by Frank A. Aukofer

When the Toyota Venza made its debut in 2009, it was something of a novelty. Billed as a crossover utility vehicle, or CUV, it looked and felt more like a traditional station wagon, albeit a bit taller than most.

Automotive News, the most prominent trade publication in the automotive industry, listed the Venza as a car in its U.S. sales statistics, not in the truck category along with sport utility vehicles and crossovers. 

Though the terms get mixed up and misused, a sport utility vehicle generally is a wagon-like vehicle with body on frame construction, like a truck. Crossovers are built like cars with unit-body construction. 

The Venza crossover lasted just seven years. Its best sales year was 2009, the year it was introduced, when 54,410 were sold in the United States. But sales dwindled and Toyota dropped it after the 2005 model year.

But now it’s back for 2021 as a fully realized crossover SUV, better than ever with economical gasoline-electric hybrid power, not unlike its garage-mate Toyota Prius. Both are hybrid-only, a system with which Toyota has vast experience. The Venza also comes with standard all-wheel drive.

On the tested Venza Limited as well as other trim levels, the hybrid combination delivers 219 horsepower from a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine with 88 hp and three electric motors, one of which drives the rear wheels. The system earns an EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption rating of 40/37/39 mpg. 

Power gets to all four wheels via an electronic continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). Standard CVTs use a system of belts and pulleys to multiply engine torque. Toyota’s ECVT, also used in the Prius, uses electric motor generators to control a planetary gear set, allowing the transmission to continuously change the gear ratio and keep the engine’s rpms at maximum efficiency.

The hybrid system incorporates four driver-selectable drive modes: EV for purely electric motoring, Eco for maximum fuel efficiency, Normal for everyday commuting, and Sport for horsing around (carefully, of course).

There are three Venza versions: Base SE, midlevel SEL and top-line Limited. The last, tested for this review, came with a base price of $40,975, including the destination charge. With options that included a $1,400 panoramic glass sunroof and a $725 technology package with a head-up display and rain-sensing windshield wipers, the bottom-line sticker came $43,525.

The panoramic sunroof is unusual. The glass changes from nearly opaque gray to a translucent white fog at the touch of an overhead switch. But it does not open to the sky for fresh air. There is an opaque power-operated sunroof shade. 

The Venza slots in Toyota’s crossover SUV lineup between the less-expensive RAV4 and the larger Highlander. Curiously, though it shares its basic platform with the RAV4, the Venza actually has less interior space. It has 95 cubic feet of room for passengers and a cargo area of 29 cubic feet. The RAV4 has 99 cubic feet for passengers and 38 cubic feet for cargo.

The Venza is 15 feet 7 inches long compared to the RAV4’s 15 feet 1 inch. But the RAV4, at 5 feet 7 inches, is an inch taller than the Venza’s height of 5 feet 6 inches.

Overall, the Venza presents itself as a stylish and comfortable conveyance, more luxury-oriented than the RAV4. Following a trend among luxury crossover SUVs, it has the roofline of a coupe, though taller, and an interior that has prompted some critics to opine that it looks more like a Lexus, Toyota’s luxury brand, than a Toyota.

Inside, the upholstery and many surfaces are covered in leather or leatherette. Front and outboard rear seats are roomy, supportive and comfortable. Even the center-rear seat is not horrible, thanks to a shallow floor hump and a decently soft cushion. Rear seatbacks fold flat to expand cargo space to 55 cubic feet.

On the road, the Venza feels strong under acceleration, though there’s some growling from the gasoline engine when you get your foot heavily into the throttle. Once settled on the highway, the ambiance mostly becomes quiet.

For a vehicle that leans toward luxury, the Venza has some sporting road manners. Select the Sport driving mode and it handles curving roads with aplomb as the ECVT transmission keeps the engine on the boil. Not bad for a machine that can deliver 40 mpg.

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 Toyota Venza Limited four-door crossover sport utility vehicle.
  • Engine: 2.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline, 176 hp; with three electric motors; 219 combined system hp.
  • Transmission: Electronic continuously variable automatic (ECVT) with manual-shift mode and all-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 15 feet 7 inches.
  • Height: 5 feet 6 inches. 
  • EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 95/29 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,880 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 40/37/39 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $40,975.
  • Price as tested: $43,525.

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

Photos (c) Toyota