Toyota brings appealing flair to 2009 Venza

Toyota either has developed its own version of the Ford Edge crossover SUV, or it has revived the Camry station wagon.

Not that there's a lot wrong with the 2009 Toyota Venza — there's a lot right — but it has a been-here, done-this fragrance.

If it sells, who cares? And it likely will, once the economic malaise evaporates. It's a Toyota with a hint of flair, a wagon or crossover that's as trim, agile and easy to use as the Camry sedan on which it's partly based.

The name is a blend of "venture" and "Monza," an Italian racetrack. Toyota insists it's neither SUV nor crossover, but a "car optimized." In what should be the final word, though, the U.S. government calls it an SUV.

Based on a day driving all versions — front- and all-wheel drive, four- and six-cylinder — around this hilly, scenic area, gripes about Venza are:

•Steering. Felt inconsistent among different preproduction models and lacked precision and accuracy in front-wheel-drive (FWD) versions. Steering on all-wheel-drive (AWD) models felt better tuned but couldn't be called sporty or responsive.

None of that is a surprise in a Toyota, though it must not bother most people, because the automaker sells a lot of cars and trucks, few of which steer especially well. Toyota says steering is deliberately tuned differently among versions, but the goal is for all to feel alike.

Venza has an electric power-steering system, which reduces engine drag and thus saves fuel. As we have learned the hard way, tuning an electric system so it feels natural and responsive is a black art. Toyota does it laudably on its Scion xB, not so much otherwise.

•Console. Too clever for its own good. It won't be long before you slide the movable cup holders back or the console lid forward and guillotine a beverage.

The hidden-cord pass-through was a nightmare. If you leave the phone charger or other cord in the Venza, fine. If you have to move it to another vehicle, lots of hassle. Is a cord that unsightly?

•Powertrain. Folks who live in hilly terrain or haul full loads could find the four-cylinder wanting in punch and refinement. It's a new four-banger, boosted to 2.7 liters from the 2.4 in Camry and Corolla, and rated a credible 182 horsepower vs. the 2.4's 158 hp.

Even so, when toting three folks over a big wrinkle in the Earth, the 2.7 sounded coarse and felt unpleasant.

The four-banger is good for 2 or 3 more miles per gallon than the optional 3.5-liter, 268 hp. V-6.

•Seating. Room for five; take it or leave it. No third row. Want a third, get a Highlander or RAV4.

•Bragging points. The company dubs them "Toyota firsts." You might add, "Took long enough." Such as:

•Panorama roof — lots of glass over both rows of seats, nice feature that Nissan, Volkswagen, Ford and others have had for several years.

•Automatic high-beams, which Chrysler introduced on the 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

•Active head restraints swivel forward in a rear-ender, similar to those Saab began installing years ago.

Nits fully picked, it must be said that Venza with any powertrain combination was a pleasant, smooth, relaxing machine to drive.

You could even call the V-6 fun. Randy, romping acceleration, maximized by crisp and well-timed shifts from the six-speed automatic transmission. Nice downshifts, too. Not much delay, jerk or messin' around.

Inside was comfortable, well laid out, roomy for adults (even in back).

The biggest surprise/delight: Adjustable type size on the driver information center. You'll need a rocket scientist, or an 8-year-old, to get through the menu, but what a treat to have readable numbers and letters.

Venza's traction control was well-tuned. In FWD models, it let the front wheels spin a bit before the electronics kicked in. But by then it was moving forward, so the system didn't need to swipe big chunks of engine power to get the wheels under control. Thus, FWD models merely accelerated straight and hard, accompanied by some tire commotion. That makes you think a FWD version would be good on slick roads, possibly minimizing the need for AWD where it snows only a bit. The AWD models, no surprise, didn't need much help from traction control.

No snow or ice for testing, but hard starts on loose surfaces seemed to make the point.

Other well-done details include proximity lock and ignition key on pricier models; one-touch up/down on all four windows; power closer that ensured doors shut without slamming; hopped-up JBL stereo that sounded good; rear-view camera and screen that worked well.

Stew it all up, and Venza's an impressive piece of work that might, as Toyota says, appeal to both sedan and crossover shoppers.

ABOUT THE 2009 TOYOTA VENZA

What? Midsize, four-door, five-passenger crossover SUV. Front-wheel drive (FWD) or all-wheel drive (AWD); four-cylinder or V-6 engines offered.

When? On sale next month.

Where? Built only at Georgetown, Ky., for sale only in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico.

How? Smooshed (technical term) Highlander front, beefed-up Camry middle, new Venza rear.

How much? Four-cylinder FWD starts at $26,695 with shipping. V-6 AWD starts at $29,970. Multilingual, voice-activated navigation is $2,590; pretty-much-everything-else package ("Premium #2") is $4,345.

How powerful? OK at worst, yowza at best. Base 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine is rated 182 horsepower at 5,800 rpm, 182 pounds-feet of torque at 4,200 rpm. Optional V-6: 268 hp at 6,200 rpm, 246 lbs.-ft. at 4,700 rpm. Six-speed automatic.

How lavish? Adequately. Standard: front, side and head-curtain air bags; electronic stability control; anti-lock brakes; power steering, brakes, windows, locks; cruise control; AM/FM/six-CD; dual zone climate control; tilt/telescope steering column; trip computer; remote locks; reclining rear seats.

How big? Similar to Nissan Murano, Ford Edge. Venza is 189 inches long, 75 in. wide, 63.4 in. tall, on a 109.3-in. wheelbase. Passenger space: 108 cubic feet. Cargo space, in cubic feet: behind rear seat, 34.4; seat folded, 70.1.

Weight: 3,760 to 4,045 lbs.

How thirsty? Government rates V-6 FWD at 19 miles per gallon in town, 26 highway, 22 combined; V-6 AWD 18/25/21. Four-cylinder not yet rated. Toyota forecasts: FWD 21 city, 29 highway; AWD 20/28.

Trip computers in testers ranged from 17.5 mpg in V-6 AWD to 21.9 mpg in four-cylinder AWD on rural two-lanes.

Regular gas specified.

Overall: Well done, appealing.