Mazda MX-5, Toyota Venza mostly stay the course
By Jim Bray
They may be very different in form and market niche, but the Mazda MX-5 and Toyota Venza are both excellent vehicles that offer a lot of value and/or fun to their owners. And that's nothing to sneeze at.
Both cars are also inching toward the end of their life cycles in their current forms, so their respective manufacturers are adding new content to keep potential clients interested – not that there isn't plenty of incentive to love these cars already.
And though I'm covering them both in one column, since neither is particularly new this year, they couldn't be a lot more different. Sure, they both have four wheels and the usual electronic and safety nannies, but that's just about all these two cars share in common. The MX-5 is Mazda's dynamic little two seat roadster – Mazda's little bundle of joy, as I like to call it – while the Venza is a terrific crossover/wagon-type thing that's a comfortable, roomy and efficient hauler of people and stuff.
The Mazda MX-5, formerly the Miata, is the best selling little two seat roadster in history, and it deserves to be. It's a fantastic car that takes all that was great about the old fashioned European sports car – such as the MGB, Triumph TR's and Fiat 124 Spyder – and adds modern underpinnings and, perhaps even more important, Japanese reliability.
I've owned three MGB's and not even the one I bought brand new was fit to shine the MX-5's steel belted radials. The car is just such a blast to drive it's hard to believe you can have that much fun from a – relatively – affordable sporty car.
Mazda introduced a retractable hardtop a year or so ago, which to me makes the package even more attractive. Sure, it adds weight, but it also buttons up the car beautifully when the weather heads south (or north!) and is much easier on the arm to operate than the ragtop.
Time was when you could get a Mazdaspeed Miata that offered turbocharged power and, obviously, upped the oomph ante appreciably. That day is no more, alas. Some consolation could come from the fact that the current, normally aspirated engine cranks out 167 horses, which is within a hair of the old turbo's output – but, unfortunately, the generational change – even without the retractable hard top – also added weight and this made me pine for the Speed version.
Please, Mazda, don't SKYACTIV the MX-5; instead, slap a turbo in 'er!
And new there's a GX Special Version (SV), which is the one I got to drive, and aren't I a lucky stiff? This isn't really a lot different from the regular car, but it includes stuff like a Velocity Red Mica exterior (think "candy apple red") with Brilliant Black PRHT 17" gunmetal colored alloy wheels that are pretty cool as well.
Black trim abounds, from the exterior door mirrors and roll bar garnish to the leather-trimmed, heated seats (which also boast "Sand stitching"), piano black trim and sand stitched leather steering wheel and parking brake, and "Leather-like" door trim with sand stitching. You also get alloy pedals, automatic climate control, an external thermometer and trip computer.
This model is limited to 180 units – at least one of which is now used! – so better bite quickly if this car turns your crank.
The "used" one – Mazda Canada's sample – wore the lovely six speed manual transmission that comes with the SV designation. Base models get a five speed stick that's also pretty good, but the six is nicer. A six speed auto is optional, but the stick is undoubtedly more fun (I haven't driven an automatic MX-5), with slick shifts that are geared so you'll probably be on the stick all the time – which was okay by me.
The MX-5 GX starts at $28,995. My test car came in at $33,845, with options. You can spend a lot more, though: the top line MX-5 GT starts at just a shade under forty grand, which is getting pretty dear for what's basically a marvelous toy.
The Toyota Venza, meanwhile, has two new option packages for the four cylinder version but otherwise is basically the same terrific vehicle it has been since it came out a couple of years ago. And judging by the number of Venzas I see on the street, it has been a real success story for Toyota. Better jump quickly, though; the 2013 model is already hitting dealers as I write this, and it looks even better.
But as for the status quo Venza, you can now order the four banger with a Premium Package, which is what Toyota Canada's sample Venza four banger came with. It ups the equipment ante with heated leather seats up front, a power rear door with jam protection (just try putting fruit jelly back there and see what happens!), a backup camera, fabulous panoramic glass roof and an anti-theft system.
You can also order the four cylinder AWD Venza with a Navigation & JBL Package that adds to the mix a 13 speaker JBL Synthesis Audio System (with four-disc CD changer, DVD-based navigation system with integrated back up camera, XM Real-Time Traffic capability, and more). My test car didn't have this, and I wish it did. The standard audio system has everything you really need (radio, disc, satellite, USB, auxiliary and Bluetooth), but its sound definitely won't get the heart stirring.
The base Venza delivers "up to" 182 horsepower, which is pretty good for a four banger these days. I think the six would be in order, however, if you live where you'll be climbing a lot of hills. The four's okay for cruising, but is kind of like the stereo in its ultimate performance: it could use some more oomph.
The V6, which I've tried before, is a peach. It cranks out "up to" 268 horses and that's a nice match for the vehicle's size and weight.
Both engines hook up with a nice, six speed automatic "super ECT" transmission with overdrive, and a sequential shift "pretend manual" mode that's better than not having one because it gives the driver better control. It doesn't add a lot of fun, but I daresay fun isn't this vehicle's mandate.
You can also get all wheel drive with Toyota's Active Torque Control System.
Other standard features include dual zone automatic climate control with dust/pollen/odor filter and rear seat heater ducts, nice captain's seats up front, including an eight-way power adjustable driver's seat, and a 60/40 split rear seat with recline, fold down centre armrest, and a handy remote release in the cargo area. You also get such typical niceties as power door locks with illuminated entry and ignition key and a power-assisted trunk closer, power windows (with auto up/down function on all windows!) and rear privacy glass.
One thing that's always made the Venza neat is the clever storage in the cockpit, including a couple of nifty places you can stick your smart phone (and even plug it in) on the center console.
The 2012 Toyota Venza four cylinder version starts at $29,425 for the front wheel drive model and $30,875 for all wheel drive. The V6 Venza starts at $30,915 (FWD) and $32,365 (AWD).
The Venza was my favorite Toyota until I drove the new Camry. The new, 2013 Venza appears influenced by the new Camry as well, so it should be a very interesting vehicle. In the meantime, Toyota may be willing to deal to get rid of the 2012's it still has in inventory.
Copyright 2012 Jim Bray
Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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