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The Venza: Comfort food for Totota lovers

This crossover, resembling a slightly deflated Lexus RX, is a safe but boring choice.

March 13, 2009|DAN NEIL

Don't bother parsing it. Toyota says the name of the new Venza is a phonological construction out of the words "adventure" and "Monza," the famous Italian racetrack. Good Lord. That's so far-fetched you need a starship to get there.

How about Camragon, which marries "Camry" (the Venza is largely based on the Camry platform) and "station wagon," which it most certainly is? I'd also accept HighRex, since the car combines the ground clearance of the Toyota Highlander with much of the Lexus RX350's techy swash.

The Venza, being a little longer and several inches lower, actually looks like a slightly deflated version of the Lexus RX, as if they had pulled a magic cork and drained about $12,000 out of it.

Might I also modestly suggest the name Crossolepsy, to signify the crossover it is and the narcolepsy it will induce?

Right, I know -- that's mean. Expecting driving thrills from the Venza is like reading the Book of Revelation for party jokes. This is a perfectly serviceable and safe apparatus to move bits of suburban protoplasm back and forth. Moreover, the Venza is priced right: $25,975 for the front-wheel-drive base model with a 2.7-liter, 182-horsepower four-cylinder.

All-wheel drive will cost you $1,450; the six-cylinder engine (3.5-liter, 268 hp) will dun you an additional $1,850. Put the two features together and Venza still comes in at $29,250, which is very respectable for an AWD wagon with a six-cylinder and six-speed transmission.

If you really go bonkers, you can brush $40,000. Tempting options include the panoramic moonroof, auto-dimming high-intensity headlights, the JBL sound system, an optional large-display navigation and rear-camera system -- wrapped up in a leather-upholstered bow.

It's not like this segment was crying out for another player: Ford Edge, Mazda CX-7, Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV4, Nissan Murano, Saab SportCombi, just to name a few.

Though varying in prices and degrees of crossover geometry, these are all midmarket four-doors with hatches, all five-passenger kid-schleppers with some Snow Belt appeal. Perhaps more so than any other segment, consumer choice here isn't ruled by flyspecking comparisons of price, features and cost of ownership, but by taste, sensibility and brand allegiance.

Which is to say, if you love Toyota -- the distinctive reek of its upholstery; the unmistakable gliding lightness and Novocain thrum of the steering; the frictionless way the starter engages; the whole tactility of Toyota -- then you'll love the Venza. This is the automotive equivalent to comfort food.

Speaking of comfort: Does this Venza make my butt look fat? The first moment I sat in the car I felt like I'd slipped on Junior Samples' overalls. The front bucket seats are extra-wide -- huge, really -- and quite soft, apparently to accommodate Americans' fluffy cabooses. I'd be completely incensed at this crass stereotyping if my butt wasn't so comfortable.

The Venza cockpit is a stylish and thought-through space. The leather-and-wood gearshift is in the lower center stack, as in the corporate cousin Lexus RX. The rest of the center stack fascia wraps itself around the gearshift, nicely organizing the audio and climate-control functions. Though no one will weep for the fate of the rain forest when seeing the car's "mahogany" console trim, it's not horrible as faux wood goes.

The JBL audio/satellite radio/navigation system is easy to use and intuitive. However, the navigation software made several rather large errors on my trip. For instance, it missed the street address of my brother's house by several hundred yards.

Do I detect just the tiniest bit of slippage in the interior? The plastics and vinyl trims in this car feel ever-so-slightly less gratifying and pleasant -- cheap, if you like -- than those in previous Toyota products, especially the Avalon.

The Venza's wind noise -- usually a strong point with the big T's cars -- is no better than average. Though it doesn't quite add up to evidence of complacency from the world's biggest carmaker, I think the Venza's surprise-and-delight quotient is only adequate. Are these the distant footfalls of entropy?

I suppose that, in the interests of journalistic transparency, I should note I got a speeding ticket in the Venza while crossing North Carolina. I can therefore report that at 83 mph, the Venza hummed along reasonably quietly, keeping an easy grip on the road while I blissfully ignored posted traffic instructions. My bad.

As for the Venza's performance, it's certainly not adventurous, and it resembles "Monza" only in its final syllable.

With a six-speed transmission backing up a 268-hp V6, the powertrain does a reasonable job of moving the car's 4,045 pounds. I estimate 0-60 mph acceleration is under 8 seconds. But honestly, this car is a bit of a buffalo on twisting Appalachian roads.

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