A Car That Sparks Joy: Toyota Venza

Toyota Venza

All the little things that add up to Ahhhhh.

Never mind that the Venza has finally returned to the Toyota lineup after a 6 year hiatus, or that it’s a hybrid only — there is not a conventional gas engine option — that gets an estimated 40 MPG.

Forget for a moment that the Toyota Venza is a premium-trimmed SUV for more sophisticated buyers who want the comfort and function of an SUV but not the rugged look or feel. 

And forget that there are a few really cool features on the Venza that you won’t find on any other Toyota. 

None of that is what sparks joy in this car. 

It’s that difficult-to-articulate, je ne sais quois that makes it a place you just love to be. During my test drive I simply loved being in this car. I’ll try to explain why, but you might just have to test it out yourself to understand. 

Related: 2020 Toyota Highlander 3-Row SUV: It Starts with 35 Amazing Hybrid Miles Per Gallon and Then, Gets Better

Toyota Venza

A comfortable car for riding around with a friend is enough to spark joy these days. ?Scotty Reiss

What The Venza Is — And What It’s Not

The Toyota Venza is a right-sized SUV — really, a crossover — for driving alone or with a few people, just big enough for comfort and stuff but not so large you’re tempted to haul the whole world around in your cargo space. 

It’s nicely priced, with a starting price of about $32,000 and an all-in fully-loaded price of about $43,000.

It has all-wheel drive and hybrid drive standard, so it delivers a capable drive experience and very good fuel economy at the same time. 

It’s not a power monster. With a 4-cylinder, 219 horsepower engine, it’s capable and confident, but it’s not a track-bred car (though sport mode does give it a bit more power for merging onto the highway or simply having fun). You’ll be happy behind the wheel and feel confident if your teen driver takes it out, too.

And, it is nicely sized and appointed inside. It doesn’t have the high ground clearance found on other SUVs, but it has higher clearance than a sedan, making it easy to get in and out, which is a pleasure for days filled with errands. And the interior is comfortable, well planned and pleasant. The front seat is roomy, and the rear seat is fine; not overly large but even tall passengers will be comfortable.

You’ll want to sit in it and read your emails because it’s so lovely, and the front seat moves back far enough to open a laptop on your lap (hello tall people… you were thought of here!). 

Related: 2020 Toyota Avalon Hybrid XSE: The Sporty Hybrid Full-Size Sedan

Toyota Venza

A view from the driver’s seat in the Toyota Venza. ?Scotty Reiss

Finding Joy: How the Toyota Venza Crafts a Great Experience

It starts with the interior, which has a Zen quality: it’s calm and intuitive, none of it overwhelming. The look is fresh and modern, and there are many of Toyota’s updated technologies, like the new infotainment system, available on the top of the line Limited model. And then, Toyota re-thought some things to make this in-car experience elegant and easy. 

Seats in the mid- and top-trim models are covered in Softex, a faux leather, which is soft and comfortable (and easy to clean); the dashboard, door panels and arm rests are covered with soft-touch materials to mute the sound and feel inside the car. 

Then, the command center is easy to use and intuitive, stacked at the center of the dash: An infotainment system touch screen, climate control panel and a phone cubby with USB ports. The cubby has a shiny frame and is lined with wood-grain panels, drawing your eye into the space to the USB ports and Qi wireless phone charge pad. Softex covers the surface of the command center, extending into the cubby, and all together it creates an elegant look.

Related: Toyota Goes All In On Hybrid, the Only Option for the Redesigned Sienna Minivan and Re-Introduced Venza SUV

Toyota Venza

The center console in the Toyota Venza, with the touch screen, flat panel climate and audio control and a cubby with a wireless phone charge pad. ?Scotty Reiss

An Interesting Place for the Starter Button, and a Flat Control Panel—Unique Choices That Work

The cubby is also where the starter button is housed.This was a surprise that grew on me — it’s so simple and obvious. Why put the starter behind the steering wheel, where it’s so hard to see? Having it in the cubby made it easy to see and natural to reach for when getting into the car.

Just above the cubby is a flat, touch-sensitive climate control and radio panel; there are no buttons on the panel. While other car makers have gone back to hard buttons and dials from touch sensitive panels, this works. It simplifies the look of the panel and feels elegant; it works fine, too. 

At the top of this stack is the touch screen. Our test model had the larger 12.3” screen with the new interface; you can swipe left or right to customize the screen view. Home, menu, audio and map buttons on the flat screen control panel allow you to instantly reach your desired display. Or, plug in your phone to display Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. It’s all very simple.

Key Details That Make the Venza Special

You can easily add up all the features on the Toyota Venza and see the value, even at the top-end price of $43,000. But the real Zen is in how those details play out in the Venza:

The Star Gaze Sunroof In The Toyota Venza

The three stages of the Star Gaze sunroof in the Toyota Venza: a fabric cover, frosted and clear. ?Scotty Reiss

The Star Gaze Panoramic Sun Roof

Yes, a panoramic sun roof isn’t novel any longer—in fact, we think it should be standard. But the Star Gaze roof is sublime. Push a button and a fabric screen retracts to reveal the sun roof. Push another button and the glass ‘frosts’ to block the view and mute the light. So you can have that middle ground between illumination and hot, blinding sunlight. Brilliant.

