First Drive: 2009 Toyota Venza

2009 Toyota Venza – Click above for high-res image gallery

There's a workout regimen called Crossfit that aims to increase one's abilities in eight different areas. Crossfit doesn't reward the specialist, it rewards the well-rounded; it doesn't create marathoners, it creates decathletes. The point of Crossfit is to allow you to enter any situation with the confidence that you have things like the agility, strength and conditioning to do well. The Toyota Venza has the same ethos: pitched as 70-percent car, 30-percent SUV, the Venza wants to do everything well. And when we say "well", we mean it wants to do everything better than the competition: 10,000 people were leaving Toyota every year to get into something between the Camry and the Highlander, things that ended up being the Ford Edge, Mazda CX-7 and Infiniti FX. The Venza is Toyota's request to those buyers to "Come back to papa." Follow the jump to find out whether you should heed the call.

Photos copyright ©2008 Jonathon Ramsey/Weblogs, Inc.

Toyota calls the Venza "the car, optimized." What occurred to us when we saw it in person is "jacked-up wagon." We won't christen it a JUW because we really don't need any more acronyms for a crossover. Still, that's what we think.

And the reason we think this is because the Venza, unlike some rounder crossovers like the Edge and FX, is more long and narrow than full-bodied. To us, it's closer to the spirit of the Volvo V70 and Audi Allroad than it is to its direct competition. It is also a much better looking vehicle in person than it is in photos, because it is in person that you reap the benefit of all of the car's lines, many of which are simply ironed out in when represented in pixels. And the Venza's rather low height combined with the body's aesthetic 'purpose' allows it to sit on 20s (on the V6 model) like it means it.

In Toyota-speak, the design language is called "Vibrant Clarity". (On a side note, we were told the new Prius and the Venza are the two cars leading the Vibrant Clarity charge.) We don't know exactly what that means, but for us and the Venza, it represents a fair bit of subtle dimension given to the body, and much of it actually works. Up front, there are two short swage lines emanating from the Toyota badge in the hood that you're unlikely to notice until you're standing over them and can see their effect on a reflection. Out back, the rear-quarter area is a herd of lines and angles. The busyness of it, compared to the rest of the car, signals "We've got things going on back here," but it's never raucous, comes together well, and nicely breaks up what might otherwise be a sensation of pure girth.

We're still not the biggest fans of Toyota's I'm-coming-out-at-ya! light design, either front or rear. But in a sign of the brand's commitment to staying true to the concept, the arc of the taillights is called a "hand-drawn line," and it took the engineers a few steaming sessions to figure out how to manufacture it without costing a fortune.

Based on the FT-SX concept at the 2005 Detroit Auto Show, the Venza is the first Toyota to be conceived, designed, developed and engineered entirely in America. The car will be assembled in Kentucky, in the same factory as the Camry, apparently because those guys have got the quality thing down.

Having been custom-created by and for the North American market, it will also only be sold in this quadrant of the world, namely the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico.

Yet for all of the Zesty Lucidity on the outside, the interior and the driving experience are where the story is. Let us, though, first spare a moment for the story of the Venza's name: it is a combination of the word "venture," indicative of the relentlessly seeking habits of the car's intended buyer, and "Monza," the Formula 1 circuit in Italy, indicative of the car's sporting inclinations. We have no further comment, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. It is for you to decide how it shall be judged.

To the interior: the Venza is something like the iPhone and AppStore of CUVs; whatever you want to do, short of stow a side of beef in a walk-in fridge, it's probably in there. The Venza is a little longer (189 inches) and higher (63.4 inches) than a Camry, while slightly lower and shorter than a Highlander. Its platform has three sources: the front is Highlander, the middle is Camry and the rear is Venza-specific.

A car-like entry feeling is created by lower rocker panels that are almost even with the interior floor, and narrow door sills. Interior roominess – especially in the plenty-of-room rear – is created by having concave door panels that arc away from passengers. The sightline is higher than a Camry's, but the rear load-in height is lower.

