Toyota goes for 'passenger car optimized' with 2009 Venza

FARMINGTON, Pa. -- It's not a truck, not an SUV, not even a crossover SUV, insists Toyota about its 2009 Venza, going on sale next month.

So what is it?

"It's a passenger car optimized," said Tim Morrison, in charge of car and van marketing for Toyota's U.S. operations, during a Venza briefing at a hotel here. "It's a new direction in Toyota passenger car design."

The four-door, five-passenger vehicle is based partly on Toyota's Highlander crossover SUV. It sits higher than a typical car, and it offers optional all-wheel drive. The government calls it an SUV.

"(Toyota) can try to position it differently, but nine out of 10 would say it's a crossover," says auto-product consultant Gordon Wangers. "And I don't think that's a negative image. In fact, I think consumers are attracted to" vehicles called crossovers.

Crossover describes a sporty utility vehicle that's based on a car chassis, not on a truck frame as most SUVs once were. Crossovers tend to have a nimbler feel and, often, better fuel economy. The term lets owners avoid the gas-guzzler stigma of the SUV label. But Toyota is so sure Venza's not a crossover that it swears people will consider it a rival to sedans such as Nissan Altima and Honda Accord, though it admits some shoppers will pit Venza against the likes of Nissan Murano and Ford Edge crossovers.

"It's really a wagon," says Stephanie Brinley of consulting firm AutoPacific. "But 'wagon' is the kiss of death."

In Toyota studies, "Consumers said no SUV offered the ideal balance of comfort and utility," says Greg Bernas of the Toyota Technical Center, who oversaw Venza's design and engineering. Not calling it an SUV or a crossover, Toyota can avoid that initial bias.

"They're trying too hard. Let consumers get hold of it and decide what to call it," Brinley says.

The Venza name is an amalgamation of "venture" and "Monza," an Italian race track and city.

The vehicle starts at $26,695 for the four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive model. The V-6, all-wheel-drive model starts at $29,970. Fuel-economy ratings range by drivetrain from 18 to 21 miles per gallon in town and 25 to 29 mpg on the highway.