After dragging my better half to a lot of car races over the years, it was an easy yes when she asked if we might visit the Baseball Hall of Fame a few weeks ago. She is as big a fan of baseball as I am of motor racing, and her beloved Washington Nationals were being celebrated for having won the World Series, after all. Sure Cooperstown, New York, does indeed lie nearly 6.5 hours north-northeast from where I write this. But I quite like driving, and a 13-hour round trip is a better way than most to get to know a car.
But which car? As luck would have it, my calendar was double-booked that week. In the red corner, a 2021 Porsche 718 Boxster GTS with a revvy 4.0L naturally aspirated engine, manual transmission, and fixed carbon fiber bucket seats. In the pearl-white corner, a 2021 Toyota Venza with cooled and heated seats, adaptive cruise control, and a hybrid powertrain capable of a combined 39mpg (6l/100km). You’ll be able to read about how addictive that Porsche was in the near future, but obviously it was the wrong tool for this particular job.
So after checking with the nice people at Toyota to make sure they were OK with me adding 750 miles (1,207km) to their new crossover—they were—the day booked off work, and with all the forms filled in to satisfy New York’s public health people, we were all set.
My, how you’ve changed
This is the second Toyota crossover to wear the Venza name badge, but if you told me this one was actually a Lexus I’d happily believe you. Visually, it looks of a piece with the creased and angular crossovers from Toyota’s luxury offshoot but with a softer face rather than that giant cheese-grater Cylon grille that adorns those vehicles. But the Venza is its own thing, not a rebadged Lexus, and with its 105.9-inch (2,690mm) wheelbase, it lives firmly in the midsize bracket. (It’s built on the TNGA-K platform, which it shares with the RAV4, as well as the Camry and Lexus ES sedans.)
The Venza is offered with just a single 219hp (163kW) hybrid powertrain rated by the EPA at 40mpg (5.9l/100km) in the city and 37mpg (6.4l/100km) on the highway. This combines a 2.5L four-cylinder gasoline engine and three electric motors—an integrated starter/generator, an 118hp (88kW) drive motor that works with the engine to power the front wheels, and an additional 54hp (40kW) drive motor for the rear wheels that provides all-wheel drive on-demand. These electric motors draw power from (and recharge) a 0.9kWh lithium-ion battery instead of the 1.6kWh NiMH pack we’re more used to seeing in other Toyota (not-plugin) hybrids.
Are you sure this is a Toyota and not a Lexus?
The luxury car impression continues once you open the Venza’s door, particularly since our test car was the $39,800 Venza Limited with most of the options ticked. (The range also includes the $32,470 Venza LE and the $36,000 Venza XLE.)
The seats are actually wrapped in an artificial material called SofTex, not stitched leather, but it looks smart, and the seats are comfortable enough to spend more than half a day sitting in them. I even have pleasant things to say about the infotainment system, which windows CarPlay on its 12.3-inch touchscreen next to pertinent information about the car’s status. The screen is bright and clear, it’s responsive, and the UI didn’t aggravate me the way it has in other Toyotas.
As you might expect, our route from the District of Columbia to Cooperstown was conducted mostly upon the highways, and the Venza was more than up to the task. The ride is smooth, there’s not much wind noise at cruising speeds, adaptive cruise control is helpful when you want to take the occasional look at the fall foliage, and if you’re thoughtful, you can exceed the official highway efficiency figure while still making good time.
The final 18 miles (29km) to the Hall of Fame get a little more interesting than a two-lane highway, and they offered a good test for the Venza’s Sport mode, which makes the powertrain a little more responsive but otherwise doesn’t change much. (It is true that these final 18 miles would have been a good deal more interesting in the red Porsche, although certainly not enough to make up for the six hours in those bucket seats that it would take to get there.)
Socially distanced Hall of Fame visit complete—favorite Nats artifact: Gerardo Parra’s Baby Shark—it was time to climb back aboard and repeat the process in reverse. There was no dread accompanying the thought of another 6.5 hours sat behind the Venza’s wheel, and that speaks volumes about how competent it is. Nice work, Toyota.
Listing image by Elle Cayabyab Gitlin