Friday, January 31, 2014

2014 Toyota Venza - Quick Drive

For once, a little truth in advertising.

In 2008, Toyota announced the Venza for the following model year and I remember being struck by its styling and how un-Toyota this vehicle appeared from the outside. It was the first Toyota product in many years that actually caught and held my attention for more than a few minutes but somehow, it escaped my test-drive list until now.

Lately I've been feeling the effects of an ailment I have affectionately dubbed AADD for Automotive Attention Deficit Disorder and despite loving my 2012 Hyundai Elantra, my AADD has had me ordering brochures and prowling the lots for the next shiny set of wheels to cross my path. Although I have no plans to replace my current car, I had to scratch my new-car itch just to get the urge out of my system so I located a Venza LE in Classic Silver Metallic and hit the road for a 24-hour quick test of this odd-man-out Toyota.

Despite disapproving strongly of Toyota's direction over the past decade or so (a point I made clear in my last post), what the Venza showed me right off the bat was not what I was expecting. Exterior fit and finish was very good with consistent panel gaps and a nice paint job low on orange-peel, an unappealing characteristic that has been the result of newer, environmentally friendly paints. The Venza's exterior has changed little since its introduction with only a minor refresh starting with the 2013 model year so the 14 I tested was a carryover with only minor changes. Up front, the broad satin-finish grille is flanked by smart-looking headlights with fog lamps set into gloss black housings placed low on the bumper. The Venza is much more the result of a minivan and station wagon mating than it is SUV and the low roofline and wide glass area are further proof of this fact. A clever pinch line along the bottoms of the doors is accented by a protective rub strip and adds enough flavor to keep it interesting without being ostentatious. Towards the rear, the Venza shows a dash of DNA from the SUV side of the family with a thick D-pillar and a fairly small rear window above angular yet handsome taillight clusters that mock the headlights up front, giving some continuity to a vehicle that is a mix of an SUV, crossover, and traditional station wagon. Set on 20" shadow gray five spoke wheels, the Venza carries an aggressive stance that is unique enough to stand out in a crowd but ambiguous enough to blend in when needed. It goes without saying the design has aged very well in the six years since its introduction.

Moving to the interior, the Venza continued to surprise me. My last Toyota test drive (not reviewed here) was a 2013 Prius and with acres of hard plastic, a myriad of rattles and unimpressive fabrics, its interior was far more early-90s GM than Toyota. The Venza could not have been more different. I found the seats firm but reasonably comfortable however the lumbar support protruded a bit too high for my liking and left my lower back woefully unsupported. The whole dash is trimmed in a nice, soft-touch material with a impressed design pattern that extends to the fabric seats that look and feel like they came out of a Subaru Outback, even sharing similar material design cues. Leather seats are available on XLE and Limited models and carry an elegant piping along the edges. The arm rests on the doors and console are trimmed in a vinyl that could almost pass for leather and the remainder of the console is fitted with a hard plastic that has a faux-aluminum look with a high gloss finish that looks and feels first-rate. All switches and stalks operate with a smoothness and precision that smacks more of a Lexus than a Toyota starting at less than thirty grand although I found a few small plastic pieces didn't line up quite like one would expect. But overall, the Venza is very well put together with excellent materials and leaves me wondering why all Toyota models aren't this well made.

Interior storage space is copious with a massive glovebox and wide, gaping door panels but it's the genius design of the center console that reminds me a bit of Chrysler's clever years during the 90s. The arm rest not only slides back
and forth but also opens to reveal a cavernous storage space, illuminated of course. But with the arm rest down, a quick touch of the chromed latch handle at the front of the console sends the cup holders sliding under the arm rest to reveal a second, individual storage space even larger than the first. This, too is illuminated and contains a power port and USB/AUX plug-ins for the audio system and a slot adjacent to the cup holders is just the right size to hold a smart phone. The only drawback of this layout is the cup holders are too shallow and too wide for a 20 ounce soda bottle with the rubber inserts removed and too skinny with them in. I found it best to use the dedicated bottle holders in the door pockets. Rear seat space borders on limousine style with dedicated air flow vents (but no controls), a fold-down arm rest and excellent forward and side vision. Cargo space is very good with the seats up and they can be folded quickly with a simple pull of a handle within the cargo area although they tend to get hung up on the seatbelts and operator intervention is often required. Despite this, the concept is sound and very practical.

