2021 Toyota Venza first drive review: One hell of a comeback

The original Toyota Venza will go down in history as, frankly, a pretty generic vehicle. It made no waves, nor did it attempt to; it was simply sensible transportation. But now, there’s a new Venza in town, and it has dramatically ramped up its character, resulting in a posh hybrid that’s high on style, tech and just about everything in between.

Lookin’ sharp(er)

The Toyota Venza’s new look is easy to like, if only because it no longer looks like a growth-stunted minivan. The front end is largely inoffensive, with some blue-tinged flourishes that hint at the hybrid powertrain under the hood. Moving toward the back, the character lines sharpen up around the thin, body-width taillights that give off a bit of a premium Jaguar vibe. The rear roof has a slight slope to it, but it doesn’t try to be a “coupe.” Simply put, it’s a handsome SUV, prettier than most everything else with a Toyota badge.

The interior is remarkably posh, too — granted, part of that comes from my tester’s top-tier Limited trim, which adds fripperies like a digital rearview mirror, illuminated doorsills and foot wells, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, heated and ventilated front seats and some neat wood-look trim scattered around. Everything I touch feels more expensive than I’d expect, whether it’s a piece of accent trim or the touch-sensitive switches just below the infotainment screen. Since the Venza is a relatively large two-row crossover, there’s a ton of space for passengers in both rows, with ample headroom. Cargo space isn’t bad either; the load floor is long, but it’s also kind of high, so a little extra lifting is required.

2021 Toyota Venza bears no resemblance to its predecessor
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The coolest feature, though, is the optional electrochromic panoramic glass roof. In its default mode, the glass takes on a frosted appearance that scatters the light entering from above, looking more like a skylight. One button tap, though, and it shifts to a standard transparent glass roof. It’s some seriously high-end stuff for a Toyota crossover, and it definitely grabs the attention of anyone sliding into a seat for the first time. It’s also pretty good at, you know, illuminating the cabin.

Tech prowess

I wouldn’t say Toyota has the best mass-market infotainment around, but Entune is a sufficiently capable system that keeps improving with every iteration. While the LE and XLE trims make do with an 8-inch touchscreen, my Limited tester packs a massive 12.3-inch display. Both include Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, satellite radio and Bluetooth, but the Limited’s kit amps it up with a nine-speaker JBL sound system. Entune has sufficient response times and the width of my screen makes it easy to display audio, map and climate settings at the same time to mitigate distracting button presses.

There are four USB ports scattered around the cabin, two per row, but if all you’re after is some juice, there’s a well-placed Qi wireless device charger just ahead of the shift lever — a feature that’s standard on every trim, which is a nice touch.

The Venza’s screen is so roomy, you may never need to swap tiles.

Andrew Krok/Roadshow

It wouldn’t be a new Toyota without a bevy of standard active and passive driver aids. All three Venza trims come standard with Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, a suite that includes automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist, full-speed adaptive cruise control, road sign recognition and lane-departure warning. Blind-spot monitoring is also standard across the board. Toyota’s steering assistance feels entirely too heavy-handed in this hands-on system when it’s operating alongside adaptive cruise, taking more control through the wheel than I’d prefer to feel, especially when it’s not exactly doing a top-tier job of preventing lane bouncing. It works well enough, it’s just not as smooth as similar getups I’ve tested.

Hybrid sippin’

The Venza is now officially a hybrid-only crossover, with all three trims picking up the same powertrain. A 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle inline-four hooks up to a lithium-ion battery and a trio of electric motors — two up front, one out back — generating a net 219 horsepower. The electric motor in the back has no physical connections to the front axle; it exists solely to power the rear wheels when traction becomes an issue. In most circumstances, the Venza operates as a front-wheel-drive hybrid, preventing the rear axle from eating into overall efficiency.

Considering how long Toyota’s been refining its hybrids, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the 2021 Venza is one smooth operator. I can never tell when the rear axle is putting in work, and the whole system blends together so well it’s impressive. Just apply some throttle and let the computers figure out whether it’s launching under electricity alone (smooth and quiet) or relying more on the gas engine and the continuously variable transmission (a little less quiet, no less smooth). The net power output might seem low, considering it’s a couple of dozen horsepower below the Highlander Hybrid, but the Venza has more than enough grunt for on-ramps and passing. Its diminutive lithium-ion battery can deliver silent operation for a mile or two at a time, as well, adding even more serenity to the equation.

It’s not advised to enjoy the electrochromic roof while in motion, but there’s nothing stopping you from pulling over and marveling at what happens when you press its button.

Andrew Krok/Roadshow

The powertrain isn’t the only part of the Venza delivering a luxury-tier experience, either. The suspension is soft enough to eliminate smaller amounts of road nastiness, while it’s not so mushy as to generate seasickness as it meanders its way around curves. The steering is predictably light and mass-market-friendly. The throttle and brake are both a little touchy for my taste, requiring a bit more precision to ensure smooth starts and stops, but, hey, some things in life are worth working for. Toyota’s sister brand Lexus runs the playground when it comes to interior quietude, but the Venza isn’t very far behind, with a hushed cabin that introduces little wind or road noise.

Despite some visual heft, the Venza is pretty darn efficient. Toyota estimates the Venza will achieve 40 miles per gallon city, 37 mpg highway and 39 mpg combined, no matter the trim. Even in my kitted-to-the-roof Limited tester, those numbers were so easy to achieve I felt like a pro baseball player hopping into a game of tee-ball. With a light foot and the right conditions, they should be sufficiently easy to top.

Down to brass tacks

For the longest time, the Highlander Hybrid has been the bread-and-butter large hybrid in Toyota’s portfolio. But electrification has caught on quickly, and soon, the three-row Highlander Hybrid will be joined by a minivan (Sienna) and a dedicated two-row crossover (Venza). And that kind of choice is great. If you want a hybrid that puts a little more focus on comfort over sheer capacity, the Venza will make an excellent choice. And, with a post-destination price range from $33,645 to just under $41,000, it’s a surprisingly affordable choice, too.


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