There are four Big Gulp-sized cupholders and six bottle holders in the car. The center tunnel console area offers a ludicrous number of different positions, and the caverns inside appear to go all the way to the ground. The wire-concealment setup for the auxiliary cable means you can hide the iPod and the cable even while it's hooked up. The high beams detect oncoming vehicles via a sensor in the rearview mirror and automatically switch to low-beam. You can lock and unlock all four doors and the rear hatch by placing your finger on two hash marks on either front door handle. A panoramic roof with power tilt/slide function and a separate fixed glass panel over the rear seats fills the car with all the Let There Be Light you could wish for. The information display on the dash, above the center console, can be customized to adjust the font size and content. The rear seats are 1-touch fold-down, and there's a remote rear seat fold-down latch just in front of the rear hatch. There are also three 12-volt outlets. The navigation voice instructions are available in Spanish, French or English. The seating options are a nice cloth, and a pinstriped leather that, frankly, is above the car's pay grade. And finally finally finally: power windows have an auto up/down function for all four doors. And if you get the tow package, you can pull 3,500 lbs. behind you. If it isn't in there, you really might want to think about whether you need it.

Under the hood is a new 2.7-liter 4-cylinder that drops 182 hp at 5,800 rpm and 182 lb-ft of torque at 4,200 rpm. Those might seem like high rpm numbers, but there is plenty of power to handle everyday situations lower down in the rev range, and even when the 4-cylinder has to grab its hammer and go to work, it works quietly. The optional 3.5-liter V6 gets 268 hp at 6,200 rpm and 246 lb-ft at 4,700 rpm. Both of them send their efforts to either the front wheels or all wheels through a 6-speed, sequential-shift, electronically-controlled automatic transmission.

The twists and turns of the western Pennsylvania countryside were numerous, and we missed a few of the ones we were meant to take because we were taking them all so quickly. The suspension is adept at equalizing the ruthless topographies of uneven, cracked, re-tarred and potholed roads. The steering offers a resistance that is un-Toyota-like: even on the firm side leaning well over into sporting. Road noise simply wasn't a factor, and that was before you got to work on the 13-speaker JBL audio system.

The engines have dispensed with the "good" option and stuck with "better" and "best." The ULEV-II, Tier 2, SULEV-II, California-rated PZEV 4-cylinder pulls the truck up no-laughing-matter grades, even at highway speeds, and does not roar at you about the effort. It will kick down as it needs through any of its six gears, and will keep you on your appointed rounds at your appointed speeds. According to Toyota, if you don't spend all of your time scaling Matterhorn grades, you'll return 20/28 mpg in the AWD version. It's a meaty lump.

The 6-cylinder gets you your meat and a bit of fat for flavor. Eighty-four more horsepower and 64 more lb-ft simply gives you more notes to play when it comes to tapping on the accelerator. Power delivery comes early enough and quietly enough not to call attention to itself. All it will cost you is a little fuel – 18/25 for the 6-cylinder AWD – but it won't send you to the poorhouse. Much like the Camry, both the four and six would be fine choices, and the questions to ask before you make your decision have nothing to do with performance: how much do you want to spend, and who are you trying to impress?

This is what stuck with us most about the Venza drive: it was utterly forgettable. That might appear to be an insult, but it isn't. Getting into an SUV that doesn't feel like you're piloting a quarter of the Earth's mass, that doesn't have the sensory dynamics of a Weeble Wobble, that doesn't make you search for the brake pedal before every tight turn... an SUV that, in fact, lets you drive much like you would drive a car, is a compliment.

Of course, there were reminders of the Venza's SUV id beneath the station wagon's ego – or, the Hulk lying within the smaller Bruce Banner – and they came at three interludes: any time you're around an actual car, any time you looked in the rear view mirror, and any time you had to suddenly brake. The first are simple: have a look at those folks down there at normal height, and you remember you're in a Venza; have a look at all that empty space behind you, and you remember you're in a Venza.

The last one was the one that made us go, "Oh, that's right... this is an SUV." The Venza's weight, depending on engine and driveline, ranges from 3,760 to 4,045. That's not exorbitant; the AWD Ford Escape is 223 pounds lighter. But the Venza doesn't have a beefy set of stoppers, which is why you feel it. There's nothing wrong with them, they simply fall into the 30-percent SUV side of the Venza. It helps to remember to brake like you're in an SUV, not a car, which takes a bit of mental memory after having had such a car-like driving experience.

None of which takes away from the Venza; rather, that's just a Get To Know Me aspect of it. Once we were used it, we'd get back to not remembering a thing about it. And that's the point: the Venza says "When you want XX feature, it's here, and when you don't need it, don't even think about it." Is it for you? If you want shockingly thorough think-nothing-of-it capability, you should have a serious look. The Venza's stuffed with abilities and features and doodads, and in a topsy-turvy world, it's not such a bad thing not to think about them once in a while.

Photos copyright ©2008 Jonathon Ramsey/Weblogs, Inc.

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