2011 Toyota Venza

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Apparently, station wagons are not cool. And “crossovers” are becoming … commonplace.

So what do you call a new vehicle that’s based on an existing sedan and has most of the characteristics of a wagon – but you don’t want to call it a crossover?

Toyota calls it Venza.

WHAT IT IS

Toyota says the five-passenger Venza is a “melding” of SUV and sport sedan – but not a (cough!) “crossover.”

Well, ok.

Awkward phraseology aside, the Venza’s pretty much a Camry wagon.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that… .

It shares the same basic chassis, suspension and engines with the Camry sedan but it’s got a hunkier-looking, wagonized body with significantly more cargo carrying space and it rides on mondo 19-inch ree-uhms.

Twennies bees optional n’ sheet. Gnomesayin’?

It can also be ordered with all-wheel-drive, a feature that’s not offered (for the moment) in its Camry cousin.

Prices range from $26,475 for a base model with FWD and 2.7 liter four-cylinder engine to $29,550 for one equipped with the optional 3.5 liter V-6 and AWD.

Chief competition includes the $27,220 (to start) Ford Edge and the $29,670 (to start) Honda Accord Crosstour wagon.

WHAT’S NEW FOR 2011

The Venza was introduced about a year ago as an all-new model for Toyota, so changes for the ’11 model year are minor. The audio systems now include a USB port for MP3 players and Bluetooth wireless is available.

WHAT’S GOOD

Wagon layout is family friendly.

Not a minivan.

Not too big. Fewer bind spots than a Crosstour

Can be had with more economical four-cylinder engine (both the Ford Edge and Accord Crosstour come standard with V-6 engines).

Available AWD.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

Venza doesn’t offer the Camry’s available six-speed manual transmission.

AWD requires more expensive V-6.

Several hundred pounds heavier than a Camry.

Maybe not big enough. No third row; maximum five-passenger capacity.

Edge has more available power; Crosstour more dramatic styling.

UNDER THE HOOD

Four cylinder engines are making a comeback in larger cars.

It’s dawning on people that modern fours produce sufficient power (in most cases, twice the output of a typical four-cylinder engine from the late ’80s) for everyday driving, so why pay extra up front – and down the road – for a gas-hungry V-6 you may not need? Especially with gas (at the time of this review) cresting to $4 a gallon.

In the Venza, the standard four-cylinder engine displaces 2.7 liters and produces 182 hp. This engine is a slightly larger, updated version of the current Camry’s standard 2.5 liter, 169 hp engine. (Expect the 2012 Camry to get the updated 2.7 liter engine.)

A six-speed automatic transmission is the only available transmission.

Gas mileage with this engine is 21 city, 29 highway – several ticks better than the Edge and Crosstour (19 city, 26 highway and 18 city, 27 highway respectively), both of which come standard with V-6 engines.

Zero to 60 with the 2.7 liter engine takes about 8.8 seconds.

The Venza’s optional engine is a 3.5 liter 268 hp V-6 (same as is optional in the current Camry). It’s slightly less powerful than the Edge’s standard 3.5 liter, 285 hp V-6 and a virtual dead heat with the Crosstour’s standard 3.5 liter, 271 hp V-6.

The larger Ford Edge, however, can be ordered with a very potent 3.7 liter, 305 hp V-6, easily outgunning both the Venza and the Crosstour.

The Venza’s V-6, like its standand four-cylinder engine, comes paired with a six-speed automatic transmission.

The V-6 engine rates 19 city, 26 highway – about the same as the 3.5 liter V-6 equipped Edge and Crosstour wagons.

Zero to 60 takes about 7.2-7.3 seconds, beating all except the Edge Sport with the 3.7 liter engine.

All-wheel-drive is available (a feature the current Camry doesn’t offer at all) but you must upgrade to the V-6 equipped Venza to get it.

Four-cylinder Venzas are front-wheel-drive only.

Max towing capability is 3,500 pounds with the optional V-6.

ON THE ROAD

The Venza comes equipped with tall wheels (19 inchers are standard; 20s come with the V-6) and it sits about three inches higher off the ground than the Camry sedan.

