The 2009 Toyota Venza has the unique ability to elicit both howls of displeasure and interjections of apathy, but considering what's popular with the masses, that doesn't matter. The question really appears to be: "Is it a good Toyota?"
The resounding answer here is "kinda." Toyota has built itself into the worlds largest automaker not by building passion, but by building a reputation for reliable, well built cars which are frugal at the pump. We often make Toyota the butt of jokes, but mainly because their cars are nothing if not exactly that: well-built, frugal cars that score a nice round zero in the excitement category, that's our problem, not Toyota's. They're the ones who've ridden that strategy to a $52 billion bank account.
But, the Venza makes us wonder if they've strayed from that strategy. Despite the marketing spin, the Venza exists in the space which should hold the Toyota Camry wagon, but since nobody selling high volumes in the US save Cadillac has the stones to use the word "wagon" the Venza is a crossover. It's based on the Camry, borrows the Camry's 3.5 liter V6 engine, the Camry's six-speed transmission and most of that car's underpinnings. There the similarities end, as Toyota decided to proceed with a decidedly taller profile. It sits in the same "tall wagon/short crossover" segment the Chrysler Pacifica invented and with the FWD standard, AWD optional, five-passenger layout, it might as well be the Pacifica's progeny. We're surprised nobody's yet coined the term, but during our time with the car we just started calling it a "fat wagon."
This is not to say the car is unpleasant on the eyes, Toyota did a good job providing interesting surfaces and unique styling, the influence of the L-Finesse styling language from Lexus cannot be denied with this fat wagon. If we were to describe it, we'd say it occupies the imaginary space in Ford's lineup between the Flex and the Edge, but with swoopier lines.
The exterior isn't where we have complaints, however, it's the inside that falls short of our expectations. Imagine a boardroom meeting of Toyota planners deciding which was the most cost effective way to curry favor with drivers. They'd toss around some ideas and settle on very nice leather seats. Their studies would determine everything else could be second rate and weirdly designed and the customer wouldn't notice. You now have the basic feel of the Venza's interior.
The comfort, support and quality of the seats is fantastic; Lexus RX quality stuff. What isn't leather is plastic with a texture somewhere between tree bark and old, wrinkly skin. The fake wood is rivaled in badness only by the trim in the Cadillac Escalade (meaning it's really fake). Somehow the HVAC controls manage to be low in button count but high in nonsensical control scheme. The infotainment system will fight you, but eventually submit to your intention. Assembly quality fell short too, with the passenger side vent failing even a basic level of fit and finish. Not all is bad though, the gauge cluster is super clear and the second information screen at the base of the windshield has great graphics and provides a lot of the vehicle status information in a straightforward fashion. The HVAC system will happily freeze you out of the car or deep fry you in an instant.
Then there's the center console. A singular train wreck of ergonomics. The only way it makes sense is if the whole thing were designed to kowtow to iPod owners with ADD. See the little door next to the shifter? Its only real purpose in life is to hold an MP3 player, otherwise it's functionally useless clutter in valuable real estate. The cup holder section holds another slot which would hold an iPod laying on its side, but nothing else. The whole section slides under the armrest, but only half way, to mostly reveal a stowage area underneath. The armrest in turn slides up over the cup holder section, but only kinda, and then opens up with a plasticy scrunch we haven't heard since driving a '90s era GM. If there's one thing that annoyed the hell out of us about this car, it was the center console, and admittedly that's a silly thing to get worked up over, but it was really that annoying.
Despite our V6 AWD tester's rather hefty 4045 Lbs curb weight, this car will scoot. The 268 HP V6 delivers 246 lb-ft of torque and is mated to a very well-sorted six-speed transmission does wonders to make the car somewhat entertaining in a straight line. The suspension is paradoxical though. One would imagine a hefty, family car to get a nice soft suspension that wallows a bit in corners and provides little or no feedback. The Venza splits the difference, with a moderate amount of body roll and a steering feel that's more present on-center than off-, but the suspension only manages to keep things smooth on the gentle stuff, while heaves and potholes are surprisingly jarring. Don't have too much fun, or actually any, cause you'll be punished hard at the pump. When we were gentle as lambs with the Venza, the best we could manage was a paltry 18.5 MPG overall, which is pretty low on the scale for a car claiming 18 MPG city, 25 MPG highway.
That last figure is most indicative of the Venza's nature. This is supposed to be a Toyota right? Remember? Reliable, well built cars which are frugal at the pump? We'll admit that, if you're a cow-eyed crossover buyer looking for something super comfortable, inoffensive, able to carry the brood around with the backing of a reputation for Toyota reliability, it's an option as long as you're snooping around the car's $25k starting price. But at our tester's $38,444, it's well outclassed by rivals at the same price and below. The Venza is a fat wagon with a big pricetag in a crowded market and it just doesn't deliver the quality, fuel economy, or value we expect from Toyota.