By Eric Peters
Well, it’s back. Most people probably didn’t know it was gone.
The Toyota Venza.
It’s been absent from Toyota’s roster of models since the 2015 model year, probably because Americans, for whatever reason, just aren’t much into station wagons — which is what the first generation Venza was.
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They are into crossovers, particularly those made by Lexus, such as the very popular RX350. The problem is Toyota doesn’t sell that model under its own label.
Enter the new Venza, which is very similar not only to the Lexus RX350 but even more like the RX450h, the hybrid version of that model.
It’s just a bit (but not that much) smaller. And a lot smaller-priced.
What It Is
The new Venza — unlike the old Venza — isn’t a higher-riding, wagonized Camry. It looks a lot like – and is laid out a lot like — the Lexus RX, which is a mid-sized luxury crossover SUV. The Venza is slightly smaller than the mid-sized RX, but it has comparable room inside for passengers — and much more room inside for cargo.
Unlike the RX, it also comes standard with a hybrid powertrain and all-wheel-drive — for $32,670 to start versus $45,220 for the base (non-hybrid and front-wheel-drive) RX350.
The hybrid RX450h (which comes standard with AWD) starts at $47,920.
This is nearly $8,000 more than the $40,000 Toyota charges for a top-of-the-line Venza Limited, which comes with a massive 12.3-inch touchscreen that’s the same size and type as the one in the Lexus RX450h, a similar JBL premium audio system with nine speakers, heated/ventilated seats and heated steering wheel, simulated leather trim, a 360 degree bird’s eye surround-view camera system and a huge panorama glass roof that auto-dims at the touch of a button.
The Venza name isn’t but the vehicle it’s affixed to is.
Excellent fuel efficiency.
Compares favorably, functionally and visually, to the much more costly Lexus RX450h hybrid.
Goes twice as far as an electric-only crossover, and it doesn’t force you to stop and wait for a recharge when you run low on gas.
What’s Not So Good
Much less cargo space than in the old Venza.
LCD screen’s smartphone-style touch inputs are harder to use accurately while driving than physical knobs and buttons you don’t have to look at to operate.
Driver “assistance” tech can’t be skipped.
Under The Hood
Toyota has sold vast fleets of hybrids, especially the Prius. But the price you pay for 50-plus MPG capability is not being able to get to 60 very quickly. It is one of the reasons why some buyers who are looking for a hybrid that isn’t so slow — and one that doesn’t look like a Prius — walk across the street to the Lexus store. There you can find hybrids that don’t look like a Prius — and that gets to 60 in good time, too.
The Venza attempts to bridge that gap.
It comes standard with a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder gas engine paired with electric motors and a battery pack to power them, which gets recharged as you drive by the gas-burning engine, so you never have to stop to plug in. The combo makes 219 horsepower, which is sufficient enough to get the Venza to 60 in about 7.5 seconds — which is about three seconds quicker than it takes a Prius, which has a 1.8-liter gas engine and 121 horsepower, to get to 60.
It is also enough to get 40 miles per gallon in city driving and 37 on the highway. This is not as fuel-sippy as the Prius, which averages 50-plus MPG in city and highway driving. But it is much better than the Lexus RX450h’s 31 city, 28 highway — and compares very favorably with the hybrid Lexus’ 7 second 0-60 time slip.
On The Road
Initially, the Venza emulates the electric car’s silent running. When you turn it on, nothing mechanical happens. Just dashboard lights that let you know it’s ready to go. You glide away on battery power, which powers the electric motors. As you drive, the gas engine will come online to supplement — and to recharge. It is almost impossible to discern these yin-yang handoffs without referring to the visual display in the dash that shows you what’s happening in case you’re interested.
At The Curb
The Venza has 40.9 inches of front seat legroom and 37.8 inches of rear seat legroom — versus 44.1 up front and 38 in the second row of the RX. But the Lexus only has 16 cubic feet of space for it behind its second row and with its second row folded, that expands to just 32.6 cubic feet.
The Toyota RX — whoops, Venza — has 28.8 cubic feet behind its second row and 55.1 cubic feet with them down.
This Toyota also offers Lexus-level amenities, including a Star Gaze sheet-glass panorama roof that can be semi-opaqued at the touch of a button, to let some — but not too much — sun in.
There is also the available (standard in Limited trims) 12.3-inch LCD touchscreen, identical in size to the unit in the RX.
The Bottom Line
If you like the Lexus RX, but you would rather not pay for it, Toyota may have most of what you’re looking for.
Eric’s latest book, “Doomed: Good Cars Gone Wrong” will be available soon. To find out more about Eric and read his past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
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