Jim Bray's Car & Tech rants - publishing online exclusively since 1995
Toyota Venza

Toyota Venza: a tall wagon evolves into a taller and higher-tech SUV

By Jim Bray
November 24, 2020

Out goes the "car", in comes the "SUV" – and that's the tale of the Toyota Venza. Well, part of it.

Time was when the Venza occupied a kind of unique niche in the car marketplace, at least in North America: a tall station wagon. Station wagons are rare here, unfortunately, though other parts of Parent Earth still do brisk business with them. Here, we get a few wagons, mostly German (not that there's anything wrong with that!), but even sedans and coupes are threatening to become an endangered species in these parts in favour of SUV's.

So, Toyota has now brought back the Venza, "rebirthing" it as a, well, a big RAV4 – though it isn't even really much bigger than the RAV in size. Toyota is slotting the new, two row Venza SUV between the RAV and the larger, three row Highlander, filling a whole in their product line that I didn't think existed. Seems silly to me, but the carmakers never ask my opinions (It may be a defence mechanism on their parts…). Besides, fortunately, the new Venza is a really nice vehicle that will probably sell by the truckload.

If only they hadn't saddled it with a typically noisy and annoying continuously variable transmission.

Click on the image to open a slideshow.

Available only as a hybrid (which undoubtedly helps explain the CVT), the 2021 Venza is a handsome vehicle – much more agreeable to my eyes than the recently uglified RAV4 and, though it's not the same type of vehicle, the well-creased Camry. The front end has a big grille, but it's not overly in your face, and the clean sides lead to a rear end that seems reminiscent of the Jaguar F-Pace (a very handsome vehicle, indeed).

It also offers a couple of really cool features I'm dying to tell you about.

According to Toyota, the all-new for 2021 Venza is blessed with Toyota's Hybrid System II powertrain and advanced Electronic On-Demand All-Wheel Drive. The vehicle is built on a version of Toyota's "New Global Architecture K platform" that the company says delivers 'the best of both worlds: sedan-like driving comfort and SUV versatility."

It's very comfortable, indeed, and as versatile as it should be, but don't confuse it with a Sport utility vehicle. The drive is comfortable, but unless you keep it in Sport mode all the time you might find – as I did – that it's a tad flaccid to drive. That's okay; Toyota makes no claims about this being a Macan killer.

Powering the Venza is a high-efficiency 2.5-litre DOHC four-cylinder engine with three electric motors that add more oomph, while supposedly saving gas. Toyota says combined power is 219 horses, which isn't a world beater but which I found during my week with the Venza to be perfectly adequate. When pressed, the pickup is quite good, though you'll want to keep the audio system cranked (Toyota's sample had a nice JBL system) lest the wail of the CVT make you think you're about to be visited by a banshee.

There are three driving modes, NORMAL, ECO and SPORT, selectable via a switch on the centre console. SPORT mode "improves and sharpens throttle response" and it does tighten up the driving experience somewhat. ECO mode "changes the throttle and environmental logic to help the driver focus on maximizing mileage from the fuel and battery", thereby saving you gas money at the expense of fun. NORMAL mode, Toyota says, is "ideal for everyday driving," and this is true if you don't care about the driving experience. There's also an EV mode that "allows electric-only driving at low speeds for short distances." In practice, EV mode is pretty useless, but it's there if you want to feel good.

There's also a "manual shifting" feature with which you can pretend the CVT is a real automatic. You might have to pretend really hard, though, but on the upside, Toyota says the feature lets you increase the Venza's regenerative braking, in steps.

The interior is roomy, comfortable, high tech and, well, quite lovely. The driving position is fine, there's a good dead pedal for the driver's left foot and the tilt/telescope steering wheel is positioned easily for optimal driving comfort. And rather than go with the damn trackpad interface found on some of Toyota's Lexus brand products, you get a real (and, at least on the sample, big) touch screen atop the centre stack.

I found the screen a tad far away for my stubby little arms, and a tad busy so far as the interface is concerned, but it wasn't a big deal in either case. The sample also had a customizable head's up display for the driver, and it works well as long as you aren't wearing polarized sunglasses (at which point it becomes mostly useless).  

And, as noted above, there is couple of innovative features that practically leap at you, and they're very cool.

