2009 Toyota Venza – The Optimized Car
We had the opportunity to drive the all new Toyota Venza in the Laurel Highlands of Western Pennsylvania at the height of the fall color change. The venue – the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Farmington, PA was an outstanding venue surrounded by fun to drive roads allowing a quick stop at Fallingwater a 1930s era home designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Optimized Car
But that’s beside the point. The 5-passenger Venza is described by Toyota brass as “The Optimized Car”. It is a two box derivative of the Toyota Highlander Crossover SUV and the Toyota Camry Premium Mid-Size Sedan – the best selling vehicle in the USA at the moment. By “Optimized Car” Toyota means that Venza has easy ingress/egress, good visibility, chair-like seating, available all wheel drive and a spacious cargo area behind the fold down second row seat.
But is it a car? We don’t think so… read on
Not a Car, but a Premium Mid-Size Crossover SUV
Toyota is describing the Venza as a car, but it is either a station wagon or a Crossover SUV in our eyes. As all manufacturers are doing these days, Toyota is avoiding the use of the “station wagon” descriptor because folks simply don’t buy station wagons anymore. They are also avoiding calling Venza a Crossover SUV because it would then compete with about 60 other relatively new Crossover SUVs. So, you certainly understand that Toyota is trying to get some white space in which they can position the Venza. Nothing wrong with that.
But look at the vehicle itself. Its styling is an attractive two box shape with a fast windshield and liftgate. If it were a “car” we’d expect a trunk not a generous cargo area. So Venza is either a wagon or SUV, right? Toyota has certified the Venza as a truck with the government. When asked why, Michihiki Sato, Venza’s Chief Engineer said, “It was automatic that Venza be a truck. I never considered anything else.” “After all,” he said, “Venza has a Highlander front floor pan, front suspension and all wheel drive system, so we classed it as a truck.” Which brings us to the platform. Highlander front floor pan (truck), Highlander suspension front and rear (truck), Highlander all wheel drive system (truck), Camry center floor pan (car) and unique rear floor pan (whatever). So, we’d call it a Premium Mid-Size Crossover SUV, right?
Why are we making a big deal out of this? Well, Chrysler tried to define a segment with the Pacifica (Sports Tourer) and failed. Mercedes tried with the R-Class (Grand Sports Tourer) and failed. Customers want vehicles they can at-a-glance slot into a product category and at-a-glance, Venza is either a wagon or an SUV. Wagon is death, so SUV is should be.
The challenge this presents is how will Toyota communicate this to its prospective buyer base? Not an insurmountable challenge, but a challenge nonetheless because the idea is a bit esoteric and requires more thinking that many buyers would put into it.
Enough of that. Lets talk about Venza.
Living With Venza – On the Money
Venza is a 5-passenger four door vehicle based on Highlander and Camry components. It has an open rear cargo area with a liftgate that allows a wide variety of “stuff” to be carried. The Venza has one trim level, two powertrains, and is available with all wheel drive.
I drove both the top of the line Venza V6 AWD and the Venza 4-cylinder FWD. The V6 was equipped with all the available packages including Navigation System, leather interior trim, etc. The 4-cylinder was base, base, base – no options. This is an outstanding comparison because carmakers seldom allow us to experience the truly base vehicle. Lets talk about the 4-cylinder model first. Powered by Toyota’s new 2.7L double overhead cam 170-horsepower 4-cylinder (shared with the Highlander for 2009), the Venza has very acceptable performance. It is relatively quick, light on its feet on the great roads in Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, quiet and comfortable. No complaints except that, having become used to more bells and whistles, I wanted the Navigation System with backup camera. The only downside is engine sound under throttle. The 2.7 sounds kind of like a blender. At about $26,000, the 4-cylinder is a lot of car for the money (alright, I said car, but I don’t mean it).
The V6 AWD is right on the money. Good response from the 3.5L double overhead cam V6 with 268-horsepower. The vehicle is fast, quiet, effortless, comfortable. The Venza nav system is typical Toyota, good but not state-of-the-art. It is easy to program, but doesn’t have the wider capabilities found in some of the more recent systems such as that from Ford and Cadillac. For the low $30,000s with all the boxes checked, the Venza V6 AWD is all the car most people will need.
Overall, Venza represents a very good value for the money and how dealers might price the vehicle given these economic times and the state of the auto industry should be even more attractive.
Does Venza Meet Toyota’s Objectives?
How does the Venza live up to Toyota’s objectives? Well, it does have good visibility. The rear seat is spacious and easy to get into and out of. The cargo area is generous. The driver and front passenger ergonomics are outstanding and the instrument cluster is very innovative without being weird and it is very easy to read. The center console is one of the best in the business being configurable in many different ways.
On the negative side, the front seats are not as easy to get into and out of as Toyota would like you to believe. The A-Pillar is too fast and intrudes in the door opening. For my taste, I would have opted for a slightly stiffer A-Pillar. This same design puts the windshield header too close to my forehead for comfort even though I use a rearward seat position.
Toyota hopes to sell about 60,000 Venza’s each year once the market comes around. This is not an unreasonable objective. Before the meltdown, AutoPacific was forecasting Venza sales over 80,000 units per year so this shows that Toyota has become a bit more conservative in their hopes for the vehicle?