The vehicle world is full of SUVs and SUV wannabes. It seems like the family car is a thing of the past and if you actually drive a station wagon, you’re a relic doomed to wear flowy flowery shirts with bell bottom pants. So, what does all this have to do with the sharp-looking Toyota Venza? The Venza is a cross between all of them: a mid-size SUV/car/station wagon family haul-it-all. Will it overcome its identity crisis during my week with it to land itself in a particular category? I like categories—neat and clean. Read and find out!

First, how does the Venza come?

FWD 2.7 L 16-valve 4-Cyl. 182 hp 21 city/27 hwy $26,625
AWD 4-Cyl. 20/25 $28,075
FWD 3.5 L 24-valve V6 268 hp 19/26 $28,450
AWD V6 18/25 $29,900
V6 adds 20-in. 5-spoke alloy wheels and dual exhaust pipes—vroom vroom

 
The model I drove was a Golden Umber Mica FWD V6 with voice-activated touch-screen DVD navigation system, premium package #2 (leather, heated front seats, 4-way power adjusted front seats, Smart Key with push button start, backup camera, and fake wood), rear-seat DVD entertainment system, and tow package. Final sticker price was $38,239.

What does a base model give you? Cloth seats in a snazzy pattern, 19” alloy wheels, XM radio antenna, dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth phone controls, autodimming rear-view mirror, and cargo area tonneau cover to name a few things.  It comes very well-equipped and runs on unleaded gas.  It has a lot of cargo space in back: with the back seats folded nearly flat, there’s 70.1 cu. ft. of space and 30.7 cu. ft. of space with the seats up.  It hauls 5 people with no option of going higher unless you shove them in the cargo area like we all used to do before we knew better.  We know better now.  Don’t do that.

Safety Features

  • Star Safety System: Standard on every Venza is a combination of five features that help you control the car in difficult driving conditions.  1. Vehicle Stability Control counteracts wheelslip during turns, 2. Anti-lock Brake System avoids wheel lockup during hard braking or slippery conditions, 3. Electronic Brake-force Distribution optimizes the amount of braking force sent to each wheel during braking, 4. Traction Control prevents wheel slippage if the driver applies too much acceleration, and 5. Electric Power Steering, which gives the driver a feel for the road while making it extremely easy to drive.  These are things I learned about last year at Lexus Family Safety Camp.  As Martha says, it’s all a “Good Thing.”
  • Hill Start Assist Control: Standard on every Venza; holds the car from rolling backward when you start from a stop on an incline.
  • Airbags: It has airbags everywhere.  There are curtain airbags all around, torso airbags for the front seats, and a knee airbag for the driver for all models. 
  • Seat belt pretensioners: The seat belt pretensioners are for the front seats only. 
  • Backup camera: The bumper to bumper backup camera is nice.  I set up our kids-playing sign so that the handle was 18” from the bumper and it saw the entire sign all the way to the ground.  Impressive!  If you don’t have the navigation system option, the backup camera video shows in the small screen at the top of the dash.  If you’re serious about safety, you’ll get the nav system for the backup camera—it’d be seriously hard to see anything in that small 4″ screen at the top of the dash.

  • Active head restraints: The head restraints on the front seats are active, which means that in a crash, they will move forward and up to reduce your chance of whiplash.  The middle head restraint in the 2nd row was unmovable in the car I tested: it refused to budge.  I yanked on it, shoved on it, snaked my finger underneath to try to access the push button to see if I could dislodge it, but it simply wouldn’t move.  It *is* adjustable, but in the car I drove, it apparently is defective.
  • NHTSA 5-Star crash test ratings

FWD and AWD: 3 frontal, 5 side, 4 rollover

The passenger side female test dummy didn’t fare all that well in the crash test, which bumped the frontal test down from 4 stars to 3. So, if you’re around 108 lbs. and 59” tall, you may want to sit in the back seat ;). For an explanation of the new 5-Star crash test rating system, see Kecia’s excellent blog about it from October 2010.

