North Vancouver, British Columbia – Those of you who can remember when the first Toyota Camrys were sold in Canada may recall that the first-generation model (1982-1987) was available as a four-door hatchback as well as a four-door sedan. The second-generation Camry (1988 -1991) dropped the hatchback bodystyle in favour of a station wagon, which continued briefly with the restyled third generation Camry wagon (1992-1996).
But after that, Toyota discontinued Camry wagons in North America, likely due to the rising popularity of their modern-day replacements: minivans and SUVs.
Today, wagons are making a comeback – but they’ve been re-packaged as “crossover vehicles” with taller bodystyles, bigger wheels, fancier interiors, available all-wheel drive, and a sportier image. While station wagons are seen as boring “soccer Mom” vehicles, crossover vehicles add perceived style and luxury to the basic utility of a four-door wagon.
All-new for 2009, the Toyota Venza is the modern-day evolution of the Camry wagon. It uses the current Camry’s unit body platform and available 4-cylinder and V6 powertrains but adds a distinctive new bodystyle that’s about 155 mm (6.1 in.) taller and 85 mm (3.3 in.) wider, with extra-large wheels and tires, and a completely new interior design.
The base powertrain is a 182-hp 2.7-litre four-cylinder engine mated to a standard six-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode; optional is Toyota’s powerful 268-hp 3.5-litre V6 engine with the same transmission. Front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive are available with either engine – an advantage over the Camry sedan which is not available with all-wheel drive.
The four-cylinder Venza ($28,900 FWD, $30,350 AWD) comes with a lot of standard equipment, including large 19-inch all-season tires and alloy wheels, rear spoiler, front fog lamps, premium cloth seats, eight-way power driver’s seat, dual-zone automatic climate control, six-CD/MP3/WMA stereo with auxiliary and USB input and XM satellite radio, power windows and door locks with keyless entry, tilt and telescopic wheel with audio controls, information display, cruise control, heated mirrors, rear privacy glass, variable intermittent wipers with windshield de-icer, rear wiper, 60/40 split-folding reclining rear seatbacks, sliding cargo cover, seven airbags including a driver’s knee airbag, and active front head restraints.
The Venza V6 model ($30,600 FWD, $32,050 AWD) adds the 268-hp 3.5-litre V6, standard 20-inch tires and wheels, and dual exhausts, but is otherwise the same as the four-cylinder model. Certain option packages can be added with such niceties as leather upholstery, premium JBL audio system, navigation system and panoramic sunroof, but my four-cylinder tester had no options, and its as-tested price came to $30,490 including freight and excise tax.
I normally leave styling judgements to the reader, but the Venza’s unique design deserves a few comments. Its tires and wheels are enormous – it wasn’t that long ago that 19 and 20-inch wheels and tires were only found on concept cars and blinged-out Hummers. Though large, they do look proportional to the Venza’s tall bodystyle. However, replacement tires and wheels of this size are expensive, and snow tires and winter rims wouldn’t be cheap either – if you can find them. I’d inquire with the dealer before buying the car.
The other distinctive feature of the Venza is its cheese-grater stainless-steel grille and large Toyota logo on the front of the hood – I have to wonder what the designers were thinking. The Venza also has very high window ledges, large doors, a rear roof spoiler, and a sloping rear window more like a hatchback.
Though it’s a mid-sized vehicle, the Venza looks and feels bigger.
As mentioned, the Venza’s large doors make it easy to get in and out of and there is generous headroom and legroom in the front and rear seats. In fact, rear legroom is like a limousine. A folding centre armrest in the rear includes two cupholders.
The front buckets are wide and comfortable and the driver’s seat includes standard power height and lumbar adjustment, but the front passenger seat is manually adjusted. A power front passenger seat is available as an option. Step-in height is low, and the driving position is taller than in a car but not as high as in an SUV. The vinyl-covered steering wheel has a manual tilt and telescoping adjustment to help drivers of all sizes find a comfortable driving position.
The quality of the interior materials is a grade higher than the Camry sedan – the Venza’s textured two-tone dash plastic, the warm wood-like console trim, silver trim accents, and unusual cloth seats with minute silver stripes in the seat inserts all add up to a rich-looking interior. My only reservation is the light colour of the seats in my test car – they’re bound to get soiled, particularly if young children are being transported. Thank goodness the floor carpets are black.
I was impressed with the Venza’s large gauge cluster which includes a large central speedometer with attractive blue and white backlighting and large, easy-to-view numerals. The speedometer is flanked by a tachometer and transmission gear indicator on the left and fuel/coolant gauges on the right. I found these instruments easy to read, day or night.
In the centre of the dashtop is a white-on-black digital display with the time, outside temperature, fan speed, ventilation function, and information such as average speed, average fuel economy, current fuel consumption, and driving range, in U.S. or metric numbers. Its large script is easy to see from the driver’s seat.
