Road Trip: 2009 Toyota Venza a few refinements short of a great ride
2009 Toyota Venza – Click above for high-res image gallery
Earlier this spring, our own Alex Nunez reviewed Toyota's latest crossover type thingy, the Venza, and came away rather impressed. I do a fair bit of traveling for my day job, which usually entails schlepping a sizable amount of video equipment around. Typically we pack up our A/V gear and FedEx it to a location since airlines charge so much for extra baggage and won't guarantee arrival times. For one of our recent trips, however, we decided to hit the road and venture from our Ann Arbor offices down to western South Carolina. As it happened, a Venza was available for duty and appeared to be well-suited to the task at hand.
We loaded up cameras, tripods, microphones and other miscellanea before heading due south on US-23 for Ohio and parts beyond. Our Venza was finished in a unique Sunset Bronze Mica color with the same ivory leather interior that we sampled previously. Under the hood was also the same 3.5-liter V6 engine that we've enjoyed in numerous Lexus and Toyota vehicles with torque going to all four wheels via Toyota's all-wheel-drive system.
As Nunez described, the Venza doesn't really fit in the typical crossover category because it's taller than a typical wagon yet shorter than vehicles like the Ford Edge or Chevrolet Equinox. It's more like a tall Camry wagon than anything else – which, at least in theory – is just ducky by us. Find out how the Venza fared on our road trip odyssey after the jump.
As a jacked-up wagon, the Venza features similar elevated seating to what you would find in a Ford Flex or Lincoln MKT, but not as high as in Toyota's own Highlander or a Chevrolet Traverse. That makes getting in and out of the Venza easy, without a perceptible step up or drop down to negotiate. The shape of the seats also aids ingress and egress because the squabs are relatively flat. Unfortunately, this also means they provide minimal lateral support – something that would prove to be a problem. In spite of having an inflatable lumbar support and power adjustments for height and backrest angle, we didn't find the Venza's thrones to be very comfortable or supportive over the long haul. In fact, after only about an hour on the road, we were continuously adjusting our seating positions to alleviate irritation on our spines. I've been on numerous cross-country excursions before and don't have a bad back, yet still wound up feeling sore after several hours on the road, which was an uncomfortable first.
It's particularly unfortunate the seats are so inhospitable because many other elements of the Venza are so good. As we moved south into the hills and mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee, the Venza's 268-horsepower V6 never felt strained and its six-speed automatic transmission was a model of certainty, never hunting around for the right ratio. The driveline seemed utterly relaxed at all times, and pulling out to dispatch semi-trucks on long inclines was never an issue.
After hanging a left at Knoxville, Interstate 40 gets surprisingly twisty as it passes through the Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee. Sure, it's nothing like the canyons of Malibu, California, but it gives more chances to assess a vehicle's dynamic behavior far more than most of America's flat and featureless interstates. While keeping a watchful eye for our friends from the Tennessee and North Carolina highway patrol, we traversed the mountains at similar speeds to those we used in Michigan and Ohio.
Unlike the last Highlander we drove, our Venza had a pleasantly thick, leather-wrapped steering wheel. More importantly, the effort to turn the wheel was not excessively light – and it offered more feedback than we have typically come to expect from Toyota products. We admittedly didn't try to hustle the Venza on any truly tight country roads (several thousand dollars worth of camera equipment kept our inner-hoon in check), but the curves we did encounter were handled confidently and with a bare minimum of drama.
The distinctly competent dynamics of the Venza are also accompanied by surprisingly good fuel economy. Our test subject arrived with all-wheel drive and loaded to the gills with goodies. Despite the added weight of the traction and toys, the Toyota managed to cover 25 miles for every gallon of regular gas we bought over the course of 1,500 miles. That's better than the 23 mpg we observed with a Highlander Hybrid last year. Of course, all of that kit comes at a price – while a front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder Venza starts at just under $26,000, our model priced out at a hefty $38,400 thanks to the addition of a premium package that included an (outrageously overpriced) navigation system and a nice panoramic moonroof.
There is one other issue with our particular Venza that we must address. While its as-tested MSRP was not out of line for its segment, at this price point, you might reasonably expect high build quality. Fortunately, the Venza exhibited exactly zero squeaks or rattles, nor did it betray any signs of chassis flex. However, when you spend the better part of 12 hours sitting in any vehicle, you tend to glance at the dashboard in front of you from time to time. During one of these stretches, our companion noted that the plastic trim around the vent at the base of the passenger-side A-pillar was seriously misaligned. This caused us to look more closely at the rest of the cabin's fitment. It quickly became apparent that there were quite a few visible fit-and-finish issues. The faux wood trim on our model's center console had an almost matte finish, yet the "matching" parts on the armrests were rendered in a comparatively high-gloss finish. The audio/navigation head unit was also slightly misaligned, as were other visible trim pieces. Other nits to pick? Well, if you happen to wear polarized sunglasses, you'll find the Venza's navigation screen becomes all but invisible. At their core, none of these issues truly dented our enjoyment of the Venza's functionality and essential goodness, but for nearly $40 grand, we've been raised to expect better attention-to-detail.
Having said all that, aside from a few assembly question marks, the only aspect that keeps the Venza from earning the status of a truly great road tripper are its mediocre seats. Update the thrones and we'll be happy to have it in the Autoblog Garage for another few thousand miles.
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