  • IIHS ratings

G for frontal offset, side impact, roof strength

Rear crash protection/head restraint: G for overall rating, dynamic rating, and seat/head restraint geometry

These ratings earned the Venza a place on the IIHS Top Safety Pick list, a nice honor indeed.

Niceties

  • Cubbies, cubbies, everywhere!  I love me some storage!  There’s a place for coins, sunglasses, your iPod (though curiously my iPhone 4 stuck out at an odd angle) with a pass-through for the USB cable, big stuff, little stuff, junk, junk, junk!  It’s a family car!  There’s the typical cavernous glovebox, then next to the passenger’s left leg is a nice slot for magazines or maps or carseat check forms ;).  There are 2 bottle holders in the front and single bottle holders in the back doors, 2 cupholders in the center console, and 2 cupholders in the pull-down armrest in the back seat.  The center console is a storage facility in itself and there’s even a smallish storage well in the back hatch next to the temporary size spare tire.

  • Keyless entry with push-button start: Simply have the key in your pocket and pull on the driver’s door handle to unlock the car.  Push the start button and the car starts.  Nice!  Uh, don’t forget to lock it when you get out.  Heh.  It won’t lock itself.  Heh.
  • Large, easy-to-read gauges: There’s simplicity in the layout of the bright gauges behind the steering wheel.

  • Heated seats: The optional heated front seats are controlled with a dial, which allows a range of temperature control instead of just high/low or on/off.

Driving Experience

The V6 has a peppy start from 0 mph, but accelerating when passing on the freeway was frustrating.  There was a considerable lag in downshifting when I pressed on the gas to accelerate to go faster.  It probably won’t bother the city driver, but if you’re driving the 2-lanes and you need to book it around a semi on a hill with limited space, it’ll surely get the adrenaline going.

You know what else will get the adrenaline going?  Braking!  The brakes are sluggish and I recommend NOT having to use them suddenly.  Very un-Toyota-like.

The heated driver’s seat left me toasty warm—love that—but the seat felt bench-like.  It was typical Toyota firm with good length for thigh support, but there wasn’t enough padding on the edges to make me feel like it was a custom fit.  I actually slid on the seat a bit when I turned corners (I may take them a little fast—I get the occasional “Mom!” from the back seat).  My 6’5” dh loved the legroom on the passenger side.  Both front seats, as a part of the Premium Package #2, were adjustable 4 ways with lumbar support.  The car is at the perfect height for getting out: turn and your feet are on the ground.  Not so high that you slide down and not so low that you have to push yourself up.

Steering the car feels almost too easy.  The Electric Power Steering definitely makes it a dream to steer.  I know some folks don’t like it that much because it takes the feel of the road from the driver, but if you’ve had a hard workout at the gym or at Gymboree, dude, you’ll appreciate it.  However, the turning circle is big.  Parking in a small parking lot will be a challenge.  This is an excellent car for teaching a teenager the finer points of the three-point turn.

Child Passenger Safety Techs Do Their Best Work in the Back Seat

What would a review on CarseatBlog be without actually trying carseats out?  The backseat of the Venza is impressively large with excellent legroom, though the center front seat console is a knee-breaker.  It’s so large you could fit a moose.  No, perhaps not.  It doesn’t have 3 sets of LATCH, which is disappointing, nor does it allow borrowing of the inside LATCH anchors from the 2 outboard sets.  So, if you want to install a carseat using LATCH, it must be outboard.  If you do install a carseat using LATCH, the manual asks that you recline the vehicle seat to make accessing those lower anchors easier and it is a trick I found useful.  Of course, bring the vehicle seat back upright after you’re done tightening the LATCH strap.

Other remarkable items in the back seat include the buckle stalks: the outboard stalks are covered in a rubber gasket.  I don’t know why, but it does make them easier for booster riders to access.  It does not make it easier for carseat installers if they need to be twisted.  Fortunately, for the seats I installed, they were sufficiently short enough that I didn’t need to do any twisting of the stalks.  The head restraints are angled in some, which did cause a problem with the forward-facing seats I installed.  The vehicle manual specified that the head restraint should be lowered after passing a standard single strap tether underneath, but it can’t be with today’s taller higher weight harness carseats.  I made the executive decision to leave it raised, but you could also take it off and stow it someplace safe.  The center head restraint is flush with the back seat and poses no problem.

