First Drive: 2021 Toyota Venza Strikes an SUV Sweet Spot

This efficient, well-equipped hybrid is impressive, but there are some annoyances

2021 Toyota Venza Hybrid front

Update: Since this first drive was originally published in July 2020, we finished testing the Toyota Venza.

Read the complete Toyota Venza road test. 

The Venza name returns to Toyota's lineup for 2021 after a six-year hiatus, and it is applied to a whole new vehicle that fills a gap between the RAV4 and Highlander SUVs.

Much like other manufacturers’ recent offerings, this is a two-row midsized SUV that offers style over utility, similar to what Chevrolet has done with the Blazer and Volkswagen with the Atlas Cross Sport. Unlike its rivals, Toyota has a twist: The Venza will be available only as a hybrid.

The Venza is a bit more premium than its like-size competition, striking a halfway point between Toyota and Lexus in terms of feel, refinement, and features. It also splits the difference in size between the small and midsized classes because it's narrower than direct competitors such as the Ford Edge and Nissan Murano. The Venza hits a sweet spot that should appeal to shoppers who want a thrifty, smartly packaged SUV but don’t want to pay a premium for a model from a luxury brand. It is large enough to seat four comfortably and compact enough to negotiate city streets.

If you’re a Consumer Reports member, our initial expert assessment of the new Venza we rented from Toyota is available to you below. We since purchased a Venza of our own and put it through more than 50 tests at the CR Auto Test Center, including those that evaluate acceleration, braking, fuel economy, handling, car-seat fit, and controls. CR members have access to the full road-test results.

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What we rented: 2021 Toyota Venza Limited
Powertrain: 219-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder hybrid; continuously variable transmission; all-wheel drive
MSRP: $39,800
Destination fee: $1,120
Total cost: $40,920

CR’s Take

The Venza comes across as a Toyota sprinkled with magic Lexus luxury dust, boasting numerous clever touches and refinements that make it a pleasant crossover. It is more pampering than a RAV4, and it is a bit roomier than the Lexus NX. Like many Toyotas, there isn’t much excitement here, but it is quite competent and inoffensive. We found a few annoyances in our initial time with the Venza, but all the key elements (powertrain, interior space, suspension, etc.) have merit.

The high level of standard and optional equipment should draw luxe shoppers like moths to a Tiffany lamp, especially those who crave frugal fuel economy in an SUV. This is the real trick for the Venza: the claimed fuel economy of 39 mpg overall. That is an impressive figure for an all-wheel-drive vehicle of its size. We got 37 mpg overall with the RAV4 Hybrid, which has the same powertrain, and we observed similar figures with our rented Venza, so those claims seem quite valid.

Note though that the newly introduced RAV4 Prime plug-in hybrid delivers more practicality and power at a similar price. (Plus, it is eligible for tax credits.) Whatever your fancy, the Toyota small and midsized SUV lineup for 2021 is rich.  

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