2012 Toyota Venza Review

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Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
February 16, 2012

The 2012 Toyota Venza isn't pulse-raising, but its smooth styling and calming, practical, comfortable interior provide just what some families or empty-nesters want.

Toyota hasn't sold a Camry Wagon in years, but in the automaker's lineup the 2012 Toyota Venza is what comes closest to it today. The Venza provides a higher seating position than a sedan, but a low, more manageable one than tall, upright SUVs, and in terms of space the five-seater slots between the base five-seat RAV4 and the more bloated Highlander seven-seater.

The 2012 Venza completely skips the rugged look of SUVs; but it also dodges the overwrought high-performance look of some crossovers, too. What results is a design that's already been on the market for three years but still looks soft and contemporary. Standing out isn't the priority, it seems (even though it looks nice with the available 20-inch wheels); instead, it's a perfectly competent family vehicle that combines most of the utility offered by a crossover SUV with a lower fastback roofline. Inside, the appointments are a bit more lavish than those within the Camry or Highlander--taking cues, almost, as an on-a-budget Lexus RX 350.

The Venza's reason for being clearly isn't performance either, but most families will find it to be adequate if not entertaining. The base 182-horsepower, 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine, teamed to a six-speed automatic falls strictly into the adequate category. It putters along just fine, albeit without much inspiration, with front- or all-wheel drive, but you'll wish for a gutsier personality on steep hills, or with a full load. With the 268-hp, 3.5-liter V-6, you get a smoother, stronger character that's again more along the lines of the Lexus RX 350, but you lose several mpg. Overall, the Venza drives much more like a minivan than a sport sedan or SUV; it handles well enough, though not in an inspiring way, because of a soft suspension and numb steering.

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Inside, it's all about passenger comfort, and it's easy to see who Toyota's target customer is with this vehicle. The tall roofline allows a rather high, upright driving position and plenty of headroom. And it allows the other major advantage of the Venza's design: those high, but not too-high, seats are superbly easy to slide in and out of—perfect for the elderly, Meanwhile, the roomy back seat is great for a couple of adults riding along, and the reclining seatback folds nearly flat for bulky weekend errands such as picking up furniture, or for packing the grandkids' strollers.

A soft, quiet, isolated cabin combined with nice details and trim--at least visually--make the Venza feel almost like a luxury vehicle, although there's a bit more road noise than a Lexus would ever have, and the base four is vocal, albeit smooth. Unfortunately up close there's a bit too much hard plastic for a vehicle with a price tag than can well exceed $30k.

The Venza changes very little for 2012, in most respects, but the Venza is now offered in three trims instead of one.  Base LE models get a number of conveniences, including dual-zone climate control, tilt/telescopic steering-wheel adjustment, overhead console lights, and Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, plus a USB port and aux input. A power liftgate and backup camera are available. The XLE adds those items, plus heated seats, leather upholstery, a Smart Key system, and more, while the top-of-the-line Limited comes in V-6 form only and adds navigation, a panoramic glass roof, and HID headlamps. A DVD entertainment system is optional, and all sorts of pet-friendly accessories remain available at dealerships.

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2012 Toyota Venza

Styling

The handsome Venza doesn't break strongly from Toyota's past, but we find ourselves liking its styling more and more.

Some crossovers want to recreate the heyday of the SUV market--Explorer and Pilot, we're looking at you. The Toyota Venza either has its sights set on something even more in the distant past (AMC Eagle?) or on something completely modern and handsome, something that splits the difference between tall wagons and hatchbacks.

We've even grown more fond of the Venza's styling since we first saw it back in 2009, and that's a rare feat for Toyota. It's essentially a parts-bin creation, with body sections from the Camry and Highlander, but the Venza's knitted together particularly well, and its roofline and profile sit lower to the eye than some taller utes. The least appealing aspect is the Venza from head-on, where the gawky grille flashes lots of toothy bars and veers a little too close to the latest Ford front ends. Otherwise, especially from the back, its roofline gives it just enough shapeliness.

Inside, the Venza is also a bit curvy but not over the top, with big, clear gauges and an unusual center stack dividing driver and front passenger. With the mahogany-grain trim, the Venza is arguably quite well dressed. The interior design isn't daring, but with its swoopy center stack, it's certainly not boring—consider is a curvier, more luxurious, and slightly laid-back version of the interface you get in minivans. The only thing we don't like about the design is that the center stack takes up a lot of space in front, and the driver's knee has to rest along hard plastic. Take a look up close and some of the materials carry interesting textures; but most of these are pleasing in appearance only.

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2012 Toyota Venza

Performance

Excitement isn't on the road map for the Venza, but it's competent and secure on the road.

You won't be reading this review if you're looking for a performance vehicle, so it won't come as a surprise to find the Venza's a competent performer, not exciting in the way it steers or accelerates. That said, it's perfectly poised and positioned for the drivers that pick it out of the big crossover pack.

Toyota offers a choice of four- or six-cylinder engines in the Venza. For any driver not needing moderate towing ability, we'd suggest the four-cylinder. It's a 2.7-liter four with 182 horsepower, found in many other vehicles in the Toyota lineup. It putters about almost anonymously, and can feel a little coarse and strained once you fill the cabin or press it up steep hills--but in most situations, it's an eminently reasonable choice, and gets the best fuel economy of the lineup, too. Toyota also offers a 3.5-liter V-6 with 268 horsepower, and it feels smoother and stronger, though not truly quick, and gas mileage falls below some seven-seat crossovers we've admired.