A Girls Guide To Cars | A Car That Sparks Joy: Toyota Venza - At Night Everything Is Easy To See Becasue All The Buttons Are Lighted

At night everything is easy to see becasue all the buttons are lighted. ?Scotty Reiss

All the Buttons are Backlit

I can’t say enough HOW MUCH I love this detail. You can see every button and control in the dark. No more stabbing at buttons or driving with the dome light on to find the defrost. 

Toyota Venza

The live view digital mirror in the Toyota Venza. ?Scotty Reiss

Toyota Venza

The same view in the reflective mirror. ?Scotty Reiss

The Live View Digital Rear View Mirror

This, too, is standard on the top-of-the-line limited model, and it’s wonderful, though it takes some getting used to. Flip the toggle at the bottom of the mirror for a reflective view, flip it back for a live view. The live view is wider and brighter than the reflective view, and at night it’s fantastic. The headlights of cars behind you are not blinding and the brightness of the image lets you see more than you can in a conventional rear view mirror. 

Head Up Display

Part of the Advance Technology package, this is a true treat on a $43,000 car and one we’ll start to see in more cars because at this price point. It’s not just lovely, but it’s a great safety feature; it keeps your eyes more squarely focused on the road. 

Toyota Venza

The Toyota Venza’s puddle lights are a delight and a great safety feature. ?Scotty Reiss

Puddle Lights

What a nice way to be greeted when getting into your car at night! Lights on the bottom of the side view mirror light up the ground as you approach and unlock the car. It’s great to see what you’re stepping into, especially when it’s snowy, icy or rainy. And, in good weather they are simply an elegant detail that makes you smile. 

A Really Quiet Cabin 

Another detail that you don’t always get at this price point. This makes conversation or simply listening to music all the better. 

An Elegant Movable Center Arm Rest

It pushes back to reveal the seat heater controls (which can also be accessed via the touch screen) framed by a wood-grain panel. The look is sophisticated, and it’s nice to be able to position the arm rest for your arm to actually rest.

Toyota Venza

The Toyota Venza is SUV shaped but not overly large. ?Scotty Reiss

What This Car Costs

  • The entry level Venza LE, with a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder hybrid engine producing 219 horsepower, has all wheel drive, gets 40 MPG city/37 MPG highway, heated side mirrors, hands-free power and adjustable liftgate, Qi wireless charging, 4 USB ports, rear view camera with dynamic grid lines, power heated fabric seats, smart key, 8” touch screen infotainment system, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Amazon Alexa, Remote Connect safety services, Toyota Safety Sense with pre-collision detection, pedestrian detection lane departure alert, lane steering assist, lane tracing assist, automatic high beam headlights, adaptive cruise control, road sign assist, blind spot monitors, starts at $32,470
  • The XLE model adds 19” wheels, silver roof rails, smart key with touch sensor unlock on all doors, LED projector headlights, leather trimmed steering wheel and Softex faux leather seating, starts at $36,000
  • The Limited model adds puddle lights, digital live view rear mirror, 360 surround view camera, heated steering wheel, perforated heated and cooled Softex seats, wood grain style trim and JBL premium audio with a 12.3” infotainment touch screen and starts at $39,800
  • Add the Star Gaze panoramic sun roof (Limited model only), $1,400
  • Add the Advance Technology package with rain sensing wipers and head up display (Limited model only): $725
  • Price of the model we test drove, including $1,245 delivery charge, about $43, 170
Toyota Venza

A look at the rear of the Toyota Venza. ?Scotty Reiss

What We Loved

  • The fuel economy and eco mode, for even more efficient driving
  • All the driver feedback meters that let you know just how efficient your driving is
  • All the backlit buttons
  • The Star Gaze sunroof
  • Head up display
  • The center cubby is nicely sized and organized
  • The touchscreen infotainment system—it’s nicely done
  • The easy drive experience 
  • All wheel drive is standard (and only kicks in when needed)
  • Two USB ports in the rear seat
  • The elegant look and feel of the Venza 
Toyota Venza

The cargo area in the Toyota Venza. ?Scotty Reiss

Get In, Close the Door, And Breathe Deep

With near zero emissions and nearly 40 MPG (I averaged closer to 34MPG but I blame sport mode and wide, fast Texas highways), you can take a breath. And sit back and enjoy the ride. Or simply sit in this hybrid to work, chat on the phone or wait for curbside pickup. It’s a den of zen for those things, and that is what really sparks joy: knowing that your car is a pleasant, stress-free zone.

What We Listened to in the Toyota Venza

The quiet cabin is great for soaring down the highway, conversations with your companions or sitting in your driveway for a few minutes of meditation. This is what sounds good in this car, especially on the premium JBL sound system.

Disclosure: Toyota provided the Venza for this review; all opinions are my own.

Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss