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Brian Byl has owned a few wagons over the years. The Calgarian has had a Chevy Vega panel delivery wagon, a Volvo V70 T5 and currently a 2009 BMW 535xi Touring wagon occupies the driveway. Clearly, he likes the concept.
So, he was curious to see how something like the all-new 2021 Toyota Venza might fit into his family’s life. While not technically a ‘station wagon,’ the Venza is a midsize crossover based on the automaker’s TNGA-K platform — the same one found under the RAV4 and the Highlander.
This isn’t the first iteration of the Venza sold here. The first was on the market from 2009 to 2016 before it was discontinued. For 2021, the Venza is offered only as a hybrid model, incorporating a 2.5-litre inline four-cylinder gasoline engine coupled with Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive. This system includes three electric motors, two up front and one at the rear of the vehicle to provide electronic on-demand all-wheel drive. Fuel economy is pegged at 5.9L/100km in the city and 6.4L/100km on the highway.
Byl learned to drive in northern Saskatchewan, and his first vehicle was a 1953 Mercury half-ton equipped with a three-on-the-tree standard transmission. He’d bought the truck off his dad and kept it for about a year before upgrading to a 1968 Firebird with a straight-six engine. He moved to Calgary and got married, started a family with two kids, and apart from the wagons previously mentioned has also owned a GMC Suburban and still owns a 1996 Ford F250 truck and a 2009 BMW M3. No longer commuting on a daily basis, Byl does drive to Carstairs at least four times a month to visit a private airstrip where he keeps two airplanes, a 1951 Cessna 195 five-seater and a 1963 Cessna 150 two-seater. Byl has been flying since 1973.
With that background in mind, what did Byl think of piloting the Venza? “I liked the lines of the new Venza,” he says, and adds, “I remember the old ones, and they weren’t much to look at, in my opinion.”
Toyota has, in fact, attempted to imbue a degree of sportiness in the design of the ’21 Venza, giving it an impressively raked-to-the-rear roofline, some taut creases and a semi-muscular stance.
Byl says, “I thought the headlights looked small, but they are LED lamps so should offer good visibility. The white paint had a nice depth to it, and overall, I thought it a good-looking vehicle.”
His tester was the top-of-the-line Limited model, which adds goodies such as rain-sensing wipers, head-up display, digital rearview mirror and Toyota’s unique Star Gaze panoramic roof. At a flip of a switch, the glass changes from clear to ‘frosted’. The only option on his ride was the $225 Blizzard Pearl paint, and all in, the Venza cost $49,915.70 before taxes.
At 6-feet 2-inches tall, Byl found getting into the Venza, with its black and java Softex upholstered surfaces, was a breeze.
“At my height, I sometimes find the front door openings of four-door vehicles aren’t wide enough for me to comfortably get in, but this worked well,” he says.
Once in, it took him a few minutes to familiarize himself with the controls and to set the ergonomics of the seat, steering wheel and exterior mirrors. The heating and cooling controls, he says, were self-explanatory and easy to use. He was also easily able to pair his cellphone to the car’s premium infotainment system. Both front seats are heated and vented, and the leather-wrapped steering wheel is also heated.
“With longer legs, I like to have a lot of support in my thighs, and the driver’s seat offered that,” Byl says. “My only complaint about the driving position was the left armrest in the door didn’t offer me any room to place my elbow.”
Having never before driven a hybrid, Byl says he was impressed by the acceleration provided by the Venza’s powertrain.
“The torque from the electric motors was powerful, and at no time did it ever feel like it was underpowered — and that was one of my surprises with it — it moved around, no problem,” he explains.
With three selectable drive modes including Eco, Normal and Sport, Byl says he experimented with all three but enjoyed driving the Venza best when in Sport. He says the ride was impressive, and never felt choppy. Even on gravel road washboards, he couldn’t detect the Venza skating or feeling loose. On the highway in strong crosswinds or on city streets and in parking lots, Byl says the Venza handled with aplomb. Although he didn’t get to experience the electronic, on-demand all-wheel drive system during Calgary’s snowstorm in late December, he felt confident the Venza would have had no difficulty navigating through the deep snow.
“It offers tremendous all-around utility, is very quiet inside, and has no major blindspots,” Byl says, and concludes, “I think this would best suit anyone who has to drive in the winter, and would be great for a family of four. While we’re not currently in the market, if we got rid of the BMW wagon, this would be on our list of prospects.”
I wasn’t clear exactly how the hybrid system worked so started reading the owner’s manual — which is very detailed and explains everything quite clearly. The gas engine stops when the vehicle is at rest and upon start up the electric motors are the first to apply power to the drivetrain and then the gas engine starts and takes over the propulsion duties. There is no apparent hesitation when accelerating from a stop. Backing into the driveway using the “Parking Assist” and “Panoramic View” monitors makes it an easy job. The technology is amazing.
There are a number of switches mounted down low on the left side of the instrument panel that are best used only when you are stopped. In my opinion they are too low to operate safely while driving as you must visually identify them before pressing. I did one short trip for some groceries today. Easy to drive and manoeuvre around the parking lot. I found the backup camera very effective to back up precisely.
Drove to Carstairs to see how it behaved on the highway and try out more of the Toyota Safety Sense “driving support systems” features and settings. These driving support systems include Pre-Collision, Lane Tracing Assist, Automatic High Beam, Road Sign Assist and Dynamic Radar Cruise Control with full speed range. They use the radar sensors and cameras located around the vehicle. With a strong crosswind out of the west the Venza was stable and had no swaying tendencies while passing large trucks or other vehicles. The cruise control was able to maintain the set speed very accurately while going up hills. It has a very smooth and comfortable ride.
Did a quick trip to get some groceries. I’m getting more comfortable with the handling and controls. Turned on the Brake Assist and tried it out on some of the hills around our house. It works very well and is a nice feature.
Very gusty winds today so my wife and I decided to do a little 100-kilometre loop northwest of town and get a good feel of how its handles in those conditions. While we could feel the wind buffeting the Venza it remained well behaved and steady without jumping around the highway. I find the digital rearview mirror gives a much wider view, but I found it difficult to see vehicles behind us even with their daytime running lights on until they got quite close. Because of the width of the digital picture, they are quite small on the screen even though I enlarged the view as much as I can.
Time to return the Venza. After a week of driving, I found there was little to dislike with the vehicle. All controls are easy to operate and accessible. The hybrid system works seamlessly and I found I wasn’t aware of the engine stopping and starting. I finally tried out the back seat to see how I would fit, and had no problem getting in the rear seat behind the driver. Overall, I really like the Venza and enjoyed driving it. It is a roomy, comfortable, well behaved mid-sized CUV with good performance. The interior is nicely appointed and fit and finish is very good.