Review: 2021 Toyota Venza is a Luxury RAV4 Hybrid
Do you remember the Toyota Venza? No? Neither do most. Debuting in 2009, Toyota released the Venza SUV as a link between the RAV4 and Highlander, their compact and mid-size SUVs as a more car-centric offering. It was, in fact, based on the Camry even. After a few years of modest sales success, the mk1 Venza was discontinued after dwindling sales (Mind you, canceling models is a huge rarity in Toyotaland). However, it was only a year ago that Toyota announced a second generation of the Venza, based on the current RAV4 Hybrid, and when I say 'based' I mean basically identical; Same engine, same wheelbase even. This puts the new Venza in a precarious situation of understanding where the Venza stands in the Toyota lineup if it's not a link between the RAV4 and Highlander and rather just is a RAV4. Watson, we have a new case to investigate.
On paper, yes, it's a RAV4 Hybrid, but you wouldn't know it from the looks. Visually, the Venza has a far more swanky design, with swooping curves and creases that actually looks like a Lexus rather than a Toyota. Whereas as the RAV4 boasts a faux-rugged and sharply boxy aesthetic, this new Venza appears an upscale and understated exercise in elegance, and I do prefer it over the RAV4 that can be appear overstyled at times. The Venza is more than just a dressed up RAV4, though, because when you glance inside the first time and nestle in behind the steering wheel, you realize the interior and innards are also a step above in quality over the RAV4; The materials, basically everywhere, all have a higher sense of magnitude to them. Even compared apples to apples between this Venza Limited and a RAV4 Hybrid Limited, each the top-shelf trim, the Venza feels more special and modern inside. The screen in particular is a noticeable improvement over the RAV4 with a larger optional screen size (12" vs 8") and smaller bezels (the buttons were moved from the bezels to below the screen to free up the space). Also present is a lovely and huge panoramic sunroof that has an odd tinting feature that filters light at a touch of a button. The RAV4 has an available panoramic option, too, but forgoes the tiniting feature that I never once used. I found it made the sky appear orange and smoky.
Another item I loved was the 10" head-up display, which projects basic driving information onto the windshield in front of you. This allows you to view info closer to eye-level rather than having to glance down. It's an addictive treat, that. The RAV4, currently, does not have such an option at all available. Though, I do have one interior design cue that made me scratch my head: the starter button. I actually think the Toyota designers had the whole interior done and ready and then realized they forgot to add a starter button. So, it's just tacked on below the HVAC controls in a most inelegant way, like an afterthought. It also strongly protrudes into the small storage area that also serves as the wireless charging pad for your mobile device.
Where the Venza does lose out to the RAV4 is in cabin space. Even with the same 106" wheelbase and being five inches longer overall than a RAV4, the Venza's swanky exterior design does come at a small price. While you'd hardly notice this in the front seats, the rear seats suffer a tiny fraction of headroom loss. Legroom seemed to have no noticeable difference luckily. The cargo area faces the largest compromise as the slowing and tapered rear roof impede on how much Costco you can fit back there. The cargo floor is also several inches taller than on a RAV4 Hybrid, too. For some, that could be the biggest deciding factor on which to choose, with the RAV4 Hybrid being somewhat, but not substantially so, larger inside. Good looks do come at a cost. On the contrary, did I find the Venza as being space limited during my time? No, not at all, but those looking at maximising space can compare the two for your own well-being.
On the road, I struggled to differentiate the two siblings from one another. I'd like to say I preferred how the Venza drove if only because I preferred being in the Venza and its environment more. Dynamically, the Venza (and in this case, the RAV4 Hybrid as well) provides confident yet neither inspiring steering nor handling. With this Venza Limited's soft leather-wrapped wheel in your grasp, you'll find a decently weighted steering that's devoid of feel, but proves surprisingly accurate and direct in responses. In other words, that's the confidence aforementioned; you do not doubt the car's abilities on the road nor in corners. However, it doesn't exactly beg or beckon you to try harder and push through bends the way that new Mazdas do; hence the lack of inspiration. On the bright side, I don't think anybody is buying a new RAV4 or Venza for that purpose anyways as Toyota perhaps does the best job in the world at identifying their market and who their vehicles are for. So yes, it's very competent to drive, but it'll never light up the world like Rockefeller Plaza on (a normal) New Year's. Also of note is the Venza's standard all-wheel drive system for capability and security in most all climates and weather. Toyota claims the Venza's AWD can send more power to the rear verse the RAV4, but it's not likely something you'd ever notice in the real world.
