Back for an encore, Venza returns to the Toyota lineup for 2021. Once again offered as a 5-passenger, 4-door wagon, Venza was last seen in Toyota dealerships in 2015. Riding Toyota's TNGA platform, which also underpins the similarly sized RAV4 and larger Highlander, the midsize Venza competes with crossovers like the Chevrolet Blazer, Ford Escape, Honda Passport, Hyundai Santa Fe, Kia Sorento, Nissan Murano, Subaru Forester and Volkswagen Tiguan.
In a unique twist, Toyota has given all Venza models a hybrid powertrain and all-wheel drive. Powering the front wheels is a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine coupled to electric motors and a continuously variable automatic. Twisting the rear wheels is a single electric motor. There is no mechanical connection between the front and rear wheels and the rear motor operates independently from the hybrid powertrain. Total system output is 219 horsepower. Like all hybrid models there is no need to plug in, Venza's 0.9 kWh lithium-ion battery is charged through normal engine operation.
The model lineup includes LE, XLE and Limited. All come standard with adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, forward-collision warning with brake intervention and lane-departure warning. LE starts at $32,570 and includes 18-inch wheels, LED headlights, 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system with support for Android Auto and Apple Car Play, pushbutton start, dual-zone climate control, wireless charging dock, and hands-free power liftgate. The $36,100 XLE adds front and rear parking sensors, 19-inch alloy wheels, roof rails, auto-dimming rear-view mirror with Homelink, heated front seats and simulated leather interior. Limited models have an MSRP of $39,900 and include 12.3-inch touchscreen for the infotainment system, JBL audio system, digital rear-view mirror ventilated front seats, power passenger seat, heated steering wheel and 360-degree camera system. Options include a head-up display, rain sensing wipers and auto-dimming panoramic sunroof.
The Venza attempts to provide smooth, efficient and comfortable performance, and, for the most part hits the mark. The standard hybrid powertrain provides great fuel economy and decent power. At 219 horsepower Venza is trails most competitors, but it will still scoot from 0 to 60 MPH in about 7 seconds. The continuously variable automatic transmission lacks traditional gears, so acceleration feels slushy. Thankfully, the transmission kicks down in ratio quickly enough in passing situations.
Venza does have an EV setting, but its overall range is very small. Think of it as a parking mode, rather than an actual driving mode. There are times when you'd expect the system to be operating in as an all-electric vehicle only to find that it is unavailable due to vehicle speed or load.
Unlike competitors, Versa's all-wheel-drive system comes via a separate electric motor on the rear axle. While there's no low range or direct mechanical connection between the engine and rear wheels, the system does a good job of apportioning power to the wheels with the most grip in slippery situations. Still, given the limitations of its AWD system, modest ride height and street-rated rubber, Venza isn't much of an off roader.
As you might expect given its standard hybrid powertrain, Venza is the class leader when it comes to fuel economy. EPA ratings of 40 MPG city and 37 MPG highway easily blow away competitors that "languish" with ratings of around 20/28 MPG. Equally impressive is Venza's highway range of more than 550 miles per fill up. In routine driving. Expect to average close to 40 MPG overall, though through an ingenious predictive driving system, Venza can eke out even more MPG. The system uses navigation information to learn repeated routes and frequent stops to more efficiently travel along that route.
On the road, Venza eschews life in the fast lane opting for a more comfortable and civilized approach. The soft suspension and squishy tires do an excellent job of creating a cushy ride but also create a mushy feeling when rounding corners or in quick transitional maneuvers. Thankfully, the ride is not so soft that it bounces or bobs on badly broken roads. Compounding matters is numb feeling steering that's uncommunicative and somewhat slow. Brakes have that definitive hybrid regenerative vibe as they transition from recharge mode to traditional friction braking. However, stopping power can be impressive in panic situations.
Interior noise levels are impressively low at all times. There's hardly any wind or tire noise and the engine only snarls in hard acceleration.
Upscale materials and modern design highlight the Venza's interior. Most surfaces are covered in a premium soft-touch pseudo-leather or are shiny bright aluminum. Though unmistakably Toyota in execution, you wouldn't be wrong to mistake the interior of the Venza for a Lexus.
The overall design is dominated by a large touchscreen at the top/center of the dash. LE and XLE models get an 8-inch screen surrounded by conventional buttons and dials while the Limited comes with a huge 12.3-inch screen that's totally touch integrated, meaning no ancillary dials or buttons. Operation is much simpler with the smaller screen and its traditional buttons and dials. It is too bad Toyota couldn't find room for them on the Limited. Either way, Venza comes with traditional analog gauges that are easy to read, day or night and fairly straight forward HVAC controls.
The front seats are nicely sculpted and well padded, providing both comfort and support. Head and leg room are good, but not exceptional. Rear seats are reasonably roomy, but the cushion is low making for a knee-up seating position for taller occupants. Step in is very good thanks to a lowish ride and wide-opening doors. Outward visibility is good forward and to the sides, but somewhat obstructed to the rear because of a smallish rear window.
Limited is available with a huge panorama roof that Toyota calls Star Gaze. It's fixed, but features electrochromic glass that can switch from transparent to translucent at the touch of the button. It's certainly a neat parlor trick and works well to keep glare and heat out of the cabin.
As is the case with most vehicles in this class, Venza comes loaded with plenty of standard safety features and nicely integrates Apple Car Play and Android Auto into the infotainment system. But the capacitive touch controls for the climate, volume, radio tuning, and some infotainment functions aren't as easy to operate as dials.
The fastback design creates a compromise on cargo space. There's just 28.8 cubic feet of space with the rear seats up and 55.1 cubic feet overall. (Compare that to the RAV4 which has 37.5 and 69.8 cubic feet, respectively.) In addition, the load floor is higher than expected and hatch opening a bit small. Interior storage is just average with a few open and covered bins throughout. The center console isn't as utilitarian as you'd expect and there's less space forward of the shifter than can be found in some competitive offerings.
Bottom Line -- Venza is a contender, not a pretender. By that I mean it does everything you'd expect a 5-passenger crossover to do and nothing you wouldn't. The ride is comfortable, acceleration is serviceable, passenger and cargo space are acceptable and fuel economy is amazing. Still, it's no sports sedan and the wonky controls on the Limited make XLE a much smarter purchase. Prices are at the high end of the spectrum, but bring with them the promise of high resale value and an excellent reputation for quality.