Review: 2010 Toyota Venza V6 4×2
By Roger Boylan
The 2010 Toyota Venza is a sleek and stylish SUV crossover with a pseudo-Italian name (a marriage of “venture” + “Monza”), designed to compete head-to-head with a sleek and stylish SUV crossover bearing a genuine Italian name, the Nissan Murano, which has no apparent connection to the eponymous Venetian glassblowing district but which comes closest to wearing the same three-cornered hat of sportiness, utility, and style. The others in this segment, such as the Ford Edge, Chevrolet Equinox, Mazda CX-7, and the new Honda Accord Crosstour, are, if you ask me (and even if you don’t), a step or two behind on the fashion runway, although all are pretty solid contenders. But in the street or the piazza, the Venza’s design stands out, with its bright chrome grille, tapering headlamp clusters, and low front valence containing a wide air dam and embedded fog lamps.
From the side, the Venza’s low rocker panels and tight doorsills evoke a more than passing resemblance to the first-generation Matrix, but on a larger scale that manages to look up-to-date, sleek, and swift. The huge wheels (in the V6 version, 20-inchers shod with 245/50 tires) sit at the corners of the body, contributing to the overall muscular, yet graceful, stance. Swoosh-shaped tail lamps add a sporty touch. It’s an eye-catching design, and it comes courtesy of Toyota’s CALTY Design Research Center in Newport Beach, California. Its Asian DNA is evident, though, in the grinning–almost leering–grille, as if Kabuki demons had a part in its creation.
OK, that’s all pretty subjective stuff, but there’s no denying that this five-seat Camry-sourced crossover (built in the same Georgetown, KY, factory as the Camry) is a breath of fresh air in the Toyota lineup, which, with notable exceptions, such as the late lamented Supra and Celica and the quirky but appealing FJ Cruiser, hasn’t exactly been sparkling with daring design and head-turning style. But my colleagues and family–who must endure my fulminations and enthusiasms when I’m in car-testing mode, and ride and rejoice, or lament, with me in the appointed vehicle–were more appreciative of the Venza’s style than they had been of that of most of my other test subjects, even the splendid Lexus LS460 I drove last week. This could be because the Venza has style and the LS has none–or rather, it has a muted, discreet style that suits its target demographic (rich folks, country clubs, McMansions, etc.).
The Venza’s neighborhood is a different one from that of the Lexus LS (but not too far from its cousin, the Lexus RX350 crossover), and a block or so from that of its stable mate and theoretical competitor the Highlander. The RX, Highlander, and Venza are all based on the same universal-Camry chassis, but of the three, the Venza and drives least like a traditional SUV. With its optional, and actually usable, third-row seat, the Highlander sits in the driveways of affluent middle-class families in which kids and dogs abound, whereas, with less interior space but enough room to accommodate the luggage of two, or even three, dog, on a road trip, the Venza’s typical territory would be the empty nesters in those same leafy suburbs.
Base price is around $27,000 for the front-wheel-drive 182-hp four-cylinder Venza, EPA-rated at 21 mpg city, 29 highway, and starting around $29,000 for the front-wheel-drive with the 268-hp V-6 (246-lb. ft. of torque). My test vehicle, a yummy chocolate-brown–sorry, Sunset Bronze Mica–FWD V6, bore a price of $7K over MSRP for options that included leather upholstery, wood trim, power rear door with jam protection, a power moonroof above the front seats (the rear section of the roof is a closed skylight), keyless entry and ignition, xenon headlamps, a power passenger seat, heated front seats, heated mirrors, and a 13-speaker JBL surround-sound audio system with Bluetooth cell phone connectivity and audio streaming. This price could no doubt be negotiated down these days, in the aftermath of the mass recalls and unintended-acceleration scandals. (Venzas were unaffected, except by reports of floor mats sticking, but the brake-override system has been installed on them anyway.)
And although I’ve heard good things about the four-cylinder, the same engine used in the base Highlander, the V6 is so smooth and strong (and familiar to me, after recent road tests of the identically-powered Highlander and 4Runner) that no four-cylinders need apply, as far as I’m concerned. With EPA ratings of 19 mpg city, 26 mpg highway, and an observed combined city/highway average of 22 mpg on regular gas, the differential isn’t great enough to justify getting the four-cylinder, unless you’re in dire straits indeed. Stay with the silky six.
Thus motivated, the Venza would be a pleasure on any road trip, and not just because power is ample even with a full load of five (there’s room for three grownups on the wide, split-folding rear bench); with just me on board, I timed it from 0 to 60 at an respectable 6.8 sec. Too, at 63.4 in. tall, compared to the Murano’s 67-in. height and 66.3 in for the Chevy Equinox, the Venza rides with a lower center of gravity, which helps handling, even on tight Texas Hill Country roads. (Yet the Venza has the highest ground clearance of the bunch: a paradox.) The steering is less than incisive but not overly numb, and road noise is, surprisingly, muted, even with those huge Ben-Hur wheels. The ventilated brakes work as well in sudden situations in the wet (we had a useful Texas-sized downpour one day) as in the dry.
The leather-clad seats are nearly Lexus-comfortable fore and aft, and would likely remain so over the course of a long road trip; however, they lack side bolstering to hold you in place during fast cornering, but that’s OK, because you’re not driving a Lotus, you’re driving a Venza. The wide-opening rear hatch and large cargo floor would also come into their own on any highway odyssey. Fold down the rear seats and you have a useful 70 cu.ft. of cargo space (compared to the Murano’s 64.5 and the Equinox’s 63.7). Safety ratings are top-notch: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rates the 2010 Venza a “Top Safety Pick.” Its safety features include the usual array of airbags–dual front, front side, and side-curtain–as well as a tire-pressure monitoring system, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist, traction and electronic stability control, and hill start assist.
Overall, interior decoration is tasteful, although inclining a bit toward the acres-of-plastic scenario, especially on the huge dashboard, the vast middle expanse of which, like the mausoleum of Hatshepsut, swoops down into a lowered concourse to introduce not a tomb, but the multi-info display on which the driver can check mpg, temperature, distance to empty, etc., and control the HVAC settings (the AC is superb, incidentally, no small consideration here in the semi-tropics). But the effect of the abundant interior plastics is mitigated elsewhere by what Toyota calls the “satin mahogany wood-grain-style interior trim,” a well-mated balance of faux wood and leather, as in the long, narrow center console, which contains an iPod/MP3 holder neatly concealed behind a little door and a huge storage bin (with sliding lid) that in turn contains a 12-volt outlet and an auxiliary audio jack.
To the driver’s lower right, about a quarter of the way up the console, is the transmission shifter, falling easily to hand; thus tempted, I used the manual-shift mode from time to time, more so than in any other vehicle I’ve tested. It was fun to use on hills, but was otherwise limited in scope and inclined to intervene when I got too near redline. Ultimately, I preferred the seamless operation of the six-speed automatic that always seemed to be in the right gear. The speedometer and tachometer are large, clear, and easy to scan, and the controls are admirably logical and easy to use, but I noticed that the display screen could wash out under certain lighting conditions, especially bright sunlight. A small cowling would have taken care of the problem.
All in all, the Venza pretty much aced its test as far as I was concerned. I was sorry to see it go. With over three times the cargo room of a Camry, better gas mileage than a Highlander (not to mention a 4Runner), design panache, and available all-wheel drive, it might just be the answer to a question I didn’t know I was asking all along.