In my daily commuting and a longer drive to the California Bay Area, I noted how much I liked the comfort of the Venza and how well it acquits itself at highway speeds. I found it quiet enough to be relaxing and the ride quality good overall even if it can become a little unsettled over larger impacts. The seats gave no issues either over a long morning haul, providing comfort and support to my sensitive back. Road manners were excellent, too, as the Venza was increasingly easy to control and keep in its lane, avoiding any 'wandering' tactics. I did dislike the lane keeping assist designed to providing constant steering assistance on highways, finding myself fighting it and it veering off toward freeway exits, too. I would recommend simply disabling it.
But now, the main detractor in the Venza is the powertrain. It's a 2.5L inline-4 supported by a hybrid system that adds up to a total system power of 219 from the gas-burner plus its three electric motors. The combustion engine makes 163 lb-ft of torque supplemented by 149 lb-t and 89 lb-ft from the front and rear electric devices. Toyota does not provide a combined peak torque rating weirdly, but it's definitely far less than the sum of those numbers.
And while this is all fine, the performance just isn't there for a car that looks like the Venza and at its price tag. With 0-60 MPH coming up in 7.8 seconds, the flat-out acceleration leaves much to be desired - it's also a couple tenths behind the RAV4 Hybrid. I will say that when driving like a sane person, the Venza never left me wanting for more juice, even when accelerating normally onto freeways. It was only when I put my foot to overtake or to quickly merge onto a road where I noticed this deficit. The electrons' assist helps get you moving from a stop, but missing is any kind of punch that a hybrid system is capable of. Probably not a problem for most, but something to take note of if you're looking for performance or any sense of fun.
Economy was brilliant as expected, and actually exceeded the RAV4 Hybrid in some areas, which I found surprising give the Venza should weigh about an extra hundred pounds over its brethren. I averaged a clean 34 MPG overall and saw that figure rise to 40 MPG while on the freeway. The overall number falls short of the claimed 39 MPG combined rating, but it's impressive nonetheless while I just barely beat the EPA's freeway rating. I did find the powertrain smoother and more pleasing aurally compared to prior Toyota hybrids I tried as well. Where Toyota four-cylinder engines can be trashy and harsh when prompted by heavier throttle applications (and exacerbated by CVT transmissions), the Venza did well to keep the noise isolated away from you and just a more pleasant noise than what I last remembered. And yes, the Venza does have a continuously variable automatic transmission. Surprisingly, it fits the car's character nicely even if I prefer traditional automatics.
Now, things becomes more complicated here again when we talk about why one should choose the Venza. First, it isn't entirely affordable at this Limited's MSRP of $43,100 (the base model starts considerably lower, however), but that's also only a few hundred dollars more than the last RAV4 Hybrid Limited I tested. Being virtually equally expensive, the Venza was the vehicle I would choose because of the more upscale exterior and interior. In my prior review of that RAV4, I found it undeserving of its price given the interior quality, but the Venza proves more worthy. It's only the performance that is a letdown at this price point. Both models do also come with Toyota's proprietary Safety Sense that includes all the modern safety systems one can expect from a new vehicle this decade.
While Toyota would tell you that the Venza differentiates itself by its focus on technology and sophisticated design as an urban crossover, aren't those the exact same things a RAV4 should supply as well? I don't think one is particularly more adventurous than one either, besides the specific and niche TRD Off-Road trim available on the RAV4. For how most people would use them, like commuting and normal errands, they both do same job in the same way. How to choose then? Whichever looks better to you; maybe you dislike the Lexus-esque styling of the Venza that I happen to enjoy. Or maybe you want the slight extra space that the RAV4 Hybrid employs. Personally, I'd have the Venza over the RAV4 Hybrid for the looks and interior alone.
2021 Toyota Venza Limited
As-Tested Price: $43,100
The Road Beat Rating: 4/5
Pros: Standout styling and increased luxury over RAV4; Fuel Economy
Cons: Not quick; Easy but boring to drive
Verdict: A Toyota that's more Lexus than Toyota with great efficiency.