Every few years a new car comes into the market that truly makes me say, “What the hell?” Cars like the Chevy SSR, Nissan Juke, Land Rover Evoque Convertible, and most recently, the 2021 Toyota Venza. The latter may not be as niche or truly weird as the others, but Toyota’s new hybrid-only crossover certainly raises eyebrows in various departments. Most notably, design.
When Toyota announced the Venza nameplate was making a comeback, I expected an elongated wagon that somewhat resembled the old Venza. Something like a bigger, softer Subaru Forester, y’know? Of course, that didn’t happen, and Toyota instead went the predictable and uninspiring route and turned the Venza into yet another crossover. This time, however, a hybrid- and all-wheel-drive-only crossover that borrows its styling from current Toyota models and other… things?
I recently spent a week living with a Venza adorned in Titanium Glow paint, which is the most deceiving name you could ever give to Beige, Sand, or Light Gold. With the range-topping Limited trim, the Venza Toyota loaned me was fully equipped and featured brown leather interior accents to match that “titanium” exterior, a 12.3-inch touchscreen stuck on the dash, heated and ventilated perforated synthetic-leather seats, a heated steering wheel, a fixed glass roof, LED headlights, and a height-adjustable power liftgate.
Regardless of trim, all Venzas are powered by a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine that’s part of a hybrid system that sends 219 combined horsepower to all four wheels. The cars are equipped with Toyota’s suite of advanced driver-assist features—which include pre-collision braking with pedestrian detection, lane-departure alert with steering assist, automatic high beams, road sign assist, and full-range adaptive cruise control as standard—dubbed Safety Sense 2.0. Furthermore, with a five-star overall safety rating from the NHTSA, a 2021 Top Safety Pick award from the IIHS, the Venza offers a lot in terms of safety. For me, all of this Toyota goodness came wrapped in a $43,100 package in the Limited trim.
The longer I experienced the Venza, however, the more I felt unsure about its placement in a segment that includes the Ford Edge, Kia Sorento, Hyundai Santa Fe, and others that typically cater to families with active lifestyles.
2021 Toyota Venza Limited: By the Numbers
- Base Price (As Tested): $33,745 ($43,100)
- Powertrain: 2.5-liter inline-four aided by three electric motor generators and one lithium-ion battery | electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (ECVT) | all-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 219 HP combined; 176 HP @ 5,700 rpm (gasoline engine)
- Torque: 163 lb-ft @ 5,200 RPM (gasoline engine)
- EPA Fuel Economy: 40 city | 37 highway | 39 combined
- Cargo Volume: 28.7 cubic feet; 54.9 with second row folded
- Quick Take: A confusing exterior and interior design take away from the Venza’s decent value proposition.
Truth be told, I actually like the Venza’s design. Not all of it, but some of it. Let’s start with the front end. If Toyota designed a spaceship, it would look like this. And as the new Sienna already looks like a spaceship, the Venza’s front end is essentially a Sienna with an even more futuristic look, complete with a gaping mouth.
This is perhaps the Venza’s best angle, giving off a fresh and techy vibe that would almost make you think it’s an EV. If this were the only angle people would ever see of the Venza, that’d be great, I would be happy. Sadly, that’s not the case.
Looking at the Venza’s profile, I can’t help but think of the Lincoln MKT, arguably the worst-looking crossover on planet Earth over the last decade or so. The Toyota is bubbly in the middle, squished in the front and back, and disappointing all around. It’s unclear what Toyota was trying to achieve here, but it doesn’t get any better when you come around to the back.
This is where things get wild. Head-on, the rear end looks narrow, tall, and again, pinched at the very end. It reminds me of some sort of soup dumpling; wide at the bottom and skinny at the top. Much like other areas of the car, it made me wonder if Toyota’s designers were going for an Americana retro look straight out of Lincoln’s design book.
It’s all very confusing, almost as if every angle of the Venza—the front, the sides, the rear—clash with each other rather than unite to form one cohesive look. If the rest of the thing had followed the front end, I truly believe the Venza would feel much younger and appeal to a wider audience.
Things aren’t as incoherent inside but don’t you worry. There’s plenty of quirkiness to rival a Mini Cooper’s cabin. Let’s start with the focal point: the center console.
Continuing the trend of making questionable decisions, Toyota removed all of the traditional buttons and knobs from the center console—yes, including the volume knob. I don’t know if this is Toyota’s idea of making things more modern, but it’s just plain bad. I can guarantee you both young and old people alike will absolutely hate it. I hate it.
However, lower-trim Venzas are equipped with the smaller, more basic screen that benefit from actual buttons and a traditional console that’s much more user-friendly. If you’re going to buy a Venza, do yourself a favor and get the LE or even the XLE—but make sure the XLE isn’t equipped with the optional “higher-end” screen.
Want to turn the volume up or down on the Limited, though? Just go ahead and tap on the little arrows about 347 times until you arrive at the desired level. Don’t have the time or patience to tap 347 times? Hold your finger down and let destiny decide. It’s awful. Yes, you can technically use the buttons on the steering wheel, but these are not replacements for a legit volume knob. Your passenger deserves a volume knob.
You essentially repeat that same step if you want to change the station or tune (or, again, opt for the steering wheel controls), adjust the temperature, fan speed, and more. Yes, there is haptic feedback behind every tap, but it simply isn’t enough. It’s not intuitive and you might as well wait until you arrive at a red light to make whatever adjustment you want to make because doing so without taking your eyes off the road is darn near impossible.
