial we saw on TV, appears to easily accommodate a pair of beautifully-groomed golden retrievers.

Our all-wheel-drive V6 Venza started at $29,250 and got expensive in a hurry. It was loaded: fancy panoramic roof, leather, JBL premium audio, navigation, etc. All of that kit worked out to a rather off-putting $38,493 bottom line. (A copy of the Monroney is in the accompanying photo gallery.) As you're probably aware, that kind of scratch can put you into something bigger and/or more practical if those are your priorities. You can also just as easily spend less and get similar to equal utility.

Admittedly, our Venza's option packages were very pricey $4,345 for the Premium Package, another $2,590 for the upgraded audio and navigation system, and yet another $1,050 for the panoramic roof. The Venza's a classy, good-looking, and enjoyable wagon, but our car's lofty as-tested price simply makes it tough to swallow. Is it worthy of your consideration? Absolutely if you can exercise enough restraint to keep the options in check. Otherwise, once you get to the higher end of the scale, you run into some solid competitors. This makes the Venza less of a slam dunk and more like a pretty lay-up.