It is also more than three inches wider through the hips (75 inches vs. 71.7 inches).

The result is a crossoverish driving position/view of the road – as well as a more dramatic, big-shouldered look than the wallflower Camry – even though both share exactly the same wheelbase (109.3 inches) and even though the Camry is actually slighty longer, nose to tail (189.2 inches vs. 189 inches).

That’s the “sporty” part of the Venza’s theme.

In actual driving, it behaves a lot like the Camry. That’s no slam – it’s just that the Venza’s no BMW stalker, that’s all. Like the Camry, the Venza is a docile and pleasant car to drive; no surprises and almost one-finger electrically-boosted power steering, cushy seats and a tomb-quiet ride.

In other words, the Venza’s designed for Middle American tastes and driving habits – not European ones.

And that’s ok. We are, after all, Americans.

We get in, buckle up and go from “a” to “b” – at about the speed limit, usually. The images presented in TV ads of solitary cars drifting through tight radius s-turns at 20 over the limit with just the right backlighting and no cops in sight are just that – images. A fantasy designed to appeal to your lizard brain; not the reality of day-to-day poking along to the office and back.

And for this everyday reality, the Venza’s ideal. It even has an almost column-shifter for the six-speed automatic. Instead of the usual floor-mounted deal (where it takes up space and is vulnerable to coffee spills), the Venza’s shift lever is mounted up high on the center console, positioned off to the left, toward the driver, where it falls literally right to hand.

Though it’s not intended to be a hot rod, the six-speed automatic has an “s” (sport) mode that locks out overdrive and kicks the tranny down into fourth for more aggressive pull when you need to pass someone.

But Drive works just fine, too.

Toyota could have spiced things up a bit by offering a manual transmission option with the four-cylinder engine. A six-speed is available with the same basic engine in the ’11 Camry, so it probably could have been done – though it would have involved putting in a floor-mounted console – and that would likely have dialed up too much trouble and expense.

Let’s face it: America is the land of cell phone gabblefests, Bluetooth, DVD navigation – and traffic. Fewer and fewer people are interested in shifting for themselves – or frankly, even paying much attention to the act of driving.

So it makes sense that Toyota decided to keep the Venza automatic-only.

AT THE CURB

The Venza’s shares some of the styling themes common to today’s mid-large crossovers (oops, let that slip) such as a “fast” windshield, “chopped” looking roofline, etc. There’s also some Coke-bottle sculpting in the middle section that sexes things up – and the Cheshire Cat grille shape is kind of interesting, too.

It’s not as wild-looking as the Crosstour, but it’s definitely less ponderous and blocky-looking than out-of-the-closet crossovers like the Ford Edge. Fewer blind spots than the Accord Crosstour has, too.

Functional aspects include the rear cargo area’s load height, which is actually lower than the Camry’s. This helps when you’re trying to lug heavy items on board.

Speaking of which, the Venza can swallow 70 cubic feet of whatever – vs. 14.5 cubic feet in the Camry.

This also smokes the Crosstour – which only has 51 cubic feet as a result of its sleeker (but much less practical) shape. The Venza also edges out the Edge – but just barely. The Ford has 69 cubic feet of cargo space.

I dunno about those huge ree-uhms, though. Yeah, 19 and 20-inch rims are popular right now. But you ought to check into tire (and wheel) replacement costs before you sign up. A 19 or 20-inch tire can cost $150-plus each or more and the wheel (if you bend one, easily done by rubbing up against a curb, for instance) can be two or three times that amount … just FYI.

These huge wheels that are the In Thing now don’t make a lot of real-world sense to me. But I guess that’s just me… .

THE REST

Though it shares its platform with the Camry, the relationship is not immediately obvious. Not that that would be a bad thing. The Camry is an excellent everyday driver (and America’s best-selling mid-sized sedan for many years now, too). But the point is that Toyota didn’t just weld together a custom body and drape it on a Camry chassis. The Venza’s interior, for example, is unique to this model – not just grafted in from the Camry with some different trim plates added here and there.

The Venza’s also a pretty good deal.

