Sometimes, we live with short memories.
For example, how many of you owned a Toyota Venza? You know, the one that some of my fellow pundits once crowned it a "Camry Station Wagon" when they first came out in 2008.
Well, it was a Camry. Built on the same platform alongside the sedan this vehicle was based on. This was a peak crossover for the time.
They sold decently. Families found the Venza to be their liking. Other consumers passed them up for more butch-looking SUVs – even those sold at the same dealerships. They looked dowdy and uninspiring. Yet, they served a purpose for their owners.
By 2015, Toyota eliminated the Venza. Little did they know that it would open up a gap that was ripe for everyone else to take advantage of. The two-row mid-size SUV segment was about to explode in the next few years after the Venza’s demise.
That is why the Toyota Venza has returned. To fill in that gap…and more.
First off, this Venza was developed as a two-row SUV without the help of a car platform. Instead, it shared Toyota’s TNGA-K platform of the RAV4 and Highlander. Therefore, it is developed as an SUV from the start.
Secondly, this Venza was originally developed for the Japanese Domestic Market as the Toyota Harrier. As a trivia answer, the Harrier is usually a Toyota-badged Lexus RX for Japanese customers. Since Lexus is now sold in Japan, the Harrier became its own entity for that market.
Lucky for us, Toyota now sells the Harrier here in the good ol' USA – as the Venza. And, we’re glad they did!
It is simply because that the Venza is a handsome vehicle. This stylish number might remind you of a Lexus or two. I can see that is some of the shapes and lines, but I need to remind myself of the badge that it wears. However, it offers a lot of nice visuals, from the front end and its thin LED headlamp units to the rear tail area with its “shelf” dividing the fastback roofline and full-length LED taillights.
If you look at it, it is clear that the Venza is indeed a Toyota. However, I got a lot of you saying that it reminds you of a Lexus. I can see that is some angles. Let me propose you this: It could be the most upmarket-looking and feeling Toyota right now. That is, if you erase the Lexus badge from this image.
My tester is the top-of-the-line Limited model. The 19-inch chromed alloy wheels are the main feature distinguishing it from the two other trim levels – the LE and XLE.
Being the Limited model means getting spoiled inside. The SofTex upholstery and soft touch areas around the cabin looks and feels very upmarket. There is a two-tone motif all around, along with some texture woodgrain appliques in a few places. Could this be the Lexus influence on this Toyota two-row mid-size SUV? Maybe. It does have a special atmosphere, however.
The seats are well bolstered, but very comfortable. Long distance drives offer no fatigue on this somewhat wide body. I had a nice driving position with plenty of space in the cabin. Rear seats offer adult space for at least two. The head and legroom made the Venza a nice adult carrier for the evening out at a restaurant with a reservation in place. You have to have a reservation these days to stay safe while dining at a place these days.
The instrument panel is purely all Toyota. The information screen gives you everything you want from fuel economy to tire pressure to energy flow between the battery and the motors. The two large dials flank this screen are easy to read, and augmented by the wide head-up display.
The dashboard’s focal point is on the 12.3-inch infotainment touchscreen that dominates the center stack. It is the hub of an infotainment system that had received its licks lately by my colleagues. While Entune might be on the wane, it is an integral part of the current infotainment system.
You can, however, connect your smartphone for Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. The integration is seamless. Your output is a set of nine JBL speakers, including a subwoofer in the rear cargo hold. The sound was fine for what is offered in the Venza.
The main feature of the center stack is the array of touch-capacitive “buttons” underneath the center vents. They look clever, but I just wished for a few more controls and operations that would augment them. For example, better radio tuning for SiriusXM to help setting up the presets. Maybe a direct tune feature on the touchscreen? Maybe a knob or two?
When you get the Limited model, you are in for a treat. Just above you is the Star Gaze roof. When you open up the shade, the glass panels are opaque. To make them “clear,” just press a button on the upper console and you get blue skies or stars…or both.
When hauling things around, the cargo space is square and roll-in is late with the high bumper. There is 28.8 cubic feet behind the second row of seats, which can be folded down to a nice 55.1 cubic feet.
Cargo space is generous, starting with a 28.8 cubic feet space behind the second-row seats, expandable to 55.1 cubic feet with those seats folded down.
Underneath the hood is a familiar driveline which I consider the best hybrid driveline in the business. You have a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with two electric motors, a continuously variable transmission and all-wheel-drive. Combined this is an efficient driving force designed to make the journey nicer. Combined, this driveline puts out a net of 219 horsepower, while returning our average of 37.7 MPG.
While the hybrid driveline handles the part of motivating the Venza, the suspension adds more smoothness to the driving experience. There are some road surfaces that are rough, but the Venza absorbs them just fine. As for handling, it manages evasive maneuvers well, even with some roll and lean. Cornering is soft, but with plenty of control.
The steering system works fine and exhibited a good turning radius and solid on-center feel. Just wished for less of an artificial feel at the wheel. I also wished for just a bit more braking response. There were moments when I wished there was not a delay when depressing the pedal. However, the stops were good in normal and panic situations.
For everything you get in this 2021 Toyota Venza Limited, the sticker price came to $43,100. You could argue that the price would be in the realm of a Lexus. Not exactly. The Venza lineup starts at $32,470 which is around $8,000 less than the base price of an NX 300h, and less than $4,000 more than a RAV4 LE Hybrid.
Which brings me to my first summation. Understand where the Venza fits in the Toyota lineup. The segment representing the gap between the RAV4 and Highlander is lucrative. It also replaces two forlorn models – the previous-generation Venza and the Prius V. The Venza’s importance to Toyota should not be discounted when it offers a different kind of experience than its sales volume leading duet of SUVs.
Yet, the Venza feels upmarket. Thus triggering the response of it being a Lexus with a Toyota badge. I still argue that as upmarket the Venza feels, it is truly not a Lexus. There are several points to make regarding how small the NX 300h is compared to a Venza, and so forth.
Why choose a Venza over all of these hybrid vehicles from Toyota and Lexus? What about other hybrid models from other manufacturers? Again, I use the word “special.” It is a feeling that distinguishes you from them.
Them, being consumers that know what they’re getting because they’re more familiar with the RAV4, Highlander, and NX 300h. However, you want to stand apart with high style and comfort, save fuel in the face of rising pump prices, and want something different from them.
For you, the Toyota Venza is probably your best choice among the rest.
DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Toyota Motor North America
All photos by Randy Stern