When the new 2021 Toyota Venza arrived in my driveway, I joked to my colleagues that it looked like Lincoln made a RAV4. After spending about 48 hours with one, that assessment felt pretty much spot-on. The Venza feels as though the brand dialed down the RAV4's funky characteristics and ramped up the RAV4’s sophistication. (One example: my tester’s paint color was called “champagne.”) Put it this way: the new crossover is what the RAV4's profile photo would look like if it had a LinkedIn page.
The Venza is brand new to Americans; the only relation to the previous Venza — which was basically a Camry wagon — is the name. Toyota has been selling it as the Harrier in Japan. It’s a two-row, midsize crossover based on the RAV4 that slides in between it and the Highlander in Toyota’s crossover lineup, one that only comes in 219-horsepower hybrid form. Compared to the RAV4 Hybrid, the Venza is 5.7 inches longer, sports a sleeker silhouette, has considerably less cargo capacity — and starts about $4,000 higher.
On paper, the Venza makes sense. The RAV4, America’s best-selling non-pickup, meets the needs of most buyers. The 4Runner is there for the off-roaders; the Highlander is there for the three-row crossover folks. There’s room for a slightly more urbane, luxurious option to ward off inroads from the increasingly premium Hyundai and Kia.
That said, buyers choose crossovers because they are practical — and the Venza is anything but that. Manufacturers portray cars as being adventurous and sporty, because that’s what most people aspire to be; the Venza self-consciously eschews that. Sure, some buyers want a more upscale version of the RAV4...but will they choose a Toyota when they can get a Lincoln or Volvo at the same price point?
What We Like
Toyota nailed it with the Venza's interior. It's a cut above your standard Toyota; the Venza would not look out of place as a Lexus. I drove the full-zoot Limited trim, which packed plush seats, soft touch surfaces and an expansive 12.3-inch touchscreen. You even can opt for a (currently) Venza-exclusive Star Gaze fixed-glass panoramic roof that can frost the glass to take the edge off incoming sunlight, which is some next-level Mercedes-Benz S-Class-type tech.
The Venza does deliver a comfortable ride. The suspension is forgiving, and the sound dampening deadens the Toyota hybrid engine noise, which can be a tad agricultural when you’re on the gas. The electric motor helps provide some reasonable punch at low speeds. The Venza will please drivers, so long as they stay well away from the edge.
Going all-hybrid was a wise move. In crossovers, hybrids are both the present and the future; they're generally better-performing than pure internal combustion power, yet aren’t that much more expensive, especially compared to going full-electric. The Venza is EPA-rated for an impressive 39 mpg combined; I saw 39.3 over two days of driving.
Watch Out For
The "midsize" designation overstates how much space the Venza has. Sloping roofline + surprisingly high load floor = far less cargo space than the RAV4 and many other compact crossovers. Families may want to level up to the Highlander and fold the third seat down.
The Venza is slow, even by midsize crossover standards. It ambles to 0-60 mph in 7.6 seconds, which is about the same as the hulking, ancient 4Runner. Unlike other Toyota SUVs, the Venza has no tow rating. And it may be a small matter, but the haptic buttons on the center console can be a little annoying.
The potential Venza buyer is probably cross-shopping with the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid ($28,300) and the new, sportier hybrid RAV4 Prime ($38,100). Outside the Toyota realm, a crossover like the Volvo XC40 ($33,700) or Lincoln Corsair ($35,945) could be on the radar.
The Venza is upscale, comfortable and efficient. The price is relatively reasonable in a vacuum, when you consider the standard hybrid powertrain and all-wheel-drive. But the RAV4 will be right next to the Venza in the showroom...and it’s cheaper, more spacious, more practical and has more personality. Unless you’re all-in on having a frosted glass roof, I would stick with the RAV4.