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2014 Toyota Venza Test Drive Review
The 2014 Toyota Venza exhibits a degree of style and flair that is lacking in most of the automaker’s other vehicles, let alone other crossover SUVs.
Roomy, comfortable, safe and stylish, the 2014 Toyota Venza represents money well spent. In exchange for these attributes, however, buyers must accept that the Venza lacks modern safety technologies and settle for an inexpensively trimmed cabin. If you take nothing more away from this review, heed our advice to upgrade to the optional V6 engine. You won’t regret it.
Look and Feel
Out of 10
Here’s what I want to know: How did designers sneak the Toyota Venza through the automaker’s apparent style filter and get it into production without watering it down and turning it into a nondescript lump of metal, plastic, glass and rubber? This is a good-looking crossover SUV, and while I think the company made a mistake last year when it replaced the original grille with a new single-bar treatment, there’s no doubt that the 2014 Venza exhibits a degree of style and flair that is lacking in most other Toyota products.
One reason the decision to swap grilles is questionable is because the interior patterns evident on the dashboard, door panels and leather seat inserts mimic the look of the original Venza’s face. Now, there’s nothing tying the exterior styling theme to the interior patterns.
In any case, the Venza’s cabin remains a mish-mash of materials and textures. The fuzzy headliner doesn’t match the plastic pillar covers, which don’t feature the SUV’s signature wavy design pattern evident on the dashboard, door panels and leather seats. And then there is the section of dashboard that looks utterly unfinished, like the factory forgot to pour the parts into textured molds before using them to build the vehicle. Black carpeting, floor mats and upper dashboard and door-panel surfaces are a smart move, though, effectively reducing glare and making it harder to see dirt while simultaneously giving the Venza a more upscale, two-tone appearance.
If you agree that the 2014 Venza is a stylish crossover, you’ve got 3 trim levels from which to choose. The Venza LE is the standard trim, at $28,810 including the destination charge of $860. Upgrade to the Venza XLE, at $32,670, and the equipment list includes leather, a Smart Key passive entry system, a navigation system with advanced voice-recognition technology, Entune App Suite services, HD Radio and iTunes song-tagging capability. Additionally, the XLE is equipped with a reversing camera, a power tailgate, heated front seats, a 4-way power front passenger’s seat, memory for the driver’s seat and mirror settings, and more.
Choose the Limited trim level for $38,980, and the Venza is fully loaded with a panoramic glass sunroof, a hard-drive navigation system with a larger 7-inch high-resolution infotainment touchscreen, a premium JBL audio system and front and rear parking-assist sensors. This trim level is also equipped with a standard V6 engine and includes automatic HID headlights with automatic high-beam operation, LED running lights and larger 20-inch aluminum wheels.
My 2014 Venza XLE test vehicle wore Sunset Bronze Mica paint and was equipped with the standard 4-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive. An XLE Premium Package added a panoramic sunroof and a JBL premium sound system for an extra $1,850, bringing the total price tag to $34,520.
Out of 10
Any version of the 2014 Toyota Venza can be optioned with all-wheel drive, and a more powerful, 268-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 engine is available in LE and XLE trims and standard for Limited trims. My test vehicle had neither the V6 nor AWD, meaning the front wheels did all the work and that there was a 181-hp, 2.7-liter 4-cylinder engine under the hood.
If you want the V6 engine, it’s going to cost a minimum of $1,820. But here’s the thing: You'll get 87 more horsepower and 64 more lb-ft of torque, and the penalty in terms of the EPA’s combined-driving rating is a single mpg. In my opinion, having previously driven a Venza with a V6 engine, the upgrade represents money well spent.
Nevertheless, the 4-cylinder engine gets the job done. Rarely did I wish for more power, but when I did, it usually involved seeking holes in traffic flow in order to change lanes and pass slower cars. My family and I took the Venza on a family road trip to Yosemite National Park, and despite its load of passengers and cargo, the crossover conquered the Sierra Nevadas thanks to the 6-speed automatic transmission’s Sport mode, which held revs during uphill climbs, and the manual shift mode, which allowed me to maximize engine braking on descents.
