REVIEW: The $32,000 Toyota Venza hybrid crossover proves electrification doesn’t have to be boring

  • The 2021 Toyota Venza is back as a hybrid-only, all-wheel drive, two-row crossover.
  • It’s actually quite fun to drive with very agile handling, which isn’t commonplace among crossovers.
  • But the car isn’t without its faults, like disappointing cargo space and visibility paired with too few physical buttons on the interior.
  • Prices start at $32,470 and it will be available in early September.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In the realm of hybrid crossovers, there are a lot to choose from. But the 2021 Toyota Venza is one that deserves your attention.

Having a plethora of hybrid crossovers on the market — and hybrids in general — is a good thing. It wasn’t too long ago that driving a hybrid car was erroneously seen as something only lame, tree-hugging environmentalists did. 

2021 Toyota Venza_9
2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider

But as we’re living through a generation-defining climate crisis, it’s great that there are suddenly so many hybrid options out there. It normalizes the idea of electrification and, hopefully one day, will pave the way for a complete break from our reliance on fossil fuels.

But I digress.

2021 Toyota Venza_6
2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider

The Venza is anything but lame. It’s sharply styled and outfitted with contemporary technology that makes it feel like it’s fully embraced the new decade — and fully embraced buyers who normally wouldn’t go for this whole “electrification” thing. 

The 2021 Toyota Venza: It’s not the one you remember

Those familiar with Toyota’s lineup from the late 2000s to the mid-2010s will know it also featured a Venza: an SUV-ish thing that wasn’t quite tall enough to be an SUV but was also a bit too big to be a sedan. Perhaps it was most accurately described as a tall station wagon. Regardless, it was difficult to classify. 

Toyota Venza 2014
2014 Toyota Venza.
Toyota

After a successful 2009, sales figures started dropping — to the point where the Venza was finally discontinued after the 2015 model year. 

But now the Venza is back and classified firmly by Toyota as a two-row crossover. 

2021 Toyota Venza_32
2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider

From the outside, the new Venza is a “Venza” in name only. It looks nothing like the previous one. In fact, it has rather Jaguar F-Pace-esque lines to its sculpted rear end. Toyota’s designers really pulled back on the beltline here, creating a silhouette that conveys sportiness.

The 2021 Venza is the United States-import version of the Japanese-market Toyota Harrier. It will be sold here exclusively as a hybrid model. The crossover is, as Toyota puts it, part of the automaker’s goal of electrification advancement. 

2021 Toyota Venza_16
2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider

And seeing as Toyota paved the wave for mass-market hybrid cars with the Prius, I could only expect a top-notch hybrid experience from the new Venza. Toyota’s had long enough to perfect it, after all.

Details and safety ratings: All-electric driving and standard all-wheel drive

The 2021 Venza rides on Toyota’s TNGA-K platform, which also underpins the Camry, Avalon, RAV4, Highlander, and Sienna. The hybrid system’s battery pack is stored beneath the rear seats so trunk space isn’t compromised. All-wheel drive comes as standard through the use of a separate, rear-mounted electric motor that powers the rear wheels as necessary.

2021 Toyota Venza_12
2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider

Toyota rates the new Venza at 219 horsepower, which comes from both its 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine and a system with three electric motors. Torque has not been announced at this time. 

Although the EPA estimates haven’t yet been finalized, Toyota said its own estimates put the total driving range at just under 500 miles. It also estimates fuel-economy return to be 40 mpg in the city, 37 mpg on the highway, and 39 mpg combined. 

2021 Toyota Venza_8
2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider

In the single weekend I had to test out the Venza, I found it returned about 36 mpg with both city and highway driving. 

All-electric driving is possible for short distances, though in a recent Q&A session, Toyota’s engineers declined to disclose the range and speed limitations, if any. Rather, they said the main purpose of the all-electric driving is for coming home at night and not having the noise of the engine disturbing the neighbors, which seemed like a weirdly specific example to use. 

2021 Toyota Venza_21
Analog gauges!
Kristen Lee/Business Insider

Anyway, I was unable to determine the all-electric range in my own testing, but I did discover that the car would go into electric-only driving when it was traveling at 25 mph or below. The gasoline motor would kick to life if I surpassed 25 mph or if I leaned on the accelerator too aggressively. It wound up being most useful during stop-and-go traffic.

