Toyota's Venza just might thaw 35 years' worth of America's cold shoulder to the traditional station wagon.
Venza is a wagon based on the Camry, but Toyota resists using the "W" word when describing this shapely five-seater. Instead it says Venza has sedan refinement and sport utility vehicle function.
And it does, but with striking styling that appealed to men and women young and old in a recent week of driving.
Its hunky good looks work, and the quality of materials is a step up from Camry, closer to Lexus than mainstream Toyota. There's also enough innovation in the interior design to keep the package fresh without being gimmicky.
Venza was conceived for North America and won't be exported. It was engineered in Michigan, designed in California and is built in Georgetown, Ky. - but the profits still go back to Japan.
It is sold in front-or all-wheel-drive models with a 182-horsepower, four-cylinder engine or 268-horsepower V-6. Pricing ranges from $26,725 to $30,000, including the $750 freight charge. Either engine choice is matched with a six-speed automatic transmission.
The test car, an all-wheel-drive, four-cylinder model, starts at $28,175 and was $30,699 as tested.
Standard equipment includes remote locking, dual-zone air conditioning, a six-disc CD audio system, tilt-telescopic steering wheel with audio controls, electrochromic rearview mirror with compass, a multifunction display, cruise control, Optitron gauges, rear wiper and privacy glass.
V-6 models come with dual exhaust tips and will be the first Toyota to ride on standard, 20-inch alloy wheels. Four-cylinder models have 19-inch alloy wheels.
Venza earned the top, five-star government safety ratings for frontal crash protection for driver and passenger, five stars for side protection for front and rear seats and four stars for rollover risk.
Toyota also wants to reach the pet-owner segment by offering a dozen pet accessories ranging from a ramp to seat hammocks.
The four-cylinder test car was a capable pet and people mover. The 2.7-liter four-cylinder is adequate and responsive, if a little noisy on hard acceleration. With all-wheel drive, the engine is hefting nearly two tons.
Front-drive fuel economy is 21 mpg city and 29 highway; all-wheel-drive trims 1 mpg in both categories. The V-6 is rated 19/22 or 18/21 AWD. Both engines use 87 octane. California four-cylinders are EPA-rated as a Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle.
Ride quality is comfortably firm but forgiving over a rough road. The cabin is well soundproofed, but there is some tire noise at high speed on concrete highways. The turning circle's a little unwieldy at 39.1 feet, but light steering force helps maneuvering in tight quarters.
There is enough seat height for command-of-the-road viewing, and sightlines aren't bad over the shoulder, even without the optional rearview camera. The control pad for adjusting vents, airflow and temperature is placed to the right of the shift lever, which comes out of the instrument panel.
The passenger will love the ease of adjustment, but after five days of driving, I still had not acclimated to reaching for the controls on the other side of the shifter.
The back seat is raised, there is a low center tunnel, and legroom is generous even when the front seats are pushed back. Cup holders and storage spaces abound, including a large glove box.
Despite the pretentious marketing of Venza as the non-wagon, it is a handy and helpful car with progressive styling that makes it a little easier for Americans to get back in the "W" mood.
2009 TOYOTA VENZA
Body style: midsize, five-passenger wagon in front-or all-wheel-drive
Engine: aluminum, 182-horsepower, DOHC 2.7-liter four-cylinder with dual variable-valve technology and direct injection
Transmission: six-speed automatic
EPA fuel economy estimates: 20 mpg city, 28 highway; 87 octane recommended
Front head/leg/shoulder room: 39.6*/40.2/60 inches (*without sunroof)
Rear head/leg/shoulder room: 39.3*/39.1/59 inches
Length/wheelbase: 189/109.3 inches
Curb weight: 3,945 pounds (3,760 front-drive)
Standard equipment includes: remote locking, dual-zone automatic climate control with filter, multifunction display (for clock, outside temperature, cruise information, warning messages and cabin controls), auto up-down windows, power mirrors and locks, tilt-telescopic steering wheel, overhead console with map lights, center console with sliding cover and armrest (includes dual illuminated cup holders, MP3 player holder and large illuminated storage compartment, visors with lighted vanity mirrors and sliding extensions, three 12-volt outlets, cargo tonneau cover and rear-seat release levers, and 19-inch alloy wheels with P245/55R19 tires.
Safety features include: seven air bags, active front head restraints, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist and vehicle stability control
Base: $28,175, including $750 freight charge; price as tested, $30,699
Options on test vehicle: 13-speaker, JBL Synthesis Surround Sound audio system with six-disc CD changer, satellite radio, MP3/WMA playback and Bluetooth, $1,090; convenience package, $860, includes Smart Key system with push-button ignition, power rear door and chrome-accented door handles; tow-prep package, $220; floor mats and cargo mat, $269; rear bumper protector, $85
Where assembled: Georgetown, Ky.
Venza is a dog-friendly wagon with its large cargo capacity and rear hatch, which allows easy entrance and loading of pets and crates. Venza also has more than a dozen accessories for safe travel with pets, the most pet accessories ever offered for a Toyota, all available at the dealership.
Available products include a rear pet ramp, a leash tether to secure pets in the vehicle, a pet booster seat with harness, a first/second row or cargo area pet barrier, pet seat-belt buckles and rear seat zipline-style harnesses.
Waterproof and removable hammock-style seat covers are also available to fit bench and bucket seats.
(set image) May062309-visual.jpg (end image) (set caption) Don't call if a "station wagon." Instead, you can say Toyota's Venza has sedan refinement and sport utility vehicle function. Photo courtesy of Toyota. (end caption)
Mark Maynard is driving in cyberspace at mark.Maynard@uniontrib.com.
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