Intended to slot in neatly between the popular Toyota RAV4 Hybrid and the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, the Venza is an interesting vehicle in the Toyota lineup. The first gen Venza was based on the Camry and was sold from 2008-2017. The new, improved Venza is based on the Lexus RX and has been available to the US market since 2020. What’s curious is that the Venza has slightly less cargo space than the RAV4, one of the common complaints about the model. Built atop the premium Lexus, it’s no surprise that the Venza is also a refined and elegant 2-row SUV. Toyota offered me a week behind the wheel of the 2023 Toyota Venza XLE Nightshade, and you bet I took the opportunity to check it out!
I typically test cars with a mix of regular driving, errands, and a day trip or two. This meant that when it came time for its photoshoot, I was actually at Home Depot. Which offered an interesting background once I snuck around the building…
Notice the entire top of the roof is glass, not the cheery red of the rest of the vehicle. That’s part of the “Nightshade” trim set, which adds black wheels, accents, and badging, along with the optional, and rather gimmicky, “Star Gaze” panoramic roof. How often, however, do you lay in your car and wish you could see the stars above you? I like sunroofs occasionally, mostly because they tend to end up offering more headroom for us taller drivers, but I’ve never looked up at night and wanted to see the stars (unless it was a convertible, in which case having nothing over your head is glorious).
You can see a lot of that Lexus styling in the design too, and there’s nothing wrong with that; the Venza has excellent curb appeal and I noticed more than one head turn as I drove it around (tho not in the Home Depot parking lot! Maybe if it was a 3/4 ton pickup too). I like that the front spoilers and slash lighting design blunts the nose of the vehicle too; it is surprisingly un-boxy compared to many SUVs in this range.
Swinging into the car, the Venza also benefits from the RAV4/RX touches with a nicely modern dashboard design and layout:
A classic shifter in the center console, climate control immediately above it, and lots of knobs and controls on the steering wheel crossbar, but what jumps out is that 12.3″ infotainment screen. It’s not as sweeping as some of the upper end luxury vehicles I’ve driven, but for an approx $41K SUV, it’s big, bright, and very easy to work with, including wireless Apple CarPlay and wireless Android Auto. The climate controls, in fact, were an interesting mix of physical buttons and a touch-sensitive panel:
This is also one of the first vehicles I’ve driven where they have a mix of both labels and pictures, particularly helpful with the front and rear defogger controls. My own Mazda has a square representing one of those controls and a rounded square denoting the other. Which is which? I have no idea. So labels = good.
As with so many modern vehicles, the 2023 Toyota Venza XLE features a wireless charging pad, along with an interesting and rather surprising array of recessed charging ports:
As you can see, they’re tucked behind the gearshift and under the climate controls, along with the rather awkwardly placed power button (I think of it as a “start” button, actually). What’s curious about this configuration is that Toyota chose to include 3 USB-C ports but no older USB-A ports. Smartphone owners can ostensibly just get a new wire as needed, but for other vehicle peripherals, it’s curious that they didn’t have two USB-C and one USB-A power only instead. Also, a true confession, I didn’t test out the wireless charging pad given my usual poor luck using them. If you have a Venza, leave a comment with an indication of if the pad works with your phone, particularly over rugged terrain.
One place where the Venza really shines is its excellent fuel efficiency. It’s a 2.5L 4-cylinder engine with four hybrid driving modes: EV, ECO, Sport, and Normal. Sport is punchy! The gauge highlights overall efficiency well:
A plug-in hybrid version would have been nice, but 40.3mpg on average for my time with the vehicle was entirely acceptable, particularly given that the engine is delivering a relatively modest 219 horsepower, but is still a fun and lively drive. I did find that the options for changing the center screen display were rather limited, but I mostly like to focus on fuel efficiency so the bar graph was helpful and easily interpreted.
Better, though, was the EcoScore gamification assessment at the end of each drive:
I suspect all drivers when presented with a score at the end of a drive then seek to get the best possible value. It’s my stops that were least eco-friendly, apparently, while my cruising drive style was almost perfect for maximum fuel efficiency. I think that all cars should have displays like this to help teach interested drivers how to improve their own fuel efficiency by more thoughtful starts, stops, and drives. And for that last 11.2 mil drive, I got 44.8mpg. Darn nice.
Stepping out of the car, the rear legroom was a bit less than expected, making it a potentially tight fit for two (or three?!) adults:
The rear was also barren of fancy features to make those backseat passengers feel like more than an extension of the cargo space. Okay, maybe that’s not entirely fair, but this is a vehicle that’s going to work better for two adults + two kids, than for four adults. Some reviewers have complained about the lack of cargo space but I felt it was entirely acceptable in capacity, especially with the 60/40 seat split:
I’ll also give a special shout-out to the subtle two-tone armrests, most noticeable for those rear passengers:
Very attractive in appearance, it added a bit of sportiness to a rather uninspired back portion of the Venza. I’ve also already mentioned that the drive was quite enjoyable, and I felt it had plenty of oomph when needed without adversely affecting that glorious fuel efficiency.
This brings us to the central question: Why isn’t the Venza a more popular option in the Toyota lineup? For a two row SUV I felt it was overall quite nice, and with a base price of $38,930 for the XLE Nightshade trim and on-demand four-wheel drive, it’s a competitive option in the category. Are we just so drowning in SUVs that it doesn’t stand out? Is it that the RAV4 is so darn successful that Toyota buyers only see that when they think SUV? It’s a bit inexplicable, but I will say that if you are in the market, definitely give the Venza a test drive to see what you think.
2023 Toyota Venza XLE Nightshade in Ruby Flare Pearl, powered by the Toyota 2.5L 4-Cylinder Hybrid Engine system with Continuously Variable Transmission. BASE PRICE: $38,930. Options: Star Gaze Fixed Panoramic Roof ($1,400). AS DRIVEN: $41,665.00.
Disclosure: Toyota loaned me the Venza for a week in return for this candid writeup. Thanks, Toyota!