The Happy Middle Ground

2009, Toyota, Venza V6

Toyota has grown over the years to offer a wide range of vehicles for every person, price and purpose. Now, with the Venza, the company aims to combine the benefits and qualities of cars and SUVs into one appealing package.

So what is a Venza exactly? It sounds Italian, exotic, but it's really a tall car made in Georgetown, Kentucky alongside its popular Camry and Avalon siblings.

"It caters to buyers who are looking for the value and reliability of a Camry, the comfort and upscale refinement of an Avalon, and the utility and flexibility of a Highlander in one very stylish and sporty package," says Bob Carter, Toyota Division group vice president and general manager.

It certainly gives the design direction of upcoming Toyotas. The bold grille stretches up and out, with headlamps that taper into a point as they run around the front fender edges. With bulging wheelwells and cinched in waist, the car looks like its bursting with energy.

Inside, light colors give an open, airy feeling while a wavy texture on the dash plastic and seat leather conveys nervous excitement. Artificial, handsome Satin Mahogany woodgrain graces the dash and the top of the leather-wrapped shift knob, which angles out of the console, not the floor.

Small triangular windows add visibility to the forward leaning front pillars while conveying some of the minivan look. Yet the Venza mostly feels carlike inside, and it drives like one, too. The SUV elements are the higher seating position and the rear carrying capacity-a generous 70.1 cubic feet with the second row seats dropped.

That makes the Venza very efficient at carrying things. It's high on the "bassability index." I was able to drop the larger half of the 60/40 split rear seat to accommodate the instrument, preserving room for a second-row passenger. The rear load-in height is lower than the Camry's and nearly as low as the Sienna van.

The Venza comes as one model only, but you can choose between two engines and select front- or all-wheel drive, and add options or option packages as you wish.

My Classic Silver Metallic tester (one of nine creatively named shades) had the uplevel 3.5-liter V6, which produces 268 horsepower and 246 lb.-ft. of torque to move the two-ton vehicle along easily. The V6 Venza is rated at 18 City, 25 Highway with all-wheel drive, and I averaged 18.3 mpg-a bit of a disappointment.

EPA Green Vehicle Guide scores for the all-wheel-drive V6 model are 7 for Air Pollution and 5 for Greenhouse Gas. The two-wheel-drive version gets bumped to 7/6, placing it into the Smartway group.

The standard 2.7-liter inline four-cylinder engine puts out 182 horsepower and a matching number of lb.-ft. of torque. This engine improves fuel economy by 2-3 miles-per-gallon while reducing vehicle weight by 110 pounds.

Both engines use a six-speed sequential-shift automatic transmission. It's electronically controlled with intelligence for your driving pleasure.

By using a single-grade strategy with simplified packages and stand-alone options, every Venza is well equipped. On the outside, standard features include fog lamps, privacy glass, and a roof-mounted XM satellite radio antenna. The 3.5-liter models get large five-spoke 20-inch wheels-the first on a Toyota car-while 2.7-liter models flaunt bold 10-spoke 19s.

Inside, you get dual-zone climate control with second-row vents. Besides the usual power features, there are integrated audio controls on the tilt/telescope steering wheel, as well as cruise control, an overhead console and three 12-volt power outlets.

As a family vehicle, safety is crucial, and the STAR safety system provides plenty of it. You get antilock brakes with Brake-force Distribution, Vehicle Stability Control and Traction Control systems. These systems work together to keep the car on the road and moving in the right direction regardless of weather conditions or driver input. The standard Hill Start Assist Control temporarily provides pressure to the brakes while the car's stopped on a hill to prevent rollback. The Venza has seven strategically located airbags, and front passengers get active headrests to help prevent whiplash.

The Venza was designed in studios in Newport Beach, California and Ann Arbor, Michigan. Most of the engineering was done in Ann Arbor, as well. The car is sold exclusively in the North American market, and more than 70 percent of its components come from North American suppliers.

Pricing starts at $25,975 for the two-wheel-drive model with the four-cylinder engine. My all-wheel-drive, V6-powered tester's MSRP was $29,250, but the sticker price swelled to $37,394 with Premium Package #2, a navigation system with upgraded JBL Synthesis 13-speaker sound system, and a couple of other little things. At least it feels luxurious for that price.

By Steve Schaefer

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Images of the 2009, Toyota Venza V6

2009 Toyota Venza V6 front view
2009 Toyota Venza V6 front view
2009 Toyota Venza V6 interior
2009 Toyota Venza V6 interior
2009 Toyota Venza V6 center console
2009 Toyota Venza V6 center console
2009 Toyota Venza V6 rear shot
2009 Toyota Venza V6 rear shot