The Venza, in terms of size, is about six inches longer and slightly shorter in height than the RAV4. They’re about the same width, and the RAV4 also has more ground clearance: It can have between 8.4 inches and 8.6 inches of clearance, depending on the trim, while the Venza claims 7.8 inches. 

2021 Toyota Venza_17
2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider

The Venza’s weight comes to 3,847 pounds in the LE trim, 3,891 pounds in the XLE trim, and 3,913 pounds in the Limited trim, meaning it’s a few hundred pounds heavier than the RAV4.

As of this writing, the Venza has yet to be rated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

2021 Toyota Venza_3
2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider

What stands out: A crossover with luxury features and sports-car urges

Hybrid crossovers suffer from an image problem. 

Too often, they are dismissed as boring, unenthusiastic cars, reserved solely for people who care not a bit about having any spark of excitement in their lives. The Venza takes this notion and turns it completely on its head.

2021 Toyota Venza_4
2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider

It doesn’t take long behind the wheel before the Venza suddenly feels like it’s shrunk around you. You’re left feeling like you’re driving something much smaller — and lighter — than you are. Likely, this is accomplished through communicative steering, a well-balanced chassis, and good throttle response. 

The Venza drives with far more agility and maneuverability than anything its size has any right to. The electric motor supplies instantaneous low-end power, zipping the car ahead of slow-moving traffic with a sort of casual athleticism I’ve come to expect from sports cars — but certainly not from hybrid, two-row crossovers.

2021 Toyota Venza_15
2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider

I returned the press loaner Venza over a week ago and the feeling that’s stuck with me when I think back about how it drove is its chuckability. This is a car that feels light enough on its feet that you can throw it into corners and between lanes and it won’t punish you with terrifying, body-roll wobbliness. (“Body roll” is just a fancy term for the sensation of a car leaning toward the outside of a turn. The less, the better.)

This is not to say that the Venza is a sports car, of course. It is not. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t shocked at how a car that big and weighing that much could feel completely elfin once it got moving. 

2021 Toyota Venza_7
2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider

During the rest of the driving experience, the Venza is quiet. The only time you really hear the engine at all is when you accelerate. Toyota said it wanted to create a cabin that fostered a very muted atmosphere, and the automaker has done that. 

The TNGA-K platform apparently blocks out vibration and noise through the floor, structure, and steering. Insulation placed in key locations cuts down on tire noise. The windshield is made from “acoustic glass” that helps reduce wind noise. 

2021 Toyota Venza_23
2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider

The switch between electric driving and hybrid driving — meaning when the gasoline engine turns on — was incredibly seamless. With the extra sound-deadening, the only hint you got that the car was suddenly using its gasoline engine was a very slight vibration in the steering wheel. That was it; completely unnoticeable otherwise if you weren’t looking for it.

Because of its height, the Venza’s ingress and egress were also very intuitive. I felt like Goldilocks when getting in and out of this car: didn’t have to climb up too high, didn’t have to get down too low in order to slide into the seat.

2021 Toyota Venza_26
2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider

The rear seats can theoretically fit three, but that might be a bit cramped. With two, there’s good arm and shoulder room, as well as decent legroom. 

My favorite part of the car was the panoramic Star Gaze roof. A $1,400 option on the top-tier Limited trim, the roof is a big piece of seemingly frosted glass that flicks from transparent to to semi-transparent at the push of a button. Toyota said it uses something called “electrochromic glass technology” to pull off the effect.

2021 Toyota Venza_28
2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider

When it’s transparent, the Star Gaze roof acts like a regular, clear moonroof. It lets in sunlight and adds to the airiness of the cabin. When it’s semi-transparent, the roof cuts down on the heat coming into the cabin and also diffuses the light in a very pleasant way, sort of like sitting beneath a white tarp.

Of course, if you want nothing to come through at all, you can also slide the roof covering shut. That’s just less fancy.

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2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider

What falls short: Sleek styling comes at a price 

Even the Venza was unable to escape the cheap-looking, tacked-on-as-an-afterthought screen and eventual buttonless hellscape that awaits us all. Although its infotainment and climate were not completely controlled via a touchscreen, the “buttons” had zero haptic feedback, so you still needed to glance at the screen to check your climate adjustment anyway. 

I hate that. I drive a lot of cars, and I still hate having to look at a screen while I drive. It’s distracting.

