On a rational level, the Toyota Venza is a solid choice for a five-seat crossover. It has lots of interior room and is reasonably stylish. The only downside, then, is that the driving experience is utterly forgettable. The throttle and transmission are programmed to be incredibly soft and lethargic, which makes the Venza feel slow and hesitant. As is the case with cars like the Toyota Camry, the Venza seems designed for the type of person who simply wants reliable and comfortable transportation from one place to another. That's fine, but someone who actually enjoys driving cars will find the Venza terrifically dull.
Jake Holmes, Associate Web Editor
There's nothing wrong with a forgettable driving experience in this segment, but there is definitely something wrong with this interior. The fit of the interior panels is offensively slipshod, with uneven gaps around the air-conditioning vents large enough to swallow a nickel. Hard plastics with odd, wavy graining prevails in all but a few spots. Even the gross fuzzy cloth at the bottom of the backseat cupholders contributes to the feeling of cheapness. All this and more for $36,385, enough to buy any number of nicely finished crossovers.
In fairness, the Venza is already a couple of years old and harkens back to the worst days of Toyota's number-one-at-all-costs product strategy. The new Camry is much improved over the old one, leaving me to believe that the Venza will likewise step up its game with its next update. It has already received a very minor update for 2013 that's not reflected on our high-mileage 2011 test model. For now, the Venza's sloppy driving dynamics and its offensively cheap interior testify to how even a very good company can lose focus on its products.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
Although I'm not tall myself, I think the Venza would be a very good car for a family of four tall people: the rear seats are very spacious, they recline nicely, and there's lots of headroom. It worked extremely well for my family of four short people (including two little kids), thanks to all that space as well as the large rear door openings. It didn't work so well, however, when my wife squeezed between the two kid seats, but we were technically able to fit five people in the car safely (if not comfortably, in my wife's case).
This Venza was equipped fairly strangely: First, it's a 2011 model that has been in the press fleet for some 14,000 hard miles. Also, it has cloth seats that aren't very attractive and slippery plastic flooring in the cargo area. On the other hand, it's loaded with a big glass roof, navigation, and keyless entry/starting.
Adding to David Zenlea's quality critiques, here's another example of low-quality assembly: many of the fits around this car's center stack are highly variable and the pieces are slightly wiggly. Not good.
On the other hand, the older the Venza gets, the more I like its styling. The side profile is particularly nice. The huge, twenty-inch wheels that make it look sporty and aggressive do compromise ride quality, however. Handling is better than you might expect of a vehicle like this, but most owners won't notice or care.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
On paper, and when approaching the car in person, the Venza is a car right up my alley. I think it's exceptionally well-styled for the most part, and even thought it's a few years old, the aggressive-for-Toyota look is one that appeals to me. The big five-spoke rims add to the effect, and in the right light the bronzeish brown of this test car looks sharp.
I also love hatchbacks and wagons, and while the Venza is a crossover, it hews more closely to the sportwagon side of its DNA than the SUV side. This should be the Toyota that wins me over. So why does this car fall flat for me? It begins when you sit in the cabin, and ends when you expect the car road manners to live up to its sporty looks.
Again, on paper, and at a glance this is a sharp looking interior -- particularly for Toyota. The glossy brown carbon fiber-looking inserts on the console and door handles is light years better than the fake wood of both the Sienna and Camry we drove recently, and the layout of the center console is well-thought out and highly functional. Room is decent in both rows, the cloth seats are comfortable, and the dual sunroofs add light to the cabin.
So what's the problem? None of it holds up under any scrutiny. David is right about the fit and finish of the interior -- it is embarrassingly bad, especially for a car priced on the high side of $35K. Dash graining and colors should match that of the door panels, but don't; seams and gaps are uneven and in some cases even look loose. Right at the top of the center stack, the soft cover on the dashboard is curled up at the two corners where it meets the center. The outboard speaker grills and a/c vents are sloppy as well. And everything in the cargo area is finished in hard plastic -- the floor, the walls, and even the hatch panel. The thought of things sliding and rattling around back there, not to mention the wear that surface will endure, is a huge turnoff. The same simple black carpet found in the footwells doesn't seem too much to ask for back there.
Once you take the Venza out on the road, the car is a mixed bag. Steering is fine and the ride is not bad, though perhaps a bit harsh for some due to the low(ish) profile tires. But that didn't bother me as much as the hesitant powertrain: throttle response is uneven and power is released too slowly, then all at once, from a transmission that seems to be hunting for economy it will never quite deliver. Most buyers in the segment will be fine with the Venza's driving dynamics, even if the sporty styling is writing checks the performance can't cover.
Toyota needs to get it act together executing the interiors in its cars if it wants to hold off the competition. A reputation for reliability will maintain a portion of their market, but others are closing the perceived gap and just about everyone has passed them by when it comes to the initial quality of fit and finish.
Matt Tierney, Art Director