2009 Toyota Venza

The new mid-sized Venza looks like a crossover vehicle, but Toyota engineers call it a car. The Venza shares Toyota's K platform with the Camry: it will roll off the same Kentucky assembly line as the automaker's best-selling sedan.

Its two box design gives the Venza more cargo space than a sedan. It sits lower than the Highlander, making the car more aerodynamic. Lower door sills ease access and egress.

There are two available engines for the front-wheel or all-wheel drive platform: a V6 that rolls into dealerships in November, and an all-new 2.7-liter four-cylinder that comes out in January. Both come with a six-speed automatic transmission.

Having driven both versions, I'd opt for the four-cylinder, which costs less and gets and better fuel economy than the V6, with surprisingly good performance. The only exception would be buyers who plan to tow trailers. The V6 meets our minimum ALV towing requirement of 3500 pounds, while the four-cylinder does not.

Touring Pennsylvania Dutch country

At a recent media event, I drove both the four and six-cylinder Venzas on a forty-mile route in southern Pennsylvania. The route, which included two-lane roads and highways over hilly terrain, gave me ample opportunity to compare engine performance.

Although the four-cylinder engine is a better value, there's nothing wrong with the performance of the V6. It's a tried-and-true product that Toyota also uses in the current RAV4, Camry and Highlander.

Average fuel economy for the front-wheel drive model is twenty-two miles per gallon, versus about twenty-five for the new four cylinder. All-wheel drive versions get slightly less gas mileage, though the four-banger still averages twenty-eight miles-per-gallon on the highway.

What makes the four-cylinder car such a good value is its proximity to the six-cylinder in terms of performance. Thanks to a lot of low-end torque and the six-speed automatic transmission, it doesn't do any of the annoying things four-cylinder cars are known for.

The car is surprisingly quick off the line, with excellent acceleration in the twenty-to-fifty mile-per-hour range. It doesn't feel anemic going up a steep hill. The transmission doesn't hunt excessively, and there's less shift shock than one might expect.

Another thing to love about the four-cylinder Venza is that it meets California's stringent partial zero-emissions vehicle requirements, and federal SULEV vehicles standards. The six cylinder is slightly less green: it complies with federal ULEV II requirements.

Steering response is positive without being dicey, and the brakes perform in a firm, linear fashion. The big wheels and tires provide a nice wide footprint for stable cornering without too much road noise.

Designed for American Roads

Toyota's Calty design studio in Newport Beach, California played a major role in the Venza's design, beginning with the FTSX concept car at the 2005 Detroit auto show. Both the concept and the production model incorporate styling cues that push the buttons of enthusiasts stateside: big wheels, a wedge-shaped profile, and a rear spoiler.

The V6 model comes with standard twenty-inch wheels: the largest standard rims of any vehicle in its competitive segment. The four-cylinder model gets nineteen-inch wheels: big enough to have the same visual effect, and more flexible for buyers who want to get a more aggressive set of winter tires.

Like most new two-box cars, the Venza has a thick D pillar to enhance its profile. Unfortunately, the thick pillar also makes for bigger rear blind spots. It's more noticeable when backing into a parking spot without the optional backup camera, than when the car is moving forward.

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