2021 Toyota Venza_25
2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider

It’s also almost a rule at this point that the sleeker and more raked a car’s rear window is, the worse its rearward visibility is. The Venza, with its sporty looks, is a nightmare for over-the-shoulder glances. The fat D-pillars and small window make for a big blind spot. You’ll rely on your mirrors a bit more here, as well as on the lane-departure warning system.

But call me old-fashioned: I like physically being able to see where I’m about to go. 

2021 Toyota Venza_20
2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider

And despite being longer than the RAV4, the Venza actually offers less cargo room. I suppose it’s not surprising when you look at their exterior profiles — a box is always going to have more volume than something with a shorter, sleeker, and tapered roofline. 

But just so you have them, the numbers: The RAV4 has 37.5 cubic feet of cargo volume behind the second row, the Venza has 28.8 cubic feet without the Star Gaze roof and 28.7 cubic feet with it. 

2021 Toyota Venza_14
JBL speakers are standard on the Limited trim.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider

How the Venza compares to its competitors: The only one of its kind 

The Venza, being exclusively a hybrid-only, all-wheel drive model, is interesting. Typically, hybrid and all-wheel drive options are the most expensive way you can outfit a model. The Venza, through its singular offering, removes the other options entirely.

2021 Toyota Venza.
2021 Toyota Venza.
Alanis King/Business Insider

The base LE trim starts at an MSRP of $32,470. The mid-tier XLE trim starts at $36,000. The top-tier Limited trim starts at $39,800. The delivery, processing, and handling fee is an additional $1,175. Toyota says the Venza will see an on-sale date of early September. 

2021 Toyota Venza_27
2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider

Toyota has said the Venza will compete with the likes of the Nissan Murano, Ford Edge, Honda Passport, and Chevrolet Blazer. None of these offer hybrid configurations or standard all-wheel drive, so when you consider the Venza’s starting price to be just a couple of thousand dollars more, it makes for a serious contender. 

Yes, the Venza’s official EPA fuel-economy figures haven’t yet been released. But Roadshow also points out that the Toyota’s estimated combined fuel economy of about 40 mpg will likely be much better than the competition, which comparatively has mpg ranges in the low- to mid-20s. 

2021 Toyota Venza_24
2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider

Market musings: The Venza walks a fine line

The new Toyota Venza is designed to sit right in between the RAV4 and the Highlander. But while both of those are offered as non-hybrid and hybrid models, the Venza will have no such option. Hybrid is the only way you can get it. Why?

I have my suspicions. I suspect Toyota knows buyers will flock more heavily toward the RAV4 and the Highlander. Last year, the RAV4 and the Highlander were Toyota’s two best-selling cars in the US.

2021 Toyota Venza_30
Spare tire! Many modern cars don’t have these anymore.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider

But to fill the existing gap between the two, and to cover any potential customers a competitor might steal, Toyota simply federalized the Japanese-market Harrier and stamped a name on it that US buyers would recognize. 

Another reason for only federalizing the hybrid-only Venza: It offers protection against potential market cannibalization.

2021 Toyota Venza_11
2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider

Pricing for the Venza slots right in between the hybrid versions of the RAV4 ($28,350 starting) and Highlander ($38,200 starting). As a result, the Venza both offers a middle choice for hybrid crossover buyers while simultaneously pricing itself out of the way of the non-hybrid RAV4 ($25,950 starting) and Highlander ($34,600 starting). It’d be logical to think that perhaps hybrid buyers and non-hybrid buyers are distinct enough not to clash over the Venza.

But maybe you don’t care about all the market stuff. Maybe you just want to know if this sleek-looking hybrid crossover is any good to drive. It is! 

2021 Toyota Venza_31
2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider

The 2021 Venza can just about do it all — and then some. Come for the quiet and smooth ride, enjoy the seamless shift between all-electric driving to hybrid driving, and stay for the surprisingly spirited and light-footed nature. 

Let the new Venza breathe some life into hybrid crossovers. Their current reputation could use the help.

♦♦♦

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2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider
2021 Toyota Venza_19
2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider
2021 Toyota Venza_13
2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider
2021 Toyota Venza_10
2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider
2021 Toyota Venza_5
2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider
2021 Toyota Venza_1
2021 Toyota Venza.
Kristen Lee/Business Insider

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