Driver controls are simple at first glance with a handsome electroluminescent gauge cluster containing a tachometer, 140-mph speedometer as well as fuel and temperature gauges. My LE level tester (read: base model) came with a urethane steering wheel instead of the leather-wrapped rim found in higher end models but nevertheless, it contained controls for the audio, Bluetooth phone as well as Toyota's ubiquitous and idiot-proof cruise control stalk, the number of which produced to date must stretch into the billions. Set high on the dash is a simple three-row liquid crystal display containing the clock, outside temperature, automatic climate control status as well as a trip computer that shows average and instant fuel economy, range to empty and average speed. Thankfully, any of these functions can be reset individually from one another and are not tied into either Trip A or B functions in the gauge cluster odometer. Conversion to and from metric measurements is as simple as pushing a single button and this simplicity is a beautiful departure from some other vehicles that require a PhD in engineering just to set the clock. Complaints on the interior are few. I found some controls to be a bit of a stretch, especially the window controls which are set too far forward on the door panel, a location that required me to look or else guaranteed activation of the rear window instead of the front one I wanted. The power mirror control is also mounted far away from easy reach on the dash and is not illuminated at night.

 My test car came fitted with Toyota's optional Entune multimedia and navigation system that allows smartphone users to link up and download text messages and all sorts of information and stream Pandora, all provided you download the Entune app first. As the car had to be returned by 1:30 PM on Friday, I elected not to download the free app to my iPhone 5 which is already strewn with apps so I can't comment on how the two work together. The sound system itself offers as many choices as one could dream of. In addition to the standard AM/FM radio and single-CD player (does anybody even offer a CD changer anymore?), Entune provides XM Satellite Radio, HD radio on supported FM stations, Bluetooth streaming from your phone of choice as well as iPod connectivity and the ability to play music off a USB flash drive or a simple AUX cable. The sound that came from the system, despite not being the top-line JBL speakers, was very good. The bass hit low and hard and the highs came through nice and clear without being tinny although a bit more sound tweaking was required to perfect the sound while streaming through Bluetooth.

Sadly it seems all the R&D money on Entune was spent on the tunes and what remained (I don't know how many cents but it couldn't be many) was spent on the navigation system. The display is small by modern standards, only 6.1 inches and the resolution is nothing short of horrid. Street names are too small to read and the lack of contrast makes it difficult to make out any form of detail in day mode but at night when the screen turns black, it becomes so useless that it may as well turn off. The navigation feature itself is almost as bad, if not worse. While hunting down some ice cream, I asked the system to direct me to the nearest Baskin-Robbins and almost immediately, it directed me to "keep left" after exiting the freeway only to realize after making my turn it meant to say "keep right". Upon correcting my direction of travel, it instructed me to "Proceed to Hayden Island Drive and then turn left towards I-5." A left turn onto said street would have directed me away from I-5 so I cancelled the guidance and elected for an M&M McFlurry from a nearby McDonalds', the location of which I knew. I strongly suspect that there was something wrong internally with the unit on my test car so this may not reflect the system's capabilities but it left me convinced that Magellan himself could have found the mint chocolate chip on a sugar cone that I so desired faster than Entune could.

On the road, the Venza dashes any sort of hopes its potential driver may have had about being a sporty vehicle. Almost right away, I realized this is a car tuned for comfort, something I couldn't help but find ironic given the sporty appearance of its 20" wheels and aggressive, lowered stance. The steering has the communicational abilities of someone attempting to describe the Mona Lisa through Morse code and is horridly over-boosted and disconnected from the road at all times. Steering the Venza around freeway loop ramps and twisty roads feels a bit like turning a wheel on an arcade driving game in the sense that you judge your direction of travel based on where the hood is pointing and compensate accordingly but you never feel the turns. If the steering failed to inform you of the Venza's mission, the suspension will never let you forget it. Although it is to be commended for making the ride very good with the huge wheels and relatively low profile tires, any sort of aggressive input through the throttle, brakes or steering is grossly exaggerated. Quick direction changes result in immediate and concerning body lean and wallow and though it never approaches feeling unsafe, it is quite unsettling.

