If you're looking for a vehicle that's a little taller and more versatile than a sedan or a wagon, but more carlike than most crossovers and sport-utility vehicles, look no further than the Subaru Outback and Toyota Venza.
Both blend a tall-wagon body with all-wheel drive in a mid-size package. But which one's better suited to tackling all kinds of terrain--urban and otherwise?
Of the two, the Outback's the one that still tries to look a little rugged. New for the 2015 model year, the Outback has ripened into a vehicle that manages to look more like an SUV and to look more aero-smooth at the same time. It has a tall stance that plays up the butch angle, and a restrained interior that has a squared-off, high-end-audio look.
The Venza? It's the AMC Eagle all over again, with a sort-of-wagon style that borders on big hatchback. It's smooth and sleek, but it makes no visual claims about off-road capability. The cockpit reminds us of modern minivan or crossover cabins.
Behind the wheel, the Venza drives like a somewhat taller Camry; it's a very competent performer, but the driving experience is seldom exciting, especially with the base four-cylinder. Even the strong, smooth 268-hp V-6 doesn't lend it any energetic feel. The Outback is more agile and engaging. Its base four-cylinder is smooth and performs well enough, and delivers impressive gas mileage through its CVT; it's strong enough that we'd skip the more expensive flat six option.
The Outback is more versatile, too. Off-roading isn't even on the Venza's map, though Toyota does offer an all-wheel-drive system. The Subaru really shines when you leave the pavement; its stiff structure, high ground clearance, and sophisticated all-wheel-drive system all help to give it more capability than some trucky-looking SUVs.
The Subaru is the clear winner for those who want to drive, but this match-up is more of a toss-up inside. The Venza has a lovely, high seating position, perfect for drivers of a certain age to get in and out. Its seating is also comfortable for adults in front and in back--although we don't think the Venza is as versatile for cargo. On the other hand, the Outback's interior feels like it was designed for a spaciousness, and there's plenty of cargo capability.
An older design, the Venza fares worse in safety than the Outback. The Outback is an IIHS Top Safety Pick+, and has an inexpensive, sophisticated forward-collision warning and braking system. The Venza's crash-test scores are above average, but it lacks a lot of advanced safety technology available on newer SUVs, like surround-view cameras.
The well-equipped Outback also scores a major victory in value. A base Outback starts at about $25,000, while a base Venza is more than $29,000--and with the Subaru, you get all-wheel drive for that price. Upgrade to the top-of-the-line trims, like the Venza Limited or the Outback Limited, and both models can feel a lot like luxury vehicles--with high-end audio, navigation, leather seats, and back-seat video entertainment systems. At this level, though, the Venza still costs about $5k more--and it starts to feel a lot like the Lexus RX 350, which only costs a few thousand more.
The Outback is our winner here. For shoppers that value a true all-weather champ, it's an easy choice, too, though the Venza still has a more handsome design and a more relaxed driving feel. Unfortunately, the Venza's not long for this world: Toyota says it will discontinue sales in the U.S. after the 2015 model year as it focuses on its RAV4 compact and Highlander large SUVs.