FARMINGTON, PA – Many brands have tried to convince the public in recent years that all utility vehicles are not the same, and that some deserve special consideration for their unique attributes.

BMW favored the term “Sport Activity Vehicle” for its X5, and some have shopped the “tall wagon” moniker, namely Audi and Volvo.

At its debut at the Detroit auto show in January, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. instructed the media in a press release to call the new Venza a “crossover sedan.”

Uh huh.

Maybe Toyota was desperate for the term to take hold because the brand is late to enter the trendy, stylized cross/utility vehicle market and wanted to deflect that fact by creating its own category.

The Toyota Highlander was a CUV pioneer, but it is utilitarian and not much to look at, unlike the more dramatically styled Nissan Murano, Ford Edge, Mazda CX-7 and Buick Enclave.

With the new Venza, Toyota wants to play in this world, where passion trumps functionality. Rightly so, Toyota execs don’t want the Venza to be the 61st addition to a segment it has estimated at 60 in the U.S.

Despite their best efforts, after a day with the Venza, we conclude it is, indeed, a CUV, proving the point that you can put lipstick on a hockey mom, but she’s still a hockey mom.

The Venza is a good CUV, and Toyota shouldn’t worry about what the media or car-buying public calls it, just that they like it.

An amalgamation of the Camry sedan and Highlander, plus some of its own unique flavor, the Venza hits most of the key marks.

It has a surprisingly stiff suspension, two competent engines, above average interior materials, comfortable seats, roomy cabin and, as Toyota execs at a mid-October media drive here keep reminding, easy ingress and egress.

The Venza comes with either a new 182-hp 2.7L DOHC I-4 or Toyota’s volume V-6, a 268-hp 3.5L engine, both with dual independent variable valve timing with intelligence on intake and exhaust cams.

The I-4, which also handily powers the '09 Highlander, uses dual balance shafts, and Toyota has added more oil jets to cool the pistons.

Both engines are mated to two different-but-related electronically controlled 6-speed automatics. Each transmission is designed with uphill and downhill shift logic, to hold or release gears quicker than a normal automatic would on certain grades, lessening gear hunting.

Front-wheel drive is standard and all-wheel drive can be added to both 4-cyl. and V-6 models. The Venza’s AWD is similar to the on-demand systems in the RAV4 and Matrix, which can apportion torque 50/50 to the front and rear axles.

Fuel economy is competitive. In our drive, the FWD 3.5L V-6 yields an average 23.3 mpg (10.1 L/100 km) on mostly surface roads at medium speeds.

AWD adds a barely noticeable 175 lbs. (79 kg) to the Venza’s curb weight, and our average fuel economy with AWD suffers minimally: 22.6 mpg (10.4 L/100 km).

The FWD 2.7L I-4 manages 25 mpg (9.4 L/100 km) on the same route – not bad for a 3,760-lb. (1,706-kg) CUV.

As expected, the V-6 propels the Venza more readily through the steep foothills of the Allegheny Mountains here, but the 4-cyl. is perfectly sufficient for everyday driving in less-strenuous environs.

Comparing Midsize CUVs
Toyota Venza Ford Edge Nissan Murano Mazda CX-7
Engine 3.5L V-6 3.5L V-6 3.5L V-6 2.3L turbocharged 4-cyl.
Transmission 6-speed automatic 6-speed automatic Continously variable 6-speed automatic
Horsepower 268 hp
@ 6,200 rpm
265 hp
@ 6,250 rpm
265 hp
@ 6,000 rpm
244 hp
@ 5,000 rpm
Torque 246 lb.-ft.
@ 4,700 rpm
250 lb.-ft.
@ 4,500 rpm
248 lb.-ft.
@ 4,400 rpm
258 lb.-ft.
@ 2,500 rpm
FWD fuel economy
city/highway
19/26 mpg 17/24 mpg 18/23 mpg 17/23 mpg
AWD fuel economy
city/highway
18/25 mpg 15/22 mpg 18/23 mpg 16/22 mpg
Wheelbase 109.3 ins. 111.2 ins. 111.2 ins. 108.3 ins.
Curb weight (lbs.) 3,870 FWD
4,045 AWD
4,078 FWD
4,288 AWD
3,855-3,875 FWD
4,009-4,141 AWD
3,710 FWD
3,929 AWD

Relative to other I-4s, the 2.7L is a sophisticated, capable engine that easily could woo consumers who generally think they need a V-6.

