By RYAN DIONNE
Last month, on a trip to review gear and explore the desert around Sedona, Ariz., I had the chance to test drive the Toyota Venza, a new all-wheel-drive crossover sedan aiming to take market share from cars like the Subaru Outback.
Launched late last year, the Venza rides like a car but is made to handle bad roads, ruts, and mild off-road terrain. Indeed, driving the car on back roads in Arizona, I purposely hit potholes and football-size rocks at considerable speed, and the Venza sucked up the bumps without major issue. Its roughly eight inches of ground clearance kept most objects from contacting the undercarriage.
On my rough ride, there were numerous times when the suspension sounded as if it topped out. But I was on a test drive and having fun. Most drivers would be more kind with their own vehicle.
The Venza comes with optional all-wheel-drive, which is what I drove, as well as an optional six-cylinder engine. I drove the four-cylinder model, which lagged in the acceleration category: The 2.7-liter, 182-horsepower engine wasn’t worse than other four-bangers on the market, but it certainly was not overly exciting either.
The car is available with automatic transmission only. But it does have a “sportshift” feature, which lets you select a gear for rough terrain or for downshifting instead of braking on descents.
Toyota Venza front interior
Driving bumpy gravel roads at 70mph — and cornering nearly as fast — wasn’t a problem for the Venza’s AWD. As much as I tried to get the vehicle to slide, it fought hard to stay on the road.
But despite Toyota’s “active torque control” that shifts torque to different wheels as needed, I consistently felt like the AWD was front-wheel heavy. On a gravel road, I put the Venza in first gear, turned the steering wheel tight, and mashed on the gas. It acted like a front-wheel-drive car plowing forward instead of powering through the turn like other AWD vehicles I have tested.
Driving the Venza around town was like driving a regular car. Its optional amenities included a front and rear “panoramic” moon roof, backup camera, backseat DVD system, and more.
Toyota Venza trunk space
Beware of the car’s blind spots. The A-shape pillar where the windshield meets the door frame is large on both sides and the similar area in the rear isn’t any better.
The backseat fits three adults and also folds away nearly flat, providing an adequate hatchback-style trunk for a substantial amount of cargo space.
In the end, Toyota has made a fun car that’s comfortable for city driving but with the performance needed on backcountry roads. If I were looking for a new vehicle and considering the Subaru Outback or another AWD car, I’d definitely take the Venza for another test drive.
Pros: Available in AWD; Rides like a car; All four windows are one-touch up and down.
Cons: Large blind spots in front and rear; Minivan-like hood makes it hard to see front of vehicle; More expensive than some comparable vehicles.
Bottom Line: While it doesn’t have the ground clearance or other features of an SUV, the Toyota Venza is a good mix of adventurer and city slicker that can readily take kids to soccer in town and then on a camping trip uphill or on iffy mountain roads afterwards.
Base price for AWD Venza: $27,425
—Contributor Ryan Dionne is based in Boulder, Colo. He writes a blog on the outdoors and gear at http://explore-it.blog.com