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December 26, 2012

CARS: Toyota's Venza is a versatile Camry

I don't quite understand cars like the Toyota Venza.

It's a bigger, taller version of the Camry sedan, making it either a very car-like crossover or a beefed-up station wagon, depending on how you look at it.

Toyota's marketing department says the Venza is "appealing to customers who prioritize bold, innovative design, a luxurious and refined interior and excellent handling, but they still require roominess and versatility."

That sounds great but it leaves me with two big questions: Why should I buy a Venza when I can get even more "roominess and versatility" from the Highlander parked next to it on the dealer's lot? And is the Venza actually a better car than the popular, much-loved Camry?

I suspect the answer to the first question is simple. You buy a Venza over a Highlander because you like the way it looks.

It is a handsome car, at least by crossover standards, after Toyota gave it refreshed styling for 2013. It's sleek and almost coupe-like, not dripping with faux machismo like the crossovers that try to mimic boxy, old-school SUVs. I like that about it.

It's also a much more appealing body than what Honda served up with the Accord Crosstour, a similar car-crossover-wagon thing. Rear visibility is drastically better in the Venza than the competition at Honda, too.

On the second question — whether the Venza is better than the Camry it's based on — the answer isn't quite as clear.

If I want a car that gets better gas mileage, accelerates faster and handles slightly better, a Camry will do the trick at a base price $5,000 less than its portly Venza sibling. For slightly more money, a Highlander's big cargo space and folding third-row seat are awfully tempting.

From the driver's seat, the Venza feels like a Camry on stilts. It's predictably soft, quiet and smooth riding, as can be expected in a Toyota product, but it rides up higher to give better visibility of the road. It's certainly one of the most car-like crossovers for sale today, without a hint of off-road pretensions.

Power comes from your choice of a four-cylinder or six-cylinder engine. The 2.7-liter four makes 181 horsepower and is rated for 27 mpg on the highway (21 city). A stronger choice is the 2.5-liter V6 that makes 268 horses and is still rated for 26 mpg on the highway (19 city).

Pricing starts at $27,700 for the four-cylinder LE version, or $31,360 for the nicer XLE. Toyota also offers a Limited model for $37,420 with leather seats and lots of upgrades.

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