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All-New 2021 Toyota Venza First Test Drive

The #NoBoringCars publication finds a boring car it really likes.

Aaron GoldWriterManufacturerPhotographer

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA—David E. Davis, wherever you are, please forgive me for what I am about to do.

Thirty-five years ago, you founded this publication with the motto "No Boring Cars". It remains our hashtag to this day. Well, with sincerest apologies, sir, I am about to give a boring car a very positive review. The new 2021 Toyota Venza may be boring, but damn, is it good. In fact, it might be one of the best boring cars I've ever driven. I think that if you were alive today, Mr. Davis, you'd give it a positive review as well, provided you were able to, y'know, put aside everything you ever stood for.

Toyota Venza: An idea before its time

I think you were still around for the launch of the first-gen 2009 Venza—in fact, if memory serves, that launch was the first time I saw you in person, though I didn't have the guts to come over and say hello. (I have learned to keep one's heroes at arm's distance.) Back then, the Venza was a Camry-based five-seat crossover aimed at empty-nesters. It was a solid contender that sold poorly primarily (I think) because it was ahead of its time, and Toyota killed it in 2015. Now, half a decade later, the empty-nest SUV is a popular segment and Venza is re-joining the field, one now occupied largely by SUVs like Ford's Edge, the Honda Passport, and the new Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport.

When I first saw the new Venza, my first thought was "Rebadged Lexus RX"—and that notion would stick in my mind the whole time I drove it. I was surprised to learn the two SUVs aren't related, or at least, not exactly. The current Lexus RX uses the "K" platform that underpinned the old Camry, while the new Venza uses the TNGA-K platform, part of the Toyota New Generation Architecture family on which the current Camry is built. No doubt the RX will eventually migrate to this platform.

New Venza may be boring, but is it frugal

While the current-gen Camry surprised us with how involving it was to drive, the new Venza isn't any more interesting than the old one—in fact, it's a bit less so. All Venzas are now all-wheel-drive hybrids, using a combination of a 2.5-liter engine and two electric motors that deliver a total of 219 horsepower to both axles. Exciting? No, but it's a reminder that an electric motor can do the job every bit as well as a turbocharger. The Venza delivered adequate power with great burst-ahead acceleration when I needed it.

Fuel economy defies credibility: Toyota claims an EPA combined fuel economy of 40 mpg for the base LE trim and 39 MPG for the XLE and Limited, and damned if those numbers don't seem to be accurate: After a day and a half wheeling a Venza Limited around Los Angeles, without making any particular effort to hypermile, the trip computer showed an astonishing 39.3 mpg. For an SUV this big and comfortable, that's just unreal.

What about the rest of the drive? Toyota prepared us for boringness, with press materials that referred to the handling as "predictable". Translation: "Don't bother hot-dogging this one, you Jethro Bovingdon wannabes." And yes—the Venza goes where you point it, albeit without much enthusiasm. I headed for my favorite curvy road hoping to discover some of the surprise thrills we found in the Camry, but the Venza's driving experience is old-school Toyota, complete with squealing tires and early-onset understeer. Still, it rides comfortably and has a nice big-car feel, though it doesn't quite tower over the road the way the Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport does. (I can't remember how it compares to the Honda Passport because I can't remember anything about driving the Honda Passport.)

Are you a Toyota, or are you a Lexus?

Once you let go of the fact that the Venza isn't going to thrill you to the marrow, it's hard not to like it, or at least respect it. That resemblance to the Lexus RX was never far from my mind: Every mile I turned, the Venza made me feel like I was driving a Lexus RX hybrid that had been beamed in from a parallel universe. Engine noise and tire noise are slightly greater than what would be acceptable in the Lexus cosmos, but everything else is well above Toyota's usual high standards. Take the padded fabric on the door panels and center console—your fingers don't so much touch them as sink into them like you sink into a mud bath, but without the mud. Subtle but wonderful, which is how Lexus made its bones.

One of the nifty high-tech features about which Toyota is crowing is the Star Gaze panoramic roof. Its electro-chromic glass turns semi-opaque instantly at the touch of a button, transforming the clear glass into a translucent white panel that lets in soft, diffused sunlight without broiling your skin. The system isn't perfect; the glass never goes completely clear, but rather retains a milky film like an aging plastic rear window on an old Miata. Also, even in its more-opaque mode the glass gets very hot and radiates heat. Toyota has a fix for the latter: There's also a power-operated fabric blind that blocks heat and condensation and keeps the kiddies from burning their fingers.

There are plenty of other tech gadgets: The usual phalanx of driver aids, including full-stop adaptive cruise with lane-centering that works well enough, though I think its following distances are too conservative for aggressive Los Angeles traffic. The infotainment system is compatible with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa.

Exceptional execution with few exceptions

As with all cars, I kept a list of things I don't like about the Venza, and the list was small enough to fit on a business card. There's no proper volume knob, only touch-sensitive up-and-down buttons and steering wheel controls. There's no single button to mute the stereo, nor could I quickly and easily pause my podcasts, since the touch-screen always goes back to the home page, no matter how insistently I try to get it to stay on the stereo display.

Driving it had me thinking back to a review I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Chevrolet's all-new 2021 Trailblazer. I criticized Chevy for high NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) and accused it of less-than-thorough suspension engineering. After my review was published, I started to question myself: Had I been too harsh on the Chevrolet? Then I drove the Toyota Venza and realized that no, I hadn't. This is what a solid engineering job feels like. And Mr. Davis, I'm sure you can appreciate that.

Venza proves that a boring car can still be great

All this, and it's a bargain: The Venza LE model will list for $33,645 (with all-wheel-drive, dual-zone climate control, and a kick-to-open tailgate as standard), the volume-selling XLE for $37,175, and the faux-leather-lined, top-of-the-range Limited for $40,975. The Venza I drove, a Limited model with the optional technology package (10-inch color head-up display, rain-sensing wipers) and Star Gaze roof, listed for $43,100. For comparison, the 2020 Lexus RX450h hybrid starts at $47,825, and that's before you start adding options like navigation, a premium stereo, a HUD, or a power tailgate, all of which were present on my test car. (I bet Lexus dealers are going to be pissed when they see how the Venza is priced.)

Not every car buyer wants the most thrilling ride for the daily hustle—some just want something quiet, comfortable, trouble-free, and fuel-efficient, and that's what the 2021 Toyota Venza offers, with an unexpected emphasis on the fuel-efficient part. But it's also competent, surprisingly posh, and a real bargain. A boring car? To be sure, Mr. Davis, to be sure. But it's one of the best boring cars I've ever driven. And isn't that worth talking about?

2021 Toyota Venza Limited Specifications
ON SALE Summer 2020
PRICE $40,920
ENGINE 2.5L DOHC 16-valve I-4/176 hp @ 5,700 rpm, 163 lb-ft @ 5,200 rpm
ELECTRIC DRIVETRAIN 0.93-kWh Li-Ion battery pack, 2 permanent-magnet synchronous electric motors/118 hp, 149 lb-ft/54 hp, 89 lb-ft/219 combined hp
TRANSMISSION Continuously variable
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, dual-motor, AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 40/37 mpg (city/highway)
L x W x H 186.6 x 73.0 x 65.7 in
WHEELBASE 105.9 in
WEIGHT 3,913 lb
0-60 MPH 7.5 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 112 mph (est)