2009 Toyota Venza: Pulling a rabbit out of a hat?

If you’re like me, you have barely heard anything at all about the Venza 2009, a vehicle that will be on sale beginning in January.  There were no Internet rumours about Toyota’s newest release, no grandiose unveiling at one of the car shows, we didn’t see multiple spy-photos and the manufacturer did not create any buzz by having a partial unveiling on-line.  Basically, the Venza arrives like a hair in our soup, but do not think that means it will not be an important product for Toyota.

I did not know what to expect when our neighbours to the south invited me to test drive the Venza.  It is one of those vehicles that are hard to categorize, and even the manufacturer dares not put it in a particular segment.  It could be considered either a wagon or an SUV.  Essentially, the Venza belongs with the crossover vehicles, which aim to attract those who are put off by the stigma of the minivan, who want a little more than a five-door wagon, or who don’t need a traditional SUV.  So Venza 2009 finds itself alongside the Ford Edge and the Mazda CX-7, probably its two closest rivals.

Non-traditional clientele

Considering the qualities of the Venza, could it damage sales of the manufacturer’s two SUVs, the RAV4 and the Highlander?  I tend to think that the Venza is going to attract a new clientele altogether to Toyota.  My mother, for example, whose lease on her Chrysler 300 is ending shortly, was trying to decide between buying a Ford Edge or a Subaru Forester.  She likes the size and utility of this type of vehicle and she misses having all-wheel drive.  The Venza suits her tastes and is a vehicle that will likely lead her to visit a Toyota dealership, something that would not have happened before.

The Venza was developed specifically for the North American market – it will not be sold anywhere outside of our continent – and was designed at Toyota’s Calty Studio in California.  Its style, inspired by the FT-SX concept car presented at the 2005 Detroit Show, represents a radical departure from what we are used to seeing from Toyota lately.  It is a good bet that many observers will be surprised to learn that it is in fact a Toyota.  However, the Venza is very impressive overall and offers flashy lines that are highlighted by its imposing front grille and its 19- or 20-inch rims depending on the version, but tires this size will mean you’ll have to expect a steeper bill when the time comes to equip the vehicle with winter tires.

Four cylinders or six?

Many models will be offered with a choice of two engine types.  Making its first appearance, a brand new 2.7-litre four-cylinder will be offered with the Venza.  The 2.4-litre four-cylinder would not have been enough, mainly because of its less favourable torque.  The 182 horses featured with the 2.7-litre four-cylinder engine are more than capable of handling the majority of day-to-day needs.  Preliminary results suggest a fuel consumption of about 11.5L/100 km, which seems a little high to me, but we’ll have to see over an extended period.

For more power, it will be possible to opt for the 3.5-litre V6 version, featuring 286-horsepower for a torque of 246 lb-ft.  While it is certainly more powerful, I would stop short of saying this engine is a must, but it does makes for more dynamic handling and most definitely an increased towing capacity, some 3,500 lbs as opposed to the 2,500 lbs offered by the four-cylinder engine.

While many rival models offer all-wheel drive solely with the V6 engines, Toyota offers the Venza with a choice of front- or all-wheel drive, the latter with either engine type.  This is a good way to get an all-wheel drive vehicle at a reasonable price, but will the four-cylinder vehicle be left under-equipped to deal with the extra weight?  At first glance, no.  During the test drive, there did not seem to be much difference in performance thanks to Active Torque Control system, which helps the vehicle behave like a front-wheel drive in normal conditions and sends a portion of the torque to the rear wheels only when needed making for greater fuel economy without a noticeable loss of power.  In fact, this is the very same system used in the Toyota RAV4.

Just as appealing inside

As for the interior, the style and quality of materials make for an impressive dashboard finish.  Its overall finish is faultless and is a testament to a meticulous attention to detail. The level of factory standard equipment is also noteworthy, offering the features you’d expect and then some, including keyless entry, automatic climate control and a telescopic steering column. The lower roof line at the back adds to the style of the vehicle, but visibility and cargo space are diminished as a result.

On the road, the driving position is good and seems a lot more like that of a sedan than that of an SUV.  The steering is precise, the handling is reassuring and the 6-speed automatic transmission offers smooth shifting and takes full advantage of the available power.  Its sport mode maximizes the engine speeds, but this type of manu-matic transmission quickly becomes tiresome.

Toyota has done a nice job with the Venza 2009. This is a vehicle that is aesthetically-pleasing, practical, and well-designed.  Reliability will be a given, and the choice of models will make it a viable option for many different budgets.  The pricing has not yet been released, but the manufacturer told us the base price would be less than $30,000.

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