2009 Toyota Venza

John Stewart

Sporty? Well, we did get a chance to hustle around in the Venza - in three different versions, in fact - and found the car's handling and performance supports spirited brake-and-throttle exercises on winding two-lane highways. In the rain, yet. The optional engine, a 3.5-liter V-6 shared with the Camry, is mated to a crisp six-speed automatic transmission that responds at the touch of a toe. As a result, the V-6 has a dual personality. It's quiet and efficient but peak horsepower (268 in all) arrives at 6200 rpm, so there's a reason to rev it. The transmission allows for sequential shifting, too, so it's more involving than your average minivan.

In addition, there's a full suite of electronic enhancements - traction control and the like - but they are switchable. That is, should you prefer a purer, more direct connection with the road, you can turn it off.

Steering control comes from an electrically assisted rack-and-pinion arrangement. The amount of assist is based on vehicle speed. Early versions of Toyota's electric steering elicited complaints that on-center feel was vague, an inappropriate match to sporty cars. We can't say that the Venza offers cartlike steering control, but we're not sure that's a requirement for this kind of car, which needs to be easy to drive and park. We think that the steering is decently matched to the MacPherson strut suspension and the 50-series tires mounted on big twenty-inch wheels. Cornering alacrity is good but not good enough to make us wish for an unassisted steering rack. The same goes for the transmission: a manual isn't available, but it's not really called for, either.

Even so, Toyota has gone so far as to work with the tuning company Street Image to build a tuned, SportLux Venza. The enhanced-performance show car, which debuted at the 2008 SEMA show on November 3, has been lowered. Modifications include bigger, six-piston TRD disc brakes and a supercharger, helping illustrate Toyota's message that the Venza, while utilitarian, doesn't have to be boring.

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