Its base price of $26,475 (mid-low $30k range optioned out) is lower starting out than the Edge ($27,220) and a lot lower than Accord Crosstour ($29,670) and several thousand less than them both when bought “loaded.”

Venza’s base price includes those massive 19 inch rims, dual-zone climate control AC, power windows, door locks, cruise control, tilt and telescoping steering wheel and a very nice six-speaker stereo with six-disc CD player and iPod jack.

All trims come with traction and stability control, full-row curtain airbags, front seat side-impact air bags and a driver’s side knee air bag.

A full-roof (two-section) panorama sunroof can be ordered optionally. Also dual seat heaters, a premium 13-speaker stereo, leather and wood trim, power liftgate, GPS (with voice recognition), rearview camera (bundled with the GPS) and backseat DVD/entertainment system.

Another factor to consider is that Toyota dealers are probably more receptive to haggling right now than they’ve been in 20-plus years, due to this summer’s series of highly public recalls.

There have been no issues with the Venza, but the problems with other Toyota models gives you, the buyer, leverage. Odds are you can negotiate a deal on a new Venza for less than MSRP sticker – and that’s something few Toyota buyers could have dreamed about doing prior to this summer’s embarrassing recalls.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Edge is sportier (in Sport form, with its 305 hp V-6) and the Crosstour’s slicker – but the Venza’s may be the most practical wagon of the bunch… even if Toyota won’t admit it

Throw it in the Woods?

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13 COMMENTS

  1. I have to admit that don’t understand the change to large diameter wheels either.

    My 2001 4WD 4-Runner has P265 70 R16’s and those tires are huge! And they ride really nice…

    What does the bigger diameter wheel do for you? Is it for control or traction or is it just styling hype?

    For what it’s worth my 2001 4-Runner is one of the last one’s that were made on a truck chassis. I think 2002 was the last year for that. And that’s why I bought it. I needed a truck for the places I go to in my job. A station wagon wouldn’t cut it and I’m just not a pickup truck kind of guy.

    It seems odd to me, but cars have actually gone back up in size the past few years (your review of the new Mazda Mini-Van got me to investigating).

    It might not look it, but my old 4-Runner is smaller than today’s Camry or this new Venza thing.

    My 4-Runner’s overall length is 183.3 inches versus Camry’s 189.2 inches and the Venza’s 189 inches.

    Its overall width is 66.5 inches versus Camry’s 71.7 inches and the Venza’s 75.

    Its wheelbase is 105.3 inches versus Camry’s and Venza’s 109.3.

    My 4-Runner does stand quite a bit higher off the ground though and its overall height at 67.5 inches is higher than either of these two new Toyota’s. That height is one of the reasons that I needed a truck though. Try calling on shipyards sometime. You won’t see any low ground clearance cars there – and for good reason.

    That ground clearance has also come in very handy getting though the flooding on just regular streets that we so often have to deal with here in Houston too. It’s high enough to get through and even maneuver around all of those Camry’s and Venza’s that are half submerged… And it’s all on 16 inch wheels.

    The 4-Runner only came with one engine in 2001 – a 3.4L V-6 that puts out about 185HP. With the high torque gear ratio that they put in the 4WD version and dropped another notch with the factory towing it isn’t the fastest sheet metal out of the gate, but it’s plenty fast enough.

    What’s the deal with the big wheels today though? What advantages do they have?

    • It’s mostly just styling. Big wheels have been popularized by rap kulcha, which is now (unfortunately) mainstream kulcha. If anything, they’re a liability – more rolling resistance/unsprung mass; harsher ride; more expensive to buy/replace – etc.

      They’re especially dopey on vehicles like minivans and SUVs.

      What you want for off-roading is what you’ve got: 15, maybe 16 inch rims with some good knobbies on ’em, with plenty of sidewall.

      As far as snow use, one of the best snow cars I ever owned was a ’73 VW Super Beetle – and it had tall/skinny 15-inch wheels/tires.

      • The primary purpose (IMO) of large diameter wheels is to run large diameter brakes. When I see huge wheels, aftermarket or stock exposing tiny brake rotors I laugh. The concept is so simple even people like Jesse James of “Monster Garage” can figure it out in an ass-backwards sort of way.