OK carseat geeks, you’re dying to know what I installed.  Or not, because you’ve already scrolled past this paragraph to look at the pictures.  I know you better than you know yourselves ;).  My friends at Dagerman’s Just for Kids didn’t have a Radian for me to try that day (I was so disappointed—little did they know I was going to buy one!  Oh, and I found myself in the middle of a reality show pilot being filmed when I showed up there, but I have no doubt I broke the camera, lol!), so I was limited in what I could try.  I chose a Complete Air 65 Special Edition—the one with the swirly embroidery—and a Graco SnugRide 30 in Sahara (that’s giraffe to those of us not familiar with the names) to go with the Britax Advocate 70 CS I already had in there.

Finding a spot for a rf tether connector strap (d-ring) for a Britax or Sunshine Kids convertible was very easy.  The plastic piece covering the front seat legs does pop off easily on both the driver and passenger sides, but I found the strap slid underneath it without any problems. 

The rear-facing/forward-facing ADV didn’t mesh well with the ff CA, so I put the SR in the center and the CA outboard.  So the ADV and CA were both outboard ff and the SR was in the center.  Each was independently installed and had a wonderful fit.  I did the ADV with the seatbelt (no lockoff—laziness on my part), SR with seatbelt, and CA with LATCH.  Sure, you could find skinnier seats and have even more room between them.  Dd has been riding on a Harmony LiteRider booster this week and it’s been a bit rough for her due to the lightness of the seat—it weighs about 3 oz.—and slipperiness of the leather.  Perhaps I should have gotten down the Fisher Price Safe Voyage booster for her instead . . .

Entertain Me.  No Them.  No, Me.

One of the Venza’s options is a built-in rear-seat DVD entertainment system with 9-in. display, RCA jacks, 120V AC power outlet, and two wireless headphones.  It has a great display and will keep your kids quiet while you’re on the highway.  A nice feature for when you’re stopped someplace waiting AND you have the touch-screen navigation system is that the DVD will also play on the navigation screen up front.  BUT only if you have the parking brake engaged.  Yep, even if the gear shift is in Drive, if the parking brake is engaged, the movie plays for the front seat passengers and the audio is played through the car’s speakers.

 

And?

It doesn’t have the feel of typical Toyota Kaizen, or continuous improvement. 
It felt . . . American but for the firm seats, lol.  The plastic everywhere and fake wood felt . . . fake.  I felt every bump in the road as I drove, the window controls on the driver’s side were awkwardly placed and I had to reach for them (my feeling is that a driver shouldn’t have to reach or leave the driving position for anything basic—the vehicle should fit), and the bottle holders in the door were awkwardly placed and I had to shove my bottles in them.  Probably the most unsafe of all was the huge blind spot in the windshield I had from the rear-view mirror that literally hid entire vehicles.  The mirror had a special feature installed called Automatic High Beams, which automatically detects vehicles at night and switches the headlights between high and low beams.  That may affect the placement of the mirror on the windshield—I don’t know. Between the A-pillar blind spot and the rear-view mirror, any time I was at a 4-way stop, it was scary.

So Is It an SUV or a Wagon/Car?

See, this is still the problem the Venza faces.  It can’t quite decide.  The Toyota Venza was designed in the U.S. to be sold in the U.S. only and I think that’s where the problem lies.  It looks like a Toyota, it has a Toyota engine, but it doesn’t really feel like a Toyota.  It’s rough around the pleasing-to-look-at edges.  Toyota lists the Venza on its SUV webpage and it’s categorized as a mid-sized SUV for crash-test purposes, but it still felt like a wagon to me.  If you’re looking for a stylish kid-hauler, this is probably a vehicle you’ll want to test drive.  Just be aware of its quirks before you go.

You can learn more about the Venza at the Toyota website and download brochures as well. For pricing information, we recommend Edmunds.com, Carwoo! and CarsDirect.com.

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Our Venza was supplied to us by the Walker Agency, courtesy of Toyota USA.