The 12.3-inch touchscreen that sits above these controls offers an alternative to some of these non-buttons, but it’s also pretty clunky and outdated when compared to ones found in Ford, GM, and even Nissan products. Luckily, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s called Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Just set it and forget it, though sadly, you can’t control the HVAC that way.
For what it’s worth, I’m not knocking a cheaper and more outdated infotainment system on an economy car. No, this is a $40,000-plus, semi-luxury, hybrid crossover from the same automaker that builds some of the world’s most advanced drivetrains. This is unacceptable. All I’m looking for is a better infotainment that measures up to the car’s price tag. Is that too much to ask?
If you’re the kind of person who hops in the car and just drives—doesn’t bother with the radio, navigation, etcetera—then the Venza is just for you. The seats were very comfortable, and the build quality around the cabin was Lexus-like. Everything felt sturdy and smooth. No cheap plastics here.
The doors open pretty wide in the front and rear, which is important if you’re catering to families or folks with mobility issues, and the range of movement for the front seats in relation to the rear leg room is good. In other words, forward-facing baby car seats shouldn’t be an issue here like in smaller crossovers.
Graduated out of car seats? The back seat is adequate for wee ones and teenagers alike, providing enough headroom and hip room for up to three adults, whether it’s for a quick trip down the street or a multi-hour journey. There are also two vents in the back and two USB-style power outlets to keep occupants comfy and entertained, though I was surprised to find I was unable to option a Venza with heated rear seats. You kind of expect that sort of stuff in cars at this price.
Lastly, there’s the trunk, which visually seems about standard, but upon a closer look, only offers 28.7 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats upright. For comparison, the competing Ford Edge boasts 39.2 cubic feet, the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid 37.6, and the Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid 36.4. Even with its slopey, coupe-like rear hatch, the Audi SQ8 I recently tested offers 30.5 cubic feet, which is about as low as you wanna go in a crossover if you actually want to carry things.
On the Road
It’s no surprise the Venza is a comfy daily. The Limited trim rides on 19-inch wheels wrapped in Bridgestone Ecopia 225/55R19 low-drag tires, which offer enough sidewall flex to absorb road imperfections. The suspension is tuned in a way that it creates a Lexus-like driving experience, meaning that it’s cushy and relaxed, but also extremely soft when you dig into the accelerator a bit in the corners. The ride quality is one of the Venza’s strengths, adding an extra layer of uneventfulness (a good one, this time) to an already pretty uneventful car.
Whether on city streets or the highway, the Venza’s cabin is supremely quiet thanks in part to the swoopy and aerodynamic front end, soft suspension, and overall well-crafted interior. But like in most Toyotas, operating the pedals and the steering wheel is rather bland, especially given this is a hybrid model that’s been designed for efficiency and not performance.
Just like in the Prius, Sienna hybrid, or Highlander Hybrid, the Venza utilizes its electric motors and battery pack to save fuel during stop-and-go traffic, with the gasoline engine kicking in when more oomph is needed at higher speeds or during harder acceleration.
Despite only having 219 combined horsepower to work with, the Venza doesn’t feel like a big lump of molasses on wheels. Like most modern hybrids, it has decent pep accelerating off the line and that continues until about 50 to 60 mph. If you’re not in a hurry, however, you might even be able to keep the gasoline engine off during brief commutes in town, as long as you don’t accelerate too much or too soon from a stop. The Venza is a traditional hybrid car and not a plug-in hybrid, meaning that you cannot plug it in to charge the battery and run it solely on electric power for a limited number of miles.
The steering is relatively numb as its only job is to steer the car in a soft and effortless manner—and it succeeds at that. The same can’t be said for the brakes, however, which felt rather sticky and grabby. Not quite sure if this was caused by the regenerative braking function of the hybrid system, but it took me several days to get used to how to brake smoothly without making my kid’s head jerk forward at every stop sign.
While most of the Venza admittedly doesn’t make any sense—and I’ve made sure to point that out—several aspects do stand out, such as interior quality and ride comfort.
Toyota already makes the hybrid RAV4 and Honda makes the CR-V hybrid, where both come standard with all-wheel drive and start a hair below $30,000. But! Toyota set out to redefine that hybrid-with-all-wheel-drive-as-standard combination with the Venza by offering a comfortable, reliable, Lexus-like crossover starting out at under $34,000.
It’s as if the Venza’s reason to exist is to simply be a budget Lexus. The suspension is plush, the cabin is quiet, the interior materials are refined (for a Toyota), and the overall design is perhaps something that would appeal to a sophisticated grandparent rather than a mid-30s professional.
Up until recently, hybrid cars (with the exception of the Prius) have mostly been marketed as pricier versions of their gasoline counterparts. But you get the same, core Venza whether you opt for the base LE trim or the Limited like the car Toyota loaned me, therefore the same hardware for a reasonable price. There is no Venza with better hardware. This is it. Unlike its design and infotainment system, that’s actually good news because a buyer then doesn’t have to fret over comparing engine or drivetrain options across trims.
It’s just a pity Toyota’s thrown the Venza into a corner of the segment where it struggles to compete in terms of design or stand out when it comes to cutting-edge tech, features, etcetera, but it’d be unfair to ignore its biggest strength: quality. Is that enough to overcome its shortcomings? That’s for you, the consumer, to decide.
While its mission is good—to bring an upmarket, hybrid, all-wheel-drive vehicle to the people at a decent price—it still doesn’t help me get the Venza. I—along with most buyers, I’d suspect—cannot ignore how the CR-V and RAV4 hybrids already exist. The Venza simply isn’t different enough from its corporate siblings to do itself any favors.
It isn’t a bad car, it’s just a weirdo with questionable placement in Toyota’s lineup.
Email the author at email@example.com