        Of course grocery getter cars aren’t typically equipped with large brakes and the factory wheel designs often make installing them impossible anyway. It’s typical style over substance.

        For snow well, it’s almost always tall skinny wheels. My grandfather told me how his best snow car was a model A ford. It’s just about getting enough contact pressure to get through the snow to pavement. Modern snow tires however change the game.

  2. If Station wagons aren’t cool, how come the ones you can actually get are made by BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Volvo, and Subaru? I consider those cool brands, and the vehicles cool wagons. Caprice wagons were not cool, but that had more to do with the overall chassis/vehicle than the wagon configuration. Accord wagons were never uncool, and they had a lot going for them: Priced within about $500 of the sedan, not more than about 100-200 lbs heavier, with no discernible penalty in mpg or performance. This Venza thing compromises all of those parameters so that it can pretend to be kind of like an SUV – that is, porky.

  3. Eric,

    What ever happened to common sense, and a reasonable budget, 30,000 dollars for a station wagon? 600 dollars for tire replacement? Oh, I forget, the car will be repossesed with in a year, so Toyota made their money…..? Its all about image, with the big rims. (I do not do ebonics) Oh, 270 horsepower from a V-6, or 180 from a 4 cyl is great, but do we need to win the Indy 500 races on the freeway on-ramp? Oh, I get it Duh. The ONLY place to feel powerful in this increasingly repressive country is from 0-70 ASAP. The same technology could yield 40 mpg in other counties, with the same 0-60 rates as the hot cars from the 1960s. If they have real gasoline to burn, even better performance. Once gas hits five dollars a gallon this year, and seven dollars a gallon while the car payments will still be due, these station wagon hot rods will be real cheap at the used car lots.


    • You’ve got me! I also sometimes – no, often – think the world has gone nuts, too. I’ve written probably a dozen rants against the (my opinion) pointlessness of the typical American driver piddling along at 70-ish on the highway in a car capable of twice that speed, easily. I doubt one out of 100 American drivers has ever driven faster than 120, if that. And then maybe for a few seconds.

      And: You’ve got a great insight there about powerful cars and a repressive country; wish I’d thought of that first!

      • Eric- Fine job responding to this knuckle-dragger’s salient points but silence on the maybe racist ebonics reference to sub-prime finance? Hard to say what’s on his mind but I think I can guess. I’m taking odds vangelderen’s got an assault rifle. Look out for station wagons parked across from the head start center. -Mike

          • Thanks. BTW, I’m not wild about the big wheels myself. They look pretty cool and I generally like a tire with a shoulder on a coupe. I’m buying a Venza for the family though and I would have preferred a setup like 18s w/ Toyo Proxes or similar for ride and quiet. Whatever. Also, anybody scared about tire cost should check out a good online vendor (sorry, no plug). I saw a decent deal on -1 rims and snows which I would do around these parts. Gotta research -2s and see if I could get it set up just the way I want it. Sacrifice a bit of street cred for a smokin machine. Should look okay towing my husband’s parade float though. Cant decide, white or silver.

            • Those huge wheels also increase rolling resistance, which hurts mileage. And if you damage one and it has to be replaced, look out!

              Nothing wrong with specialty tires (or large wheels) if that’s what you want or need. But they’ve become almost mass market (even minivans now have 17 or 18 inch wheel/tire packages) and, to me, it’s pointlessly wasteful (more expensive, faster wear for the tires) and has everyday real-world downsides in terms of ride quality and fuel economy. For most “everyday” cars 16 inch wheels with a good set of 60 series all-seasons would probably be a better choice.

              Just my fifty…

    • I think common sense went out the window. If it was common, how come I see so little of it in public?

      I would like a car that:
      I can ride safely and comfortably.
      Can get at least 30mpg (the higher the better)
      Can cruise comforatbly at 70-80 mph for extended periods of time.

      If it cost less than $20,000 USD new that would be nice as well.

      I find it hard to justify spending more money than needed on a car that will be depreciating from the moment it walks off the lot.

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