The Venza’s protruding instrument panel is integrated with the centre console creating a wall between the driver and front passenger, and the transmission shift lever is positioned unusually high up and close to the driver for easier reach.
Perhaps the most interesting interior design feature of the Venza is its interconnected storage compartments that contain holes for charger cords and iPod wires so that they can be connected to hidden powerpoints and auxiliary jacks. For example, the small slot next to the shift lever can be used to hold a PDA, cell phone or music player where it can be seen, while its charging cord is fed through a slot underneath it to a hidden storage bin where the 12-volt charger and auxiliary jack are. These are located underneath the sliding cover that includes two cupholders. However, there is no USB port.
Other storage areas are under the padded, sliding centre armrest, the glovebox, door pockets and a flip-down coin tray near the door.
The Venza’s audio system includes six speakers and a six-disc CD changer that accepts MP3/WMA discs, and standard XM satellite radio with a limited time subscription. This standard audio system provides more than adequate sound quality for most buyers.
Though there are separate driver and front passenger temperature controls, the driver’s dial is much larger than the passenger’s – probably because it can be used to operate both sides at once. But it looks odd.
The Venza’s 60/40 split folding rear seatbacks can be released from the cargo area using two levers in the walls. They fold down almost flat to create a long, wide cargo area. Cargo room behind the rear seats is 870 litres (30.7 cu. ft.), and with both rear seatbacks folded down, it increases to 1990 litres (70.1 cu. ft.). (AWD models have slightly less cargo room because of the AWD hardware.) A sliding privacy cover for the cargo compartment can be removed when large items are being transported.
Unlike some of its competitors, the Venza doesn’t offer a third row of seats. Given the interior space available, a third row would likely be very cramped anyway.
The rear hatch opening is wide and tall, but the liftover height is fairly high. As with the seats, the light-coloured carpets and light-coloured plastic side walls are likely to get dirty and scratched within a year.
Underneath the trunk floor carpet is a removeable ribbed plastic floor, under which sits a temporary spare tire. In addition, there are two under-floor storage areas behind the rear wheelwells where the jack and cargo net are kept.
The Venza driver sits higher up than in a Camry but lower than in a Highlander. Visibility is good to the front and sides, but the rear view is partially blocked by the Venza’s thick rear side pillar which makes lane-changing more difficult. A small side window at the rear helps, but it’s not really big enough. The centre rear head restraint sits flush with the seat top so as not to impede the view through the rearview mirror.
The Venza feels substantial going down the road – it weighs 200 kg (440 lbs) more than a Camry sedan – but with its long wheelbase, big tires and fully independent suspension, it offers a comfortable ride and excellent highway manners. Still, the suspension is a bit stiff over rough roads. Handling though, is surprisingly flat for such a tall vehicle with a generous ground clearance of 205 mm (8.1 in.).
Given the Venza’s 1705 kg (3760 kg) curb weight, I was pleasantly surprised at the performance of the base 182-hp 2.7-litre four-cylinder engine, despite the fact that its zero to 100 km/h time averages close to ten seconds. It’s not the powerhouse that the V6 is, but it is quick off the line, and the Venza’s responsive six-speed automatic transmission helps keep the engine’s revs up when a little acceleration is required. In addition, the manual mode can be used in situations where there is a full load of people and cargo on board.
Unlike the smooth V6, the four-cylinder engine is a little buzzy on acceleration but it’s mostly noise – there’s very little vibration. When cruising on the freeway at a steady 100 km/h, the engine turns over just 1,900 r.p.m. and is very quiet. I experienced some tire noise from its standard Bridgestone Dueler 245/55R19-inch all-season tires but that may have been because the engine was so quiet.
Energuide fuel consumption is rated at 10.0 L/100 km city and 6.8 L/100 km highway, compared to the Venza V6 with 11/7.6 L/100 km city/hwy.
Steering effort is very light around town, which helps when parking, but the Venza’s poor rear visibility and lack of sonic parking sensors makes it difficult to parallel park. The standard rear wiper (with intermittent setting) and washer will certainly come in handy once winter hits.
Though a big vehicle, the Venza is easy to drive and very roomy and comfortable inside. It would be ideal for a family with teenagers who need more rear seat legroom than a standard sedan offers, and generous cargo space for recreational and sports equipment.
Competitors with four-cylinder engines are few and far between: the recently redesigned 2010 Subaru Outback would probably be the closest as well as SUV-like crossovers such as the 2010 Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain.
The Toyota Venza with a four-cylinder engine offers better fuel economy than the V6 model, while offering acceptable performance. But it’s a large vehicle that feels bigger and heavier over the road than traditional mid-size wagons.