The Good: Choice of engines, good looks, available all-wheel drive
The Bad: Pricey when you add options, no third row of seats
The Bottom Line: A stylish Camry station wagon
Toyota (TM) only has one all-new '09 model in North America, the five-passenger Venza crossover vehicle. Designed in California, engineered in Michigan, and manufactured in Kentucky, the Venza is derived from the same platform as the Camry sedan and very much designed to appeal to American tastes. However, the crossover segment is already crowded, and my prediction is that the Venza will mainly appeal to Toyota loyalists and the over-50 crowd. It's a nice-looking vehicle, but there are many roomier and less expensive alternatives.
Toyota bills the new model as "more useful than a sedan, but more car-like than an SUV," and sees it as filling a gap between the Camry sedan and the Toyota Highlander SUV. In reality, it's a gussied-up station wagon. The company dropped the Camry station wagon after the 1996 model year, but that's what the Venza is—a revived Camry wagon with a taller profile, sleeker styling, and higher price than a traditional station wagon. It just couldn't look like a wagon because that would be the kiss of death with American consumers.
The Venza's main competition is the Highlander, as well as competing crossover SUVs such as the Nissan (NSANY) Murano, Ford's (F) Edge, and the new Chevrolet Traverse. The Venza is nearly identical to the Highlander in length (189 inches), width (75 in.), and ground clearance (8.1 in.). The big difference between the two models is that the Highlander, as befits a classic SUV, is six inches taller than the Venza and comes with a third row of seats that raises its maximum seating to seven.
Like the Highlander, the Venza is available with front- or all-wheel-drive and comes with two choices of engine, a 2.7-liter, 182-horsepower four-banger and a 3.5-liter, 268-horsepower V6. The only transmission is a six-speed automatic with a manual shifting function.
Aside from more seats, the main advantage of the Highlander is that it has more cargo capacity with its rear seats down (95 cu. ft. vs. 70 for the Venza), as well as more towing capacity (a maximum 5,000 lbs vs. 3,500 for the Venza). However, the Venza has a voluminous 30 cu. ft. of luggage space behind its single row of rear seats, vs. just 10.3 cu. ft for the Highlander when all three rows of seats are in use.
The Venza also is priced similarly to the Highlander, with a starting sticker that ranges from $26,695 with the four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive, up to $29,970 with V6 power and all-wheel drive. However, the Venza's average selling price is a relatively steep $33,551, a few hundred dollars more than the '09 Highlander's average of $33,193, according to the Power Information Network (PIN). That's because the Venza's price mounts rapidly when you start adding options. Two premium packages that add such niceties as leather seat trim, push-button starting, a backup camera, and mahogany dashboard trim cost a hefty $4,345 and $3,845, respectively. A navigation system goes for $2,590, a rear-seat entertainment system for $1,680, and a panoramic sunroof for $1,080.
Fuel economy is a tad better than the Highlander's. With the smaller engine, the Venza is rated to get 21 miles per gallon in the city and 29 on the highway, dropping to 20/28 with all-wheel drive. With V6 power, the Venza's rating drops to 19/26 with front-wheel drive and 18/25 with all-wheel drive. If my experience is any indication, the Venza will easily match its rated fuel economy. In 323 miles of heavy-duty winter driving in a V6 Venza with all-wheel drive, I got 21.2 mpg.
It's too soon to know how well the Venza will sell, but it's off to a slow start. Toyota only sold 1,474 Venzas in December, a disastrous month during which the company's North American sales plunged 36.7%, to 141,949. However, sales should pick up a bit once the four-cylinder Venza hits the showrooms in February. Toyota's Georgetown (Ky.,) factory, which also makes the Camry, has the capacity to produce 70,000 Venzas annually, or about 6,000 per month.
Behind the Wheel
If you're into fast driving, go with the speedy V6-powered Venza. I clocked my test car at 6.8 seconds in accelerating from 0 to 60, which is about what Toyota rates it at. I didn't drive the four-cylinder model, but with all-wheel-drive it weighs in at nearly 4,000 lbs. Add passengers and cargo and it's bound to be relatively pokey.
Like most Toyotas, the Venza's other driving characteristics are geared more toward comfort than sportiness. The vehicle's suspension system is the same as the one in the Highlander, which isn't particularly sporty to begin with, and has been retuned to provide a softer, more car-like ride. The Venza's low-effort electronic power steering system makes it easy to maneuver in parking lots but doesn't provide much road feel. Little wonder that Car and Driver magazine rates the Venza at a mere two points out of a possible 10 in appeal to driving enthusiasts.
The Venza's interior has clean lines and excellent fit-and-finish, but isn't markedly different from or superior to that of the Edge and other rival crossover vehicles. In my test car, the dashboard was a broad, unattractive expansive of dark vinyl. Otherwise the seats and interior trim remind me a lot of those in a Camry: cleanly designed but not fancy. The rear seat is cramped for three adults, but there's plenty of head, leg, and shoulder space for two adults and a child. The rear seat folds down in a 60/40 pattern and is very easy to operate.
Several high-tech features set the Venza apart from competitors. One is an automatic hill-start system that keeps the vehicle from rolling backward when you take off from a stop on an incline. Another is an intelligent headlight system, which reacts to oncoming traffic and automatically dims the brights. The system works quite well, though it occasionally—and inexplicably—dims the lights when there is no oncoming traffic.
So far, the average Venza buyer is 55, compared with 52 for the Edge, 48 for the Traverse, and 47 for the Murano, according to PIN. Younger consumers with heavy carpooling duties will probably opt for the Highlander because of its seven-person seating.
Buy it or Bag It?
The reputation for quality and the high resale value of Toyota vehicles mean that both the Venza and Highlander command a premium. The Venza's average selling price of $33,551 is slightly above the average for the '09 midsize crossover segment. It's higher than the price of the Nissan Murano, at $31,366, and the Ford Edge, at $30,221.
A roomier, eight-passenger alternative that also sells for less than the Venza is General Motors' (GM) new Chevy Traverse, which averages $30,419, about $3,000 less than the Venza, according to PIN. (PIN, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of the McGraw-Hill Cos.)
If you're on a tight budget, numerous five-person compact SUVs sell for substantially less than the Venza, including the '09 Mazda CX-7 ($25,538), Honda's (HMC) CR-V ($24,079), the Subaru Forester ($24,000), and the Saturn Vue ($22,299). If carpooling is a priority, Toyota's own '09 Rav4 sells for an average of $24,572 and is available with a third row of seats and a V6 engine.
The bottom line: Unless the Venza really pulls your heartstrings, comparison shop before buying.
Click here to see more of the 2009 Toyota Venza.
Thane Peterson reviews cars for BusinessWeek.com.