Crossing America’s breadbasket on Interstate 5 and Highway 99, the Venza cruised effortlessly at 80 mph. Following a stop for gas, I learned that the 4-cylinder can break the inside front tire loose if you step too hard on the accelerator, which earned admonishment from my kindergartener. Thankfully, we didn’t stop for gas very often, as the Venza averaged 25.7 mpg for the 700-mile round-trip jaunt to Yosemite, just under the EPA’s official highway fuel economy rating of 26 mpg. Not too shabby.
As is true of many Toyota SUVs, but not the company’s cars, the Venza’s ride quality is firm and occasionally stiff, which makes it feel better connected to the road and more engaging to drive. Big 19-inch wheels and tires help the Venza to stick in corners, but can denigrate ride quality on rougher patches of pavement and produce extra road noise. Body roll is remarkably well controlled, too, though the Venza feels as wide as a minivan on tight, twisting roads. That’s one reason I think it’s better suited to hustling along higher-speed sweeping curves, like those lining California’s Merced River.
Electric steering does a good job of delivering straight-line stability on the highway and impressive off-center response. Occasionally, the steering wheel feels a little bit disconnected from the front tire contact patches, typically over undulating pavement or when crosswinds are battering the SUV. Commendably, the Venza’s 4-wheel-disc brakes resisted fade when driving in the mountains. Pedal feel is decent, but nothing remarkable in terms of modulation and communication.
Generally, my family enjoyed using the Venza for our trip, and its display of athleticism was a pleasant surprise. If Toyota could reduce the amount of road and wind noise intruding into the cabin, it would transform this crossover SUV into an even better road-tripping machine.
Form and Function
Out of 10
Another area where Toyota could improve the Venza pertains to how the interior is trimmed. At a glance, my XLE test vehicle looked fancy and upscale thanks to its two-tone color treatment, fake wood trim and shiny accents. Spend some time in the Venza, though, like on a multi-hour family road trip, and you start to notice just how inexpensively trimmed the SUV is, from the fuzzy headliner and various texture-free dashboard pieces to the obviously fake wood trim and inconsistent panel gaps and fits. Plus, the Venza XLE’s leather seems to be anything but.
While the quality of the leather isn’t in the same neighborhoods as “rich” and “plush,” the Venza’s front-seat comfort is excellent. Thanks to great support and a chair-like driving position, I emerged after 6 hours on the road feeling no worse for wear. The sliding center console is padded for comfort, and the upper door panel material is kind to elbows. While the front passenger seat lacks height adjustment, it doesn’t really need it.
If you can’t snag one of the front seats, don’t worry. The Venza’s rear seat is remarkably spacious, and the seatbacks recline for napping comfort. While the front seatbacks are paneled in hard plastic, this isn’t a problem, as knees and shins come nowhere close to them. Better yet, my 3-year-old had to fully extend her legs to even brush her feet on the back of the driver’s seat, so parents can look forward to kick-free motoring in a Venza.
If you load adults back there, they’ll enjoy lots of foot space, but they’ll need to watch the tops of their shoes on the front seat rails when exiting the vehicle. I dragged the tip of my left sneaker on something sharp under there, which wasn’t a big deal. Had I been more formally attired, however, I think I’d have become quite upset over a damaged dress shoe. This is another example of how the Venza’s interior execution reflects indifferent attention to detail.
In an effort to make the Venza appealing to “active lifestyle” types, a hard plastic cargo floor is designed to take abuse. Unfortunately, when items are placed there and they slide during transit, there’s also plenty of extra noise coming from the 36.2-cubic-foot cargo area. Handy plastic grocery-bag hooks help to secure foodstuffs for the trip home. To fold the rear seats, pull the levers built into the sides of the cargo compartment, and when the seat belts restrain them at a 45-degree angle, you’ll need to open each rear door, move the belts out of the way, and push the seatbacks the rest of the way down to create 70.2 cu-ft of room.
Interior storage areas are plentiful, but many lack liners that could cut down on noise and vibration when they’re actually used to hold stuff. My wife particularly liked the Venza’s center-console design, which offered easy access to a USB port, two big storage bins, a sliding tray containing cupholders and a plush adjustable armrest, allowing her to configure the space in different ways. I wasn’t as big a fan. In fact, I feel like there’s a bunch of wasted space in this otherwise very roomy vehicle, because of the way the dashboard is designed to sweep down and between the front seats.
