Toyota brings appealing flair to 2009 Venza

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.

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