The Toyota Venza first entered the marketplace in 2009 as a slightly tall wagon/SUV hybrid sort of thing built on the Camry platform. It meant to serve as a hedge between the Camry sedan and the Highlander SUV back then. Toyota sold that Venza between 2009 and 2015, bowing out because far too few people wanted to meet SUV and sedan in the middle, at least in the way the Japanese auto brand envisioned.
Now the Venza is back—this time built on the TNGA-K platform with a strut front and multilink rear suspension geometry. And it’s a hybrid and a tweener again. But this time it’s a hybrid powertrain, and at 186.6 inches long it slots in between the RAV4 (180.9 inches) and Highlander (194.9 inches) SUVs. This gives the 2021 Toyota Venza a more traditional SUV shape and, frankly, a better one.
At first glance it resembles a Jaguar F-Pace with a similar-looking fastback rear and roof-mounted spoiler. The wheel flares and character lines also look to be cut from the same cloth. Upon further examination, however, the nose looks a bit bulbous and busy. And while the fastback with dual exhaust pipes catches the eye from the rear, the Venza stands a little too tall to pull off that look from every angle.
Toyota transversely mounted a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine under the Venza’s hood. On its own, it produces 176 hp at 5,700 rpm and 163 lb-ft of torque at 5,200 rpm. Before reaching the front wheels, the power channels through a continuously variable transmission and also receives a boost from two electric motors. A third electric motor mounted at the rear axle makes the Venza a driveshaft-free all-wheel-drive SUV.
Electricity storage for the motors is handled by a 252-volt, 70-cell battery pack mounted under the rear wheels. While this is not plug-in, there is an EV drive modem allowing the driver to move about at lower speeds for small distances without igniting any fuel. Toyota claims a driving range of more than 500 miles and estimates fuel economy to be 40 mpg city, 37 highway and 39 combined. Toyota estimates the LE-trimmed Venzas will achieve 40 mpg combined.
Inside, the Venza marches down the same path of every new car and is fitted with several screens. The center of the instrument cluster includes a 4.2-inch screen on LE models and a 7-inch screen on XLE and Limited models, which Toyota calls the multi-information display. In addition, you get either an 8-inch (LE and XLE) or 12.3-inch (Limited) center console display. There's also an optional 10-inch head-up display.
Standard equipment inside includes dual-zone climate control, four USB charging ports and a blind-sport monitoring system. You can also wave your foot underneath the rear bumper to open the liftgate, hands-free. Toyota will mount a digital rearview mirror as an optional extra, as well as something called Star Gaze.
Star Gaze is a large, fixed-glass panoramic roof. It’s also electrochromic, meaning you push a button and the glass switches between frosted and transparent, though there is also a sliding cloth cover if the frosted glass still allows too much light. This particular option is only available on Limited trim models.
My Venza Limited test car included Star Gaze, which worked fine, though I found myself just covering it up with the sliding cloth most the time. Features I appreciated more included heated and cooled seats, heated steering wheel and wireless smartphone charging. The 12.3-inch center console screen served infotainment duties well, and I found both instrument screen and head-up display easy to use.
On the move, the Venza brought zero thrills, but, really, that’s a good thing. Think about it, this is a hybrid-only, AWD, smallish SUV. This is laser-focused on the somewhat environmentally conscious soccer parent. Or, perhaps, a recent empty nester who wants something that keeps everything incognito. It’s definitely not for, say, Scott Pruett, or anyone who admires or attempts to emulate him in any way.
That said, this second-round Venza handles spirited driving just fine. I heaved it into corners and squealed tires around several of them with absolutely no drama. The suspension’s emphasis on ride was clear with vehicle roll and the tires are clearly low rolling resistant and also low grip, but the chassis exhibited total competence, no matter what was thrown at it. My heart rate stayed at a slow-walk-in-the-park pace.
Powertrain, too, was a bit lackluster but did its job. I got plenty of passing power when I needed it on two-lane roads, and it cruised quietly otherwise. Furthermore, the continuously variable transmission behaved well, always responding adequately to power requests. It doesn’t much matter what driving mode you’re in: eco, normal or sport. The Venza is always well behaved.
On the negative side, I feel obligated to say the steering felt a bit numb. But a big positive comes in the form of improved braking feel. The transition from regenerative braking to the normal friction brakes means no more big, awkward nonlinearity in stopping power, which had resulted in uncomfortable lurching as you tried to slow down. The Venza pedal feel is vastly improved over older hybrids.
And I'm willing to bet the soccer moms and dads appreciate that more than they worry about the steering. As they will the 28.8 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second row, 74.6 cubic feet with the second row folded, though numbers do drop slightly to 28.7 and 71.9 cubic feet with Star Gaze roof. Surely, the Venza’s eight airbags and standard Safety Sense 2.0 drive-assist systems like adaptive cruise control, pre-collision braking and automatic high beams also mean more to them than worrying about understeer. And they’ll be happy to know I managed 40.3 mpg on my drive—more than they’ll be sad to learn I didn’t find it thrilling.
Starting at $33,645 for an LE-trim model, the Venza is wholly competent in everything it does. It’s comfortable, quiet, rides well, handles predictably and looks pleasant enough to blend in to the automotive ether and leave the driver as incognito as he/she desires.
Obviously, this is not an enthusiast car; if you need an SUV, but still want a driver, get a Mazda CX-9. But absolutely recommend this car to your aunts and uncles, or whomever you know who “wants to go green” yet remain comfortable. The Venza simply ticks a lot of non-car-nerd boxes.
2021 Toyota Venza Specs
On Sale: September
Base Price: LE: $33,645; XLE: $37,175; Limited: $40,975
Powertrain: 2.5-liter I4 hybrid, continuously variable transmission, AWD
Output: Engine: 176 hp at 5,700 rpm, 163 lb-ft of torque at 5,200 rpm; Combined: 219 hp
Wheelbase: 105.9 in
Length/Width/Height: 186.6/73.0/65.9 in
Curb Weight: 3,913 lb
Fuel Economy (City/Highway/Combined): 40/37/39 mpg (est)
Pros: A perfectly pleasant place to spend time while traveling
Cons: Enthusiasts, look elsewhere