2009 Toyota Venza

John Stewart

The gauge package consists of bright Optitron gauges, with a large speedometer, a smaller tach, and smaller supporting gauges for coolant temperature and fuel. The multifunction display is 3.5 inches wide and visible from both front seats. Depicting trip-computer information is one of its many roles in life.

There are bins, holders, and storage pockets everywhere - overhead, in the door, behind the seats, and in the console. The console, in particular, is worthy of mention, because it's divided into two bins, the larger one supporting a covered armrest, the smaller one housing two cupholders. The cupholders slide back and forth to expose the divided compartments below, making access to the deep console easier.

On the center stack, Toyota designers took the opportunity to add specific cell-phone and iPod holders, the second of which conceals the connecting wires inside the console box. It's the best job of integrating iPod and cell phone needs (OK, fine, "wants") into a car we've seen yet. The cupholders are illuminated, adding a touch of atmosphere. The upper console is bigger and has an armrest lid that slides back and forth, providing access to a very large compartment suitable for larger items like gloves, CD cases, and so forth.

Legroom is comparable to that of a four-door family sedan, front and rear. The rear seating area is also deliberately comfort-oriented, with wide seats that recline fourteen degrees. The Venza's rear hatch adds some of the functionality of an SUV or a minivan. The seats fold flat with one-touch levers, creating 70.1 cubic feet of cargo space. The cargo area is carpeted, a cargo tonneau is standard, and more storage is available under the floor.

The standard six-speaker audio system sounded good to our ears, but there is an available JBL surround-sound system that goes further when it comes to sending quality sound to every seating position. It's packaged separately or with the rear-seat DVD system, using thirteen speakers and Bluetooth wireless technology.

The Venza, when all is said and done, is a premium family car that makes sense for young families, empty-nest retirees, and yes, SUV refugees. It drives like a family sedan. It's practical in a fresh, new way. Truth be told, the Venza makes the average SUV look like yesterday's news. It won't tow like an SUV or go off-road like a Jeep. But for everything else, it's a breath of fresh air.

The Venza will go on sale in early December, starting with V-6 models; full production and sales of both engines will begin in January. MSRPs (including destination) for the Venza start at $26,695 for four-cylinder, FWD models and extend to $29,970 for V-6, AWD versions. The maximum combination of options could add up to $4345 to the total.

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