The Toyota Venza is an antidote to minivan-itis. It’s for people who get behind the wheel of a minivan and — despite supreme functionality an adult-kid-pet mover (complete with sliding doors so kids won’t ding other cars in parking lots) — immediately hear a voice in their heads saying: “You have just become a bus driver.”
The Venza, and its various crossover brethren, manages to cut a dashing and even sporty figure, in the process disguising its true whale-like nature. This thing can swallow five good-sized adults along with their ample luggage, or the little people and their sports equipment equivalent. The only interior accoutrement the Venza is missing — compared with, say, the similarly contoured Mercedes-Benz R-Class — is a third-row seat, which would only make this well proportioned workhorse even more practical.
Our generously equipped Venza featured an easy-revving V-6 offering 19/26 mpg city/highway (a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine is standard) along with a raft of options including a voice-activated, touch-screen navigation system, a powerful JBL sound system and a massive glass roof that slides open in two sections. These upgrades added nearly $6,000 to the price tag, which totaled just over $37,000. About the only feature this model did not come with is available all-wheel drive, which frankly is a must for anyone remotely considering wintertime treks to the mountains with their brood.
The Venza proved the perfect vehicle for a multi-hour trek into the southern Sierra Nevada, offering a positively cavernous and quiet space from which to observe California’s stark central valley give way to towering snow-capped peaks. Road manners are laudably surefooted, the result of a 109-inch wheelbase and a low center of gravity that are welcome reprieves from the SUV world’s generally top-heavy experience. Braking is progressive and predictable. Steering feels at tad light, though the wheel offers enough feedback to inspire confidence during tight sweeping turns.
The car’s interior clearly borrows from its Lexus cousins, from the leather in our premium-package-equipped vehicle to the contrasting piping that hints at cars in a much higher price range. Plastics are typical Toyota fare (they look like they’ll last for decades), while the switchgear takes a light touch to activate. My main pet peeve: the navigation system’s map looks like Pac Man in an age of Avatar; a crude two-dimensional rendering of the roads around you that made one passengers reach for the maps app on his iPhone in frustration. The Venza’s true gift, however, is its sheer bulk, without the social stigma or fuel costs often associated with large SUVs (the front-wheel-drive four-cylinder version achieves 21/27 city/highway, for an average of around 25 mpg.
Between its relatively normal roof height, ease of entry and loading, and all-around user-friendly nature, the Venza is not a minivan, but more like a family wagon that’s been to the gym. After all, just because you’ve got kids doesn’t mean you don’t work out.