2021 Toyota Venza Review: First Drive

Comeback kid

How do you capitalize on the public’s continuing love affair with the crossover when you already have six in your lineup?

If you’re Toyota, you revive a nameplate, in this case the Venza. This new model is a far cry from the original though. While the Venza from 2009 to 2015 was essentially a Camry wagon with a bad case of elephantiasis, the 2021 edition is a svelte crossover. It slots in between the massively popular RAV4 and the three-row Highlander, sharing a platform with both and the wheelbase of the former.

With classy new looks and a hybrid powertrain, Venza 2.0 looks to carve out its own space in the mid-size crossover segment. Thanks to a reasonable price tag and a whole bunch of feel-good tech, it looks set to succeed too.

Brand new fashion

The Venza’s visuals certainly set it apart within the Toyota portfolio. It doesn’t really look like any of its high-riding siblings: there’s shades of Avalon in the narrow headlights and gaping lower grille, but it mostly gives off Lexus vibes up front. The flanks are clean, with little black plastic cladding to pretend it has serious off-road chops. Good. Around back it’s hard to deny the Jaguar F-Pace feel, with a stylish sloping rear window and incredibly thin lighting units, though the latter is a full-width treatment here.

Any way you cut it, the Venza looks premium. That should set it apart from the aging Ford Edge, and the sportier-looking Chevrolet Blazer. There’s also the Honda Passport, which leans more into rough-and-tumble off-road territory, and the new Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport, a chunky two-row a solid foot longer than the Venza.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport First Drive Review

You do give up some storage space for those good looks, however. The Venza will swallow up to 28.8 cubic feet (815 liters) of stuff with the rear seats up, and 55.1 (1,560) with them down. That’s less than the rest of the competition.

That posh feeling continues inside. Toyota has given the Venza a wholly unique interior design, and practically every touch point is soft. Again, it’s hard to avoid comparisons to Lexus here, with everything feeling expensive. My tester for most of the day is the mid-level XLE, sitting between the entry-level LE and top-shelf Limited. Its all-black, SofTex-clad interior is spacious and comfy, if not particularly exciting. Ambient lighting lifts the atmosphere at night, and the blue needles on the analog dials are a subtle nod to the Venza’s hybrid-only drivetrain.

Two tech steps forward, one back

It’s a short trip in the Venza Limited that really makes a statement, though. The Limited goes with a tasteful brown-and-black interior look, again in SofTex. Toyota has thrown all the tech it can at the Limited, including a head-up display, digital rear-view camera, and an impressive, 1,200-watt JBL sound system. There’s wireless charging and four USB ports too, though all of that is standard across the Venza line.

SEE ALSO: 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime First Drive Review: Plug-In Power

The best part is easily the Star Gaze electrochromic glass roof though. It looks like a regular panoramic setup, yet at the touch of a button goes frosted, diffusing the early autumn light.

You know which other cars carry this trick tech? The modern McLaren 720S Spider does. Oh, and it debuted on the limited-production Ferrari 575 Superamerica. Pretty rarified company, that. If I wanted to be a nitpicker, I’d actually prefer a slightly more gradual fade from one state to the other. But either way, it’s a very cool piece of theater in a crossover that starts at $33,645 ($40,330 in Canada).

The two higher Venza trims also use Toyota’s larger 12.3-inch touchscreen, as seen on the Highlander. Entune remains a fine, if unremarkable, operating system. With the added screen real estate, it does allow for a lot of simultaneous information to be displayed at once though. On the delightful scenic test route, this meant keeping the navigation up in addition to the audio and climate controls— including heated and vented seats, though only for the front row.

Toyota has gone with capacitive controls in the Limited too. While they look good, there’s one glaring omission: a physical volume knob. Redundant wheel-mounted controls don’t make up for this: neither the driver nor passenger should have to repeatedly tap or hold their finger on the dash to change the volume.

A smooth, soothing ride

During the pre-drive presentation, Toyota said the Venza followed the “grand touring” traditions of old. Our test route certainly was the right place for such a car too, winding through the various lakes and forests just west of Canada’s capital. It was pretty and flowing in equal measure.

Truth be told, the Venza doesn’t really fit the GT role. It’s too cocooning for that, and more accepting of swifter progress than truly relishing it. The steering is light, and the suspension is on the softer side. It handles the pock-marked roads and unexpected construction zones of our route with ease, yet never devolves into sloppiness. It rides with more calm than the last RAV4 Hybrid I drove. A near Lexus-like lack of outside noise—there’s that comparison again—also makes the Venza a certifiable mile-muncher.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Ford Escape Hybrid vs 2020 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid

Of course, the drivetrain deserves a lot of the credit for that too. The Venza uses the same hybrid system as the RAV4, which includes a 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle inline-four and three electric motors. The rear motor provides on-demand electric all-wheel drive: neither the gas engine nor the two front axle motors send power rearward. Like the RAV4, the Venza largely operates as a front-drive vehicle unless it senses slip. From standing starts however, it favors the rear, before seamlessly feeding in more front-end power. A small lithium-ion battery allows for short bursts of EV-only propulsion. When the gas mill does come online, it does so with a slight rumble.

The hybrid-only approach pays off big time at the pumps too. Toyota quotes a 39 mpg combined figure (6.1 L/100 km), split between 40 city and 37 highway (5.9, 6.4, respectively). Even with the relative caning I gave it along the 120-mile (200 km) first leg, my XLE tester returned over 36 mpg (6.5 L/100 km).

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Verdict: 2021 Toyota Venza First Drive Review

Toyota is making no bones about it: it sees the reborn Venza as a niche offering. The overwhelming success of the current RAV4 and Highlander has afforded the Venza a little latitude to offer a unique package in the larger two-row segment. It’s a smooth operator, with a luxurious, hush-hush interior, a comfortable ride, and a starting price only a few thousand north of the RAV4 Hybrid. Even in the top Limited trim, which I’d recommend for the added tech, two-tone interior, and very cool roof, it lists for $43,100 (or $49,530 in Canada), destination included. It out-luxes anything else in its class, and makes it all but impossible to recommend the slower, smaller Lexus NX 300h.

Venza 2.0 is no sophomore slump. If you’re graduating from a compact crossover but don’t quite need a three-row big boy yet, this stylish option is one you shouldn’t overlook.

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