On a pock-marked, narrow country road, the MacPherson-type front and rear suspensions absorb bumps while also communicating more feel than the soft roader we expected, due to the Venza’s Camry lineage.

Engineer Greg Bernas, who helmed the Venza’s development alongside Chief Engineer Michihiko Sato, says Toyota benchmarked BMW’s X5, which shows in the Venza’s confident handling, on-center steering, flat cornering and quick-off-the-line acceleration.

Directional control comes from the standard rack-and-pinion electric power steering system, which provides a nicely weighted feel of the road at highway speeds and makes low-speed maneuvering in parking lots a snap.

’09 Toyota Venza
Vehicle type Front-engine, FWD 4-door CUV
Engine 2.7L DOHC 4-cyl. with aluminum block/aluminum head
Power (SAE net) 182 hp @ 5,800 rpm
Torque 182 lb.-ft. (247 Nm) @ 4,200 rpm
Compression ratio 10.0:1
Bore x stroke 90 x 105 mm
Transmission 6-speed automatic with sequential shift
Wheelbase 109.3 ins. (278 cm)
Overall length 189.0 ins. (480 cm)
Overall width 75.0 ins. (191 cm)
Overall height 63.4 ins. (161 cm)
Curb weight 3,760 lbs. (1,706 kg)
Base price $25,975 plus $720 destination
Fuel economy 21/29 mpg (11.2-8.1 L/100 km)
Competition Ford Edge, Nissan Murano, Mazda CX-7, Honda Accord, Nissan Maxima
Pros Cons
Impressive performance Needs more low-end torque
Spacious cabin Dated buttons, headliner fabric
More stylish than Highlander Late to sexy CUV party

The Venza’s interior reflects improvements by Toyota in quality, fit-and-finish and material selection.

A grainy/wavy texture, heavily embossed on hard-plastic trim, is more appealing than the faux leather look Toyota and other auto makers have been using.

The leather seats feature sharp contrast, with black piping in either the ivory or gray color schemes.

Buyers opting for less-expensive cloth seats will not sacrifice style: A corduroy-look material is inset into a flat woven fabric reminiscent of that used for years by Volkswagen AG.

A faux-satin mahogany trim comes with the leather package, while “carbon-fiber style” panels accent cloth surfaces.

Two sticking points are the dated switchgear (circa 2000 fonts) and rat-fur headliner, although it’s not nearly as er, furry, as some headliners recently encountered.

The front seats afford plenty of headroom, despite the lower roof height of the Venza, compared with its close cousin, the Highlander.

In the second row, legroom is ample enough to allow stretching out, thanks to seats that recline a maximum 14 degrees.

The Venza’s exterior styling was appropriated from the FT-SX concept, which debuted at the 2005 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The profile and a bold horizontal-bar grille resemble that of the Edge, but the Venza is more bulky than the svelte CX-7 and Murano.

It’s difficult to imagine a CX-7 or Murano intender shopping the Venza on its styling merits, but on paper the Murano and Edge are close performance matches for the Venza. All three have 3.5L V-6s, with nearly identical horsepower and torque.

Only one grade of the Venza is offered, with eight different packages and four standalone options, including a panoramic glass moonroof, the first for a Toyota-brand model.

The V-6 Venza goes on sale in the U.S. in early December, with the 4-cyl. model available in January. All are built at Toyota’s Georgetown, KY, plant.

The Venza’s best prospect is to catch shoppers driving sedans but wanting more cargo space, without stepping up to a 3-row vehicle.

It’s a phenomenon even Toyota predicts, listing the Honda Accord and Nissan Maxima large sedans as top cross-shops. That means Toyota’s own Avalon also could lose customers to the Venza.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com