2011 Toyota Venza AWD

Review and photos by
Haney Louka, Autos.ca

I’ve been thinking for a while now about what might replace our 2004 Mazda6 Wagon in the next year or two. With our kids being six and nine years of age, we still need cargo-carrying capacity. We have found that our Mazda’s seating for five and nearly 1,000 litres of cargo volume behind the seats meets our needs nicely, so we’re not interested in a van. And in the interest of car-like handling, we’re trying to steer clear of most crossovers; but that’s getting increasingly difficult as the traditional affordable wagon has all but disappeared from the market.

2011 Toyota Venza AWD

2011 Toyota Venza AWD

Acura’s decision to pull the TSX wagon from our market didn’t help matters; but since the Americans are only getting the four-cylinder, automatic version I doubt it would have made the cut for us anyway.

Toyota’s Venza has been around for a couple of years now, and it’s among the most “wagony” of the crossovers, so it’s certainly worth a look for us. 2011 brings just minor changes for Venza’s junior year on the market, but a couple of them are worth noting, and we’ll get to those in a bit.

Starting at $29,310, the four-cylinder, front-drive Venza comes with a power driver’s seat, split-folding rear bench, dual-zone climate control, six-speaker audio with USB and Bluetooth and wheel-mounted redundant controls, trip computer, three-12V power outlets, 19-inch alloys, and automatic headlights.

Cargo capacity with the seats up is 870 litres; a bit smaller than my wagon’s, but the Venza’s added height gives it nearly 2,000 litres when the rear seat is folded down.

Power comes from a 2.7-litre four-banger pumping out 182 hp and 182 ft-lb of torque mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. All-wheel drive is optional, as is a 268-hp V6.

Naturally, our tester had a few options that contributed to a commensurate jump in price. Choosing the all-wheel drive model adds $1,450 to the base price and also opens up the possibilities for options that are not available on the base model; Toyota took full advantage of this when equipping our tester. The Premium package bumps the price to $34,975 and includes a power rear hatch, panoramic glass roof, a back-up camera (displayed on a teeny tiny screen), and heated leather seats.

Our tester had the new-for-2011 Touring package, previously only available with V6 Venzas. Ticking that box bumps the price up to $36,665 and nets push-button start, auto-levelling xenon headlights, a tasteful “satin-mahogany” wood trim, and a bunch of smaller items.

Those prices are for the four-banger; opting for the lusty V6 adds roughly $1,500 to each package. And there is one model available at the top of the V6 heap that can’t be ordered with the less potent version: the $41,010 Navigation and JBL package with 13 speakers and a DVD-based sat-nav system.

The other goodie that’s new for 2011 is the Bongiovi Acoustics Digital Power Station, available as a dealer-installed accessory for $389. It’s available on most 2011 Toyotas and continuously re-masters music, enhances compressed audio quality (MP3s), and produces consistent audio level output regardless of format. The end result is that it sounds like a more expensive system at a fraction of the price.

The Venza is more car-like than most crossovers; its lower driving position and creamier ride quality made all the more obvious because I was driving a VW Touareg the week prior to my time in the Venza. By that same token, it feels much less rugged and could never be confused with a full-blown SUV.

Being a wagon fan, I find the Venza’s looks to be a far cry better than those of the hunchback Honda Accord CrossTour, Venza’s closest competitor. The CrossTour also sacrifices utility for its questionable style, giving up about 25 per cent of the Venza’s cargo volume. The Subaru Outback is more in the running here, since it casts a similar profile and even exceeds the Venza’s cargo numbers.

The Venza’s interior furnishings are tasteful and straightforward in typical Toyota fashion. I’m not normally a fan of wood grain trim, but the satin sheen on our tester’s console and doors added a suitable accent to the two-tone dash—and the dash plastics themselves have unique textures to keep things interesting. But with ivory and light grey being the only available leather colours, the dirt is going to show up almost as soon as the Venza is off the dealer’s lot; something for those with youngsters to consider.

I must say, though, that there are a couple of deal killers for me.

First, there’s the driving experience. While the four-cylinder engine has adequate (and only adequate) power to move it around, it makes enough racket that there will be no mistaking it for a V6. But beyond that, there’s not a lick of sportiness in the Venza’s handling repertoire. It’s less flaccid than a Camry going down the road, but that doesn’t say much at all. And the numb, slow steering doesn’t inspire much confidence from the driver’s seat.

And while it may seem a minor quibble, Toyota’s approach to idiot-proofing the door locking process is reason enough to stop me from signing the dotted line. This isn’t something that’s specific to Venza, mind you, but it certainly reared its annoying head during my week with the car. So here it is: the vehicle cannot be locked using the remote key fob if any of the doors are open. This is presumably to make it more difficult to lock one’s keys in the car, but it had the unfortunate side effect of preventing me from being able to hit the lock button and throw the keys in my pocket prior to grabbing two arms full of stuff from the back.

Shod with Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires, the Venza did a decent job of handling Winnipeg’s winter conditions. I found Venza’s so-called “active torque control” AWD system to be surprisingly front-biased, meaning it operates in front-wheel drive mode until wheel slippage is sensed, shifting power rearward to maintain traction. This type of part-time all-wheel drive is fine for minimizing fuel consumption and maintaining straight-line traction, but pales in comparison to full-time all-wheel drive system like that found in Subaru’s Outback. Such full-time systems do a better job of keeping the vehicle un-stuck while also enhancing cornering performance in slick conditions.

While the four-banger Venza is rated to consume 10.2 L/100 km in the city and 7.1 on the highway, I averaged more than 14L/100 km during my week with the car. A far cry from the published figures, but still commendable given the constant stop-and-go city driving in extremely cold weather that dominated my week.

So it turns out that the Venza isn’t quite the sporty family hauler I’m looking for, but it does present an intriguing proposition for those looking for utility and value in an attractive package.

Pricing: 2011 Toyota Venza AWD

Base price: $29,310

Options: $7,355

A/C tax: $100

Freight: $1,560

Price as tested: $38,325

Crash test results

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)

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