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Review: 2009 Toyota Venza

The 2009 Toyota Venza has some lovely styling elements (like the character line that forms its broad rear shoulders) and some not-so-lovely elements (like the entire front end). Unfortunately, it has way too many of all of them. In fact, the last blunt-nosed, overstyled station wagon to use this many clichd styling cues was the Family Truckster - the fictional monstrosity purchased by that lovable idiot Clark Griswold in the 1983 comedy National Lampoon's Vacation.

If it's what's on the inside that counts, though, the Venza is a knockout. Underneath, you'll find a Camry, America's favorite sedan. Unlike most crossovers - including the Highlander, Toyota's other Camry-based crossover - the Venza is actually a better vehicle than its parent. It combines the Camry's quality with vastly improved cargo utility and, perhaps most surprising, a better driving experience.

Available all-wheel drive can send up to half the power rearward, reducing torque steer as well as the front-wheel-drive Camry's tendency to chirp the tires off the line. Base Venzas have an all-new, 182-hp, 2.7-liter in-line four-cylinder. The Venza we drove had Toyota's well-known 268-hp, 3.5-liter V-6. The oversquare six is smooth and refined, although its relative lack of low-end torque highlights the Venza's considerable 4045-pound heft.

The Venza's carrying ability is more like that of the taller Highlander than the Camry sedan. Passengers in the rear are treated to plentiful headroom and luxury-liner legroom, and an optional panoramic roof lets in lots of light. For hauling duty, the reclining rear seats fold down in one beautifully choreographed movement, resulting in a nearly flat cargo floor that can carry more than most families will ever need. Rearward visibility is restricted somewhat by a high beltline and a smallish window, but a backup camera with a clear and colorful display more than makes up for it.

Up front, almost all of the switchgear looks and feels high-quality. Some cheaper, hard-touch plastic does find its way into the cabin, but the Venza's designers made sure it's found only in places you'll rarely touch. Storage spaces are scattered throughout the cabin, and the bins under the cleverly designed sliding center console are particularly cavernous. We wish the dashboard's illumination was more consistent, as switches and buttons are illuminated either in modern white or traditional Toyota green - and some dim while others don't. Some, like the mirror adjustments, don't light up at all. But other than the dual-zone climate controls, which aren't symmetrically - or logically - laid out, the Venza's dash is user-friendly. The crossover's price premium over a comparable Camry, about $3000, is well worth it for the extra space. All-wheel drive can make the Venza a year-round friend in snowy climates, and a commendably well-tuned suspension keeps the ride creamy without a hint of the Camry's wallow. And the optional twenty-inch wheels - bigger than anything we've seen on a Camry - may look like a fashion statement, but they help generate impressive grip in corners. Now if we could only think of a functional reason why that grille has to look the way it does.

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