The Venza is configured for a smooth ride and reasonably responsive performance on the road, but sprightly it is not. We've found the Venza's driving experience to be adequate, but numb and uninspiring. It drives much more like a minivan than a sport sedan; though you can hustle the Venza along, you won't feel inspired to as the steering feel is quite vague and there's a lot of body roll. We've also found that four-cylinder models ride a bit better without handling any worse, although in either model wind and road noise aren't muted to luxury-car levels either.

Off-roading simply isn't part of the 2011 Venza vocabulary. All-wheel drive is available, but for the weight and cost it brings, we'd recommend it only for those who need all-weather traction for more than a few weeks at a time.

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2012 Toyota Venza

Comfort & Quality

Five adults can truly be comfortable inside the Venza; we wish some of its plastic trim were nicer.

Shaped like the related Lexus RX 350, the Toyota Venza has what seems to be a lower roofline and a shorter overall length than some crossovers, but it's very roomy inside, with tremendous space for five adults and a good amount of cargo.

In all seats, but especially in front, the Venza carves out plenty of leg and head room for passengers. The driver's seat offers up an upright, high seating position, and the step-in height strikes us as perfect for those who don't have it as easy climbing into traditional SUVs.

There's no third-row seat offered with the Venza--that's the Highlander's job--but the second-row seats can truly accommodate three adults. Tall drivers can move their seats back as far as they need, and the Venza still provides great leg and knee room. The back bench also reclines for good long-distance comfort.

The back seat also folds down to improve cargo space, which doesn't usually need the help, frankly. The Venza also has some well-conceived storage bins and cubbies for smaller items, and its cup holders are deep and useful. However, the cargo area doesn't come with any organizers, so carving up the space will be up to you.

The bigger disappointment is in the Venza's interior trim—it's oddly textured with lines that highlight its vast pieces of plastic, instead of diminishing them, and overall the materials just don't keep pace with the upscale, luxury-oriented message. Taller drivers need to rest their knees against the hard-plastic ridge on the side of the center stack—an irritating detail. The Venza's tall doors also feel thin and insubstantial—more like those on a Prius—and resonate with cabin noise.
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2012 Toyota Venza

Safety

Crash-test scores for the Venza are good, but not great--depending on who you ask.

Toyota makes some of its latest safety features standard on the Venza crossover, but it doesn't earn universal acclaim for occupant protection.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the crossover 'good' ratings for all its tests, including a roof-strength test, which makes the Venza an IIHS Top Safety Pick again for the 2012 model year.

However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gives the Venza an overall score of four stars--with a three-star rating for frontal protection, and five-star results in a side-impact tests.

Seven standard airbags, electronic stability control, and anti-lock brakes are all on the standard-features list, and visibility isn't the issue that it is in some other crossover vehicles, thanks to the rather high driving position. One thing you might want to get in the Venza is the backup camera; thick roof pillars make visibility a bit worse than in sedans and boxier SUVs, though next to many rival models it's not bad.

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2012 Toyota Venza

Features

The Venza's well equipped for crossover duty, with some Lexus-like features and options.

Toyota fits the Venza with a good deal of standard equipment, which makes the lower-priced versions some of the better values in the crossover class.

The Venza now comes in three distinct trim levels. The Venza LE offers power windows, locks, and mirrors; air conditioning; cruise control; tilt/telescoping steering with audio controls; Bluetooth; an AM/FM/CD player; and a USB port and an auxiliary jack. The XLE version gets a rearview camera; a power tailgate; leather; and heated front seats. The Venza Limited -- only offered as a V-6 -- piles on a panoramic sunroof and a navigation system.

Unlike many other vehicles, most options are available a la carte, without the requirement to buy a pricey package or step to a more expensive trim level. Highlights from the options list include leather upholstery, a rear-seat DVD entertainment system, a power liftgate, a Smart Key system with push-button start, leather trim, a cargo mat, and all sorts of pet-friendly accessories.

Audiophiles will want to upgrade to the JBL Synthesis system with Bluetooth and 13 speakers, coupled to a touchscreen navigation system and XM with NavTraffic. Connectivity was improved last year with the introduction of standard iPod connectivity across the model line, along with Bluetooth hands-free functions. The available, top-of-the-line JBL premium audio system is impressive sounding, and also earns Bluetooth audio streaming.
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2012 Toyota Venza

Fuel Economy

A sedan still will get better gas mileage, but the Venza does fairly well for a five-seat crossover.

If you're shopping crossover vehicles and trying to eke out better gas mileage to combat $4 fuel, the Toyota Venza isn't a bad choice.

While Ford's newest Edge has the best EPA ratings in the class, the Venza's standard four-cylinder turns in good fuel-economy numbers. It's rated at 21/27 mpg in front-drive versions, 20/25 mpg in models with all-wheel drive.

Switch to V-6 power, and the numbers fall accordingly. Front-drive, six-cylinder Venzas earn a 19/26-mpg rating, which drops to 18/25 mpg with all-wheel drive--the added traction adds weight you'll be lugging around all the time, so you'll be paying the fuel premium for the life of the vehicle.

In real-world driving, the difference in fuel economy between the two engines is likely quite small, especially if you live in hilly terrain that might tax the four-cylinder engine, or if you do a lot of highway driving.

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