As for the Venza’s control layout, most features are easy to find and to use, and I definitely appreciated that all 4 windows featured automatic operation. My test vehicle’s 6.1-inch color touchscreen infotainment system provided separate power/volume and tuning knobs for the stereo, and the touchscreen proved responsive and relatively easy to use when not suffering glare. Keep the sunroof shades closed, and this should be less of an issue.
Out of 10
In the previous section, I mentioned a problem with glare related to the Venza’s standard 6.1-inch touchscreen infotainment system. At a minimum, Toyota needs to invest in anti-glare screen technology. With that observation noted, pairing my smartphone to the system for streaming music and making phone calls was easy enough, and we had no trouble programming the navigation system.
Note, though, that the navigation system is not infallible. Using the shortest route feature to arrive in Yosemite, the system directed us down a poorly maintained 2-lane road that serves as a local shortcut around Mariposa, Calif. This remote 16-mile stretch of road, which would have been quite treacherous had winter bothered to make an appearance in California this year, was heavily traveled by rental cars suffering the same apparent fate, their drivers having been re-routed around the last commerce hub before entering the national park. This can make neither the business owners of Mariposa nor the residents sprinkled along this road very happy.
My test vehicle came with upgraded JBL Synthesis speakers, which were merely adequate. I’m middle-aged, and I’m not an audiophile, but this system did a terrible job of delivering bass, unless you think bass ought to sound like the rattling trunk of some teenager’s car as he or she does irreparable damage to his or her eardrums while passing by on the street.
Also, I should note that despite the panoramic views of the Sierra Nevadas afforded by the Venza’s giant sunroof, my children were mighty unhappy about the lack of a rear-seat entertainment system, which is a dealer-installed accessory that my test vehicle lacked. Oh, the horror of having to look out the window at the passing landscape, or to play “I Spy” with mom and dad. For the record, nobody melted down over the omission of princess movies from the trip, though I can’t blame them for boredom as we rolled across the polluted Central Valley floor on arrow-straight Highway 99.
Out of 10
Based on available crash-test ratings, the 2014 Venza is a safe crossover SUV. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gives the vehicle a 5-star overall rating, while the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says the Venza performs at a Good level in its assessments. Note, though, that the IIHS has not evaluated the Venza’s small-overlap frontal-impact crash protection levels.
The Venza comes standard with a driver’s knee airbag and blind-spot side-mirror designs. If you’re looking for crash-prevention technology, items like a blind-spot information system, a lane-departure warning system or a forward-collision warning system, or if you’d enjoy the peace of mind provided by a Safety Connect telematics system with Automatic Collision Notification service, Toyota doesn’t deliver those in this vehicle. The best you can do is to get a reversing camera, which is optional for the LE and standard for the XLE and Limited. The Limited trim also offers front and rear parking-assist sensors.
Given the Venza’s role as a family vehicle, and a price tag that can rise beyond $40,000 with all the goodies added, the lack of safety features is difficult to understand and accept.
Out of 10
During my week with a front-wheel-drive Venza, I spent 95% of my driving time on highways, so it’s not surprising that I averaged 25.7 mpg over more than 700 miles of travel, coming up just short of the EPA’s 26-mpg highway rating. While that sounds good for a roomy crossover SUV, keep in mind that the far more powerful 3.5-liter V6 engine is also rated to get 26 mpg on the highway. Again, it is worth paying for the upgrade to the bigger motor.
The Venza delivers good fuel economy on the highway, and both Consumer Reports and J.D. Power say that it is a reliable vehicle. In fact, this Toyota enjoys the best possible rating for dependability from J.D. Power. Overall ownership costs are average according to Consumer Reports, despite the fact that Toyota supplies free maintenance and roadside assistance for the first two years or 25,000 miles of ownership. In terms of the Venza’s ability to retain its value over time, ALG gives the Venza a 4-star rating, down one rung from the top score of 5 stars.
Venza buyers can save lots of money at the dealership, too. As of January 2014, dealers are still clearing 2013 model-year Venzas from dealer lots at the same time that they’re making the 2014 model more appealing from a cost perspective. Lease specials, zero-percent long-term financing deals, and rebates of up to $2,000 are available, which means that it's not surprising at all that TrueCar says you should be able to chop $4,000 off the sticker price without any trouble at all.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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