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The 2013 Toyota Venza is one of those category-defying vehicles that suits more drivers than might be aware of it. Technically it's a wagon; it looks sort of like a crossover vehicle, and shares running gear with some of Toyota's family utes. At its core, the Venza's really a grown-up, grown-out hatchback with some extra ride height, and without the faux-rugged looks that turn us off so many SUV wannabees.
Unlike Toyota's three-row 4Runner, or even the big Highlander, the Venza makes absolutely no claim to the off-road trail. And while you can get third-row seating in both of those, the Venza only has two rows of (albeit very comfortable seating). It's more a Camry wagon, at a functional level. What that means is impressive space for five adults and a good amount of cargo space—as well as a near-ideal seating height that makes getting in and out especially easy. The down side, as we've noted in past model years, is that there's a bit too much hard plastic in contact with driver and passenger knees than you might expect in a vehicle that can cost well over $30,000.Toyota gives the Venza a mid-cycle refresh of sorts for 2013, but it's mainly one of reshuffled features and options. You'd be challenged to pick up on the design differences between the 2012 and 2013 Venza models—perhaps even at the dealership. Styling changes of the 2013 Venza are limited to some detail changes in front—new grille, new taillight design—and a new 19-inch wheel design. There are also three new colors for the Venza on the outside—Attitude Black, Cypress Pearl, and Cosmic Gray Mica—as well as one new interior shade.
What's under the hood is essentially unchanged. There are four-cylinder and V-6 models, and both are offered with a choice of front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. The base engine makes 182 horsepower from 2.4 liters, while the V-6 makes 268 hp. The mileage difference isn't all that great between the two, with four-cylinder Venzas rating up to an EPA 21 mpg city, 27 highway (or as low as 18/25 for the V-6 AWD). Both engines get the same available all-wheel drive system, configured for on-road tractability, and on V-6 models there's an available Towing Prep Package (to tow up to 3,500 pounds).
In drives of Venza models from previous model years, we've found these wagons to drive a bit more like a minivan than a sportier wagon or an SUV. You sit higher up, but in terms of ride and handling, the Venza is more carlike than most other alternatives. With soft suspension tuning and rather numb steering, it's by no means exciting to drive—and the huge 20-inch wheels add ride harshness with no handling benefit. Four-cylinder models are perfectly adequate but uninspiring, while V-6 models have a stronger, smoother character that makes it feel more like the Lexus RX 350. Road noise is an issue on coarser surfaces, with the four-cylinder more than the six.
A much-improved set of connectivity and infotainment features is really the big news for 2013. The Venza is offered in four-cylinder or V-6 form, in base LE, mid-range XLE, and top-lux Limited trims—again with the Limited model V-6-only. But each level adds some other new features for 2013. LE models get new Display Audio systems (comparable to those that made their debut in the 2013 Camry), plus a blind-spot side mirrors, puddle lamps, and outer turn signals. Venza XLE models get a memory power driver's seat, reverse-tilt outside mirrors, and navigation—in addition to Entune multi-media features. And at the top of the line, all Limited models now get LED daytime running lights plus premium 13-speaker JBL sound and an upgraded navigation system.