By Alex Taylor III
December 17, 2008

For years, Toyota has been rudely stereotyped by car buffs as unimaginative and its cars as dumb-downed and boring. But you can actually make a case that Toyota – along with Honda – is the most innovative car company on the planet.

To cite two recent examples, Toyota pioneered crossover SUV development 12 years ago with the RAV-4, and it has single-handedly made gas-electric hybrids the preferred alternative to the internal combustion engine.

Toyota’s latest idea, the Venza, isn’t in the same league – it is a niche vehicle with a conventional powertrain – but it is worth paying attention to all the same. With four doors and a hatchback, the Venza’s roof is lower than an SUV’s (like a Highlander) but higher than a station wagon’s. Combine that with increased ground clearance, an athletic stance and all-wheel drive, and you have what Toyota calls a “crossover sedan.”

The Venza was dreamed up in Toyota’s California sales office as a car for empty nesters who didn’t want all that SUV space any longer but appreciated SUV versatility. After intensive vetting by Toyota product planners, it was approved for production four years ago.

Since it is a Toyota, it has been cleverly engineered to reduce investment: Only one-third of Venza’s parts are new, and the remainder come from the Camry sedan and Highlander SUV. The Venza will also be built in the same Georgetown, Ky. plant where those cars are assembled.

I was initially skeptical about the Venza’s mixed heritage – it is hard to turn a mutt into a purebred – but it is a car that you have to see in the metal and drive on the road to fully appreciate. All the design elements – the prominent grille, high roof and sloping back – work together elegantly, rather than awkwardly, and the entire body is beautifully shaped.

Inside, the materials and fittings are Lexus quality, equally elegant to the eye and the hand. It is no surprise that Toyota ranks above all other mainstream brands in perceived quality, according to Automotive Lease Guide. Underway, the Venza feels as slick as a Lexus too, smooth and powerful.

Toyota has learned what its reputation is worth in the marketplace, and the V-6 powered bronze Venza prototype I drove carried a sticker price of $36,735 plus $720 for delivery/processing/handling. As a looming empty-nester myself, I discovered that the Venza might be more car than I’d need – but perhaps one that I’d want.

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