First up is the sunroof, a big panoramic panel that, alas, doesn't open but which does perform some other magic. It's called Star Gaze, and is an electrochromic glass technology that lets you switch the big panel between transparent and frosted modes (in about a second), via a button on the ceiling. In frosted mode, Star Gaze "brightens the interior while reducing direct sunlight, giving the cabin an even more open, airy, and inviting feeling."

And it works well. I still wish it opened, though I appreciated how it cut down on the sun's rays beating down on my hair-thinning head. I'd probably like it even more in the summer!

The other bit of high-tech magic is the optional digital rear-view mirror, and it really blew my mind. You can use it as a conventional rear-view mirror, but if you switch the tab on the bottom (most cars have this as a day/night switch), it changes from being a mirror to a little widescreen video monitor.

And that monitor gives you a lovely, panoramic view behind. It's weird at first, and I found my eyes would have preferred it to be a few inches farther away (so they could focus better on it), but it gives you such a wide and fantastic view behind you it almost makes the outside mirrors superfluous. Almost.

My wife and I drove out to Kananaskis country, in the Rocky Mountains about an hour west of our home and, when coming home, the "mirror" gave such a wide-angle view that I could see the opposite lanes clearly – and this was multi-lane divided Trans Canada Highway, so I could see the road behind me, the wide median, and the other lanes. It's fantastic!

The only downside would be the cost to replace it if it ever screws up, but this being a Toyota I'm pretty confident that wouldn't happen.

Well, one other downside is that it gives such a beautiful view behind you that I kept wanting to look at the wide vista of the Rocky Mountains retreating behind me, instead of concentrating on the road ahead.

Oh, yeah. The digital rear-view mirror also includes the HomeLink garage door opener feature, as it should.

And here's another good thing about the "mirror": Toyota points out in their press materials that "if rear passengers or luggage in the cargo area are blocking the view behind…the digital rear-view mirror instantly provides the driver with a wide, unobstructed view from a rear camera."

There's also a conventional rear-view camera that appears on the centre stack's LCD screen (as most of today's vehicles do), and it even has a the ability to spray washer fluid on it to keep it clean. I wish this washing system were standard on every vehicle with a back-up camera, because they tend to get really dirty really quickly and then you have to get your fingers or gloves icky cleaning them off.

Toyota's sample Venza Limited even had a cool, all-around camera.

Alas, all isn't sweetness and light in the Venza, though of course your mileage may vary. Toyota, in its wisdom, has dumped volume and tuning knobs from the centre stack in favour of up/down rocker-type switches. I've been complaining about Honda having done this for years, so am a tad disappointed to see it spreading like we're being told COVID is. It's almost as if the designers never actually drove the vehicle in the real world during its development.

To be fair, you can use the touch screen for tuning, as well as the steering wheel-mounted controls (and the voice recognition), but if you just want to crank the volume quickly or tune to a channel that isn't in your presets, it's a pain in the neck.

Naturally, safety systems are a priority for Toyota and they've piled them on in the Venza, including the Toyota Safety Sense (TSS 2.0) suite of active safety systems that includes: "Pre-Collision System with Daytime/Low-Light Vehicle and Pedestrian Detection, plus Daytime Bicycle Detection; Full-Speed Range Dynamic Radar Cruise Control; Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist; Automatic High Beams and Lane Tracing Assist.

You also get a Blind Spot Monitor with Rear Cross Traffic Alert, which is standard on all Venzas (the rear cross traffic stuff is a great feature!); XLE and Limited trim levels add Front and Rear Parking Assist with Automated Braking.

The base Venza, the LE, starts at $38,490 CAD; the XLE ups the convenience, comfort, and style ante and starts at $44,490. The Venza Limited of Toyota's sample starts at $47,690. The test vehicle also had $255 worth of premium paint.

All in all, the new Venza is a very nice entry from Toyota. I may not understand why it exists in the first place, since there isn't a lot of room (in my never humble opinion) between the RAV4 and the Highlander, but it does exist and it's a darn fine vehicle. I'd probably buy it before either the RAV4 or the Highlander. So I guess there's that.

Welcome back, Venza. I wish you hadn't gotten taller and less interesting to drive, but I sure do like most of the other great things you offer.

And if you want a real conversation piece, show your friends and family that remarkable sunroof and digital rear-view mirror!

Copyright 2020 Jim Bray
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