Venza power is provided by either a 2.7-liter four cylinder or a 3.5-liter V6, the latter of which was right at home between the engine mounts of my test car and pumped its 268 horsepower through a very smooth and refined six-speed automatic with a 'sport' shift manual mode, the irony such a name not being lost on this author. Short freeway merge ramps were of no concern to the V6 and it sounds good enough without being excessively harsh or loud but it asserts its power with a subdued roar. While ground clearance is decent, the overhangs are especially long and the front bumper sits low, precluding the Venza from any sort of heavy-duty off-road use. Dirt tracks and well-maintained forest service roads shouldn't be an issue but if your commute includes stretches of the Rubicon Trail, a 4Runner (or if you hurry, an FJ Cruiser) might be the better option.

My only real complaints about the Venza is its pinched rear window that impedes rearward visibility and a fuel tank that I can only assume is the size of a plastic Solo cup although Toyota claims it is 17.7 gallons, a figure I deem to be about three gallons too small for a vehicle of this size. Starting from full, the gauge was informing me I had just above 1/2 remaining after traveling just over 120 miles. But even after brimming the tank, the Venza had only taken 7.6 gallons and the needle had fallen from full after a mere 25 miles running all-highway at 65-70 mph. The Venza makes a great road trip car with its massive interior space and comfort but plan on stopping for gas frequently.

You may recall the Venza ad from a few years ago that featured a twenty-something female speaking to the camera and discussing her concern for her parents' lack of Facebook friends representing their being 'anti-social'. During her dialogue, it shows her parents taking their Venza out into the countryside with their mountain bikes and meeting up with other friends for a ride through what I assume is Northern California wine country on a beautiful, cloudless day. After a few hours in the Venza, this commercial came floating back from the depths of my memory and I came to the conclusion that the folks in that ad are exactly the kind of people Toyota is targeting with this car. It's for those who want the versatility of an SUV, the relative fuel efficiency of a crossover and the ride comfort of a traditional station wagon without the stigma or drawbacks of any and the Venza checks all those boxes beautifully. While it's never lit the sales charts on fire, the Venza has moved off dealers' lots in respectable numbers (usually between 30,000 and 40,000) each year since its introduction, easing Millennials' fears about their parents' social lives one sale at a time.


2014 Toyota Venza

The Good: Quiet and comfortable ride, good ergonomics, massive interior space for people and their things, handsome exterior styling, very good fit and finish inside and out.

The Bad: Small fuel tank, useless navigation system, back-up camera flummoxed by darkness, a few controls hard to reach.

The Verdict: A stylish and comfortable sensory isolation transportation chamber for the active lifestyle crowd.

Others Like It: Ford Edge, Honda Crosstour, Nissan Murano


Available Trim Levels: LE, XLE, Limited
Price Range: $27,950 - $40,825*
Vehicle Tested: LE V6 AWD with LE Preferred Package, door edge guards, carpeted floor mats and carpet cargo mat
Price as Tested: $35,429
Engines: 2.7-liter I-4 (181 hp / 182 lb. ft. torque) OR 3.5-liter V6 (268 hp / 246 lb. ft. torque)
Transmissions / Drive: 6-speed automatic with manual shift function / front or all-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 109.3"
Overall Length: 189.0"
Overall Width: 75.0"
Overall Height: 63.4"
Curb Weight: 4,045 lbs.**
Fuel Capacity: 17.7 gallons
Fuel Economy: 18 mpg city / 25 mpg highway**
Seating Capacity: 5
Location of Final Assembly: Georgetown, Kentucky
Basic: 3 years / 36,000 miles
Powertrain: 5 years / 60,000 miles
Corrosion: 5 years / unlimited miles

*Prices shown reflect manufacturer's suggested retail price at time of publication. Top end of price range is for vehicle equipped with all available factory-installed options and does not include any accessories. Final prices may be higher.
** Figure is representative of LE V6 AWD test vehicle.