A Camry-on-stilts with questionable styling, crap visibility and big ass wheels. By Robert Farago March 20, 2009 I’ve been resisting calling Toyota “the new GM” for some time. And yet the world’s largest automaker is falling into the same traps that scuppered GM’s empire. By creating the entirely extraneous Scion “youth brand,” Toyota stole a page right out of The General’s poisoned playbook. Luxury brand reaching downwards, hoisting itself by its own petard? Lexus does as Cadillac did. Listen closely and you can hear ominous rumblings about Toyota’s declining build quality; a cancer that afflicted GM even as it soared to its zenith. And most damning of all: Toyota’s increasing portfolio of redundant, ill-conceived, poorly-executed products. Add the new Venza to that list. The Venza’s aesthetic crimes are not quite as obvious as, say, a clown at a piano recital (i.e., the FJ Cruiser). Quite the opposite; the Venza is invisibly derivative. Toyota’s we-swear-it’s-not-a-station wagon’s shape, size, stance and “cut” rear haunches suggest the same relationship with Mazda’s CX-7 that links the PT Cruiser and the Chevy HHR (i.e., a total rip-off). But the Venza’s details put paid to the thievery theory. The Venza’s front grill is all Hyundai, while Toyota cribbed the Venza’s rear from the Lexus RX350—and added a Bangle butt (just for fun). The last thing the Venza looks like is the Toyota Camry that lies beneath. Which was, I suppose, the point. Anyway, love it or hate it, you can ignore it. Wander inside the new Toyota Venza and the damage created by designer-led differentiation is glaringly obvious. The Venza’s rear seating is generous. Indeed, cavernous. Literally. And not in a good way. The gun slit windows (complete with privacy glass) take their toll on external connectivity. It’s no wonder Toyota’s spent a big chunk of its Venza marketing budget appealing to owners with pets. Unlike children, dogs don’t tend to vomit from claustrophobia. In terms of visibility, the Venza’s front row is even worse. The CUV’s severely raked windscreen creates the Mother of All A pillars; an edifice so large it has its own opera windows (a perfect complement to the rear opera windows). Cleverly enough, Toyota’s placed an LCD display within the resulting dash-top desert. Looking backwards, the mail slot that passes for the Venza’s rear window makes you wish the [optional] backup camera was a full-time gizmo. The Venza’s three-quarter blind spots are large enough to hide a sequoia. Both tree and SUV. The Toyota Venza seems perfectly screwed together; all the dour but durable plastics fit with brand faithful precision. The Venza’s phone/MP3 player holder is excellent—just as long as you don’t mind plugging-in your iPhone upside down. While the glove box lid opens with oil-dampened satisfaction (down boy), the other plastic covers are flimsy and imprecise. The Venza’s ICE unit is so old-fashioned-looking it Hertz. And then there are the two squares of mouse fur resting at the bottom of the center cubbies. These mini-mats don’t fit, they’re not glued down and the plastic underneath is hideous, in a glassine sort of way. Along the same lines, 20″ wheels? Even the Venza’s four-wheel independent MacPherson strut suspension can’t ameliorate the harsh ride delivered by these stylish wagon wheels. The Venza crash bang wallops over surface imperfections with all the grace (and none of the determination) of a Toyota 4Runner. The Venza’s trick V6 puts out more than enough oomph to not worry about oomph and delivers enough mpg not to worry about mpg (18/25). Too bad the Venza’s six-speed autobox hunts for gears like a truffle-crazed pig, and the brakes’ initial bite starts somewhere near the floorboards, and the handling is . . . irrelevant. Suffice it to say, the new Toyota Venza is most comfortable highway cruising. Just don’t change lanes without a spotter. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Venza is a Camry-on-stilts with questionable styling, crap visibility and big ass wheels. Sensibly specced, the CUV costs just under or just over 30 grand, depending on engine size, driven wheels, interior coverings, etc. Kentucky has yet to build the stripper four-cylinder front wheel-drive Venza (must maximize profits while demand is, uh . . . ). The entry level Venza should clock-in somewhere around $26K before discounts. Which raises an interesting question: what the hell is Toyota doing? How does the Venza fit into Toyota’s product pantheon? The RAV4 (and Mazda CX-7) are cheaper than the Venza. The Highlander is about the same price. All three alternatives offer better visibility, better packaging, similar mpg and equal, if not superior, inclement weather capability. You can easily understand why Toyota wants to build the Venza: flexible manufacturing and all that. But not why anyone would want to buy one. In fact, the new Toyota Venza proves the old adage: just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. As GM proved. Review Summary PERFORMANCE: Plenty of poke, confused gearbox. RIDE: Jiggly, harsh and crashy. HANDLING: Everything's safe enough, except for the brakes. EXTERIOR: Derivative yet inoffensive. Inoffensive yet derivative. INTERIOR: Claustrophobics need not apply. FIT AND FINISH: Everything perfect, except where it's not. TOYS: $2K for sat nav? DESIRABILITY: Even if you just want a Toyota, there are better choices. Used RX? Why not? MILEAGE: 18/25 PRICE AS TESTED: $31,345 OVERALL: Pointless.