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Eyebrows. That's about all I could figure was new with Toyota's popular Venza crossover for 2013 when I picked it up.
But a review of Toyota's press kit -- and photos of the 2011 model I last reviewed -- revealed the updates on this freshened model run a bit deeper than that.
The eyebrows I refer to are new optional LED light strips that run above the headlights and flank a new grille. The grille itself is bolder and the lower fascia and fog lights are trimmed in a metallic finish.
New mirrors sport integrated turn signals and, more importantly, a convex portion that aims to make blind spots a thing of the past. We're seeing more of this simple, yet effective safety feature each year, and frankly, it's about time.
They say the tail lights are new, so I believe them. And inside, there's a new multi-function steering wheel and minor trim differences.
Still, since we're four years in with the Venza, I can't help but wish there were more substantial updates to keep it fresh until its anticipated replacement arrives for 2015.
The standard-equipment list also grows this year to include a new audio and communications system with a 6.1-inch touch-screen display, eight-way power driver's seat, automatic climate control, cruise control and an integrated garage door opener.
Despite this added content, the Venza now starts at $28,690, or about 700 bucks less than last year's base model.
But let's not waste our time with such Plebeian fare as front-wheel drive and four-cylinder engines, both of which are featured in the standard Venza. Our V-6 AWD tester carried a base price of $32,245, quite reasonable when one considers this sum buys a mid-sized crossover with 268 hp turning all four wheels.
Our tester was further enhanced with the $6,055 Touring package (available on AWD models only), which adds a whole bunch of premium features such as navigation, memory driver's seat and power passenger seat (both heated), leather upholstery, power liftgate, keyless start, rear-view camera, panoramic glass roof, Xenon HID headlights, and the aforementioned LED "eyebrow" daytime running lights.
Tally up the charges, and this model tips the scales at 40 grand, including freight. Not a small sum to be sure, but as always, the Venza represents a heck of a value in its segment.
The term "crossover" is widely and loosely used to describe virtually any vehicle that doesn't fit into a traditional car, truck or van class. In short, crossovers aim to combine the best features of wagons, sport utilities (SUVs) and even vans, in an effort to be all things to all families.
Toyota is a leader in offering variations on the crossover theme, from its smaller Scion models to the Matrix, RAV4, Highlander and this Venza. That's in addition to its more truck-like 4Runner, Sequoia and FJ Cruiser models.
The Venza tends toward the wagon end of the crossover spectrum -- it's longer and has a faster rear slope in profile when compared to others in the lineup. Some like it, some don't. Being a wagon fan myself, I find the Venza's looks to be quite fetching, especially with those 20-inch wheels that do a great job of stuffing the wheel wells. Overall, it's quite an aggressive look that has been enhanced by this year's tweaks.
The Venza's passenger cabin is well appointed and properly laid out, but it doesn't deliver the pizzazz that its exterior styling promises. And the same can be said for the Venza's driving dynamics, which are more Camry-like than even the latest Camry -- which in its current iteration is much sportier than before.
To be clear, I don't have unrealistic expectations that this family-hauler will drive like a sports sedan, but I think the term 'underwhelming' best describes the Venza's driving dynamics.
This sentiment was further cemented when I hopped out of the Venza into a 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe and immediately noticed the Santa is a much more responsive vehicle that more eagerly goes where it's pointed.
More importantly for this type of ride, the Venza's all-wheel drive system lags behind its competitors, Santa Fe included. Under normal conditions, the Venza's power goes 100 per cent to its front wheels until wheelspin is detected, at which time it's capable of sending some of the available power rearward to assist in low-traction situations.
This is the simplest and cheapest form of all-wheel drive, but far from the best. Toyota has given its AWD system the "active torque control" moniker, which makes it sound more proactive than it is in practice. Even though Venza press information says torque is transferred to all four wheels when accelerating from a stop, the sense from the driver's seat is one of front-wheel drive when pulling away. Beyond that, there's too much of a delay and too sudden a torque transfer when power does eventually make it back there.
In short, this type of all-wheel drive system should be considered more of a traction aid than an all-round handling benefit when the going gets slick.
I'm a big fan of the Venza's gutsy V-6 and six-speed automatic, particularly when the market is tending toward rougher four-cylinder engines and disconnected continuously variable transmissions in the name of fuel economy. That said, its official ratings of 11.4 L/100 km in the city and 7.9 on the highway are not all that bad considering the available performance. And besides, there's a more efficient four-banger option for those who want it.
Niggles about driving dynamics aside, the Venza remains one of my top picks for folks who want a more car-like family-hauler that still provides the elevated seating position and option of all-wheel drive consumers are demanding.
2013 Toyota Venza V-6 AWD
Engine: 3.5-litre V-6, variable valve timing, dual overhead cam, 24 valves.
Power: 268 hp @ 6,200 r.p.m.
Torque: 246 lb.-ft. @ 4,700 r.p.m.
Transmission: six-speed automatic.
Drivetrain: part-time all-wheel drive.
Suspension: independent MacPherson strut front and rear.
Length: 4,800 mm.
Wheelbase: 2,775 mm.
Curb weight: 1,835 kg.
Fuel consumption )L/100 km): 11.4 city, 7.9 highway.
Base price: $32,245
Price as tested: $39,935 plus fees and taxes.