2014 Toyota Venza

The Venza presents an interesting case for how a true “crossover” vehicle can succeed—or not—in the market. It is also an fascinating contrast to the incredibly successful Highlander (tested here), with which it shares much of its mechanicals.

The Venza was one of the first vehicles whose styling, engineering and production was overseen by the company’s American workforce, and was specifically designed to appeal to us here in the US. To these eyes it looks great, with an aggressive stance, modern lines and wheels big enough to create the right stance. A recent facelift gives us LED lights, a grill more in line with other Toyota products and other minor changes.

While there’s nothing wrong with its exterior, the Venza’s interior—at least pre-facelift—exemplified the worst of what accountants could do to ruin a good design. Interesting shapes and textures turned out to be made of cheap plastics that didn’t even fit together, undermining the ambiance of what should have been an upscale, desirable product.

The post-facelift materials are improved roughly 50 percent: there are soft-touch surfaces where things were once brittle or hard, and the leather seems of higher grade. While still no match for premium rides from Europe (nor even some Asian and American competitors) the Venza is now tolerable inside. Seating comfort, room, and general practicality are excellent, as is “step in height” wherein you slide across to sit on the seats, as opposed to climbing up or slipping down into the cockpit. What still grates though is the dim-witted, tiny touch screen infotainment interface. Even Ford’s system, reviled upon arrival, is better now.

The Venza is better to drive now, though not as good as the Highlander—and that’s perhaps its biggest problem. The latter is now as aggressively handsome, offers fold-flat third row seating, a much higher quality interior, and is a better steer. The Venza’s helm was once horrid: vague and imprecise. Remapping of its software means it is now at least direct and linear, though it still offers no feel. Its chassis tuning seems better as well; bumps are dispatched adroitly for the wheel size, and handling is predictable if uninspiring. Braking force and modulation are also fine.

There was never anything wrong with the Venza’s drivetrain, comprised of the wonderfully smooth, powerful corporate 3.5-liter V6 and six-speed automatic. This engine has always outperformed its modest 268hp/246lb-ft ratings, and here to it delivers, with lively acceleration and adaquite real-world fuel economy of just over 20mpg.

Unfortunately the Highlander (and others) are still better, meaning the Venza has to get by on its looks. If those move you, there is now no longer objective reason not to follow your heart. Most others will still shop elsewhere, or go home happy with a Highlander.

EPA Ratings: 18/25mpg; 21mpg combined
Price as tested: $40,720
Here is what Toyota has to say about it.

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