COAL: 2021 Toyota Venza Limited – Style Over Substance


Last week, I discussed my very brief ownership of a 2021 Lexus GX 460. It was replaced by a 2021 Toyota Venza that had an even shorter tenure as my daily driver. But the car caught my eye for a reason.

A brief history of the Toyota Venza and Harrier, and Lexus RX

Lexus was very clever. Its origins came about largely because, during President Nixon’s term, the Japanese automakers entered into a Voluntary Export Restraint (VER) in 1981. In order not to have harsh tariffs imposed upon their extremely successful products here, they agreed to import no more than 1.6 million cars annually, between April 1 1981, and March 31, 1982. That limit would increase to 1.85 million cars in 1984 and 2.3 million in 1985. What it really did was hike up the prices of those cars, which were no less in demand, as well as those of domestic cars.

What it also did was encourage the Japanese automakers to focus on increasing their profit margin. If they were to export fewer cars to the US, they reasoned, then some of those cars needed to transact at higher prices. And that line of thinking, along with some other factors, begat Acura (Honda), Infiniti (Nissan) and Lexus (Toyota). Toyota was particularly clever with Lexus. It engineered a no-expenses-spared flagship product, the original Lexus LS, and paired it with a spectacular dealership and ownership experience and clever marketing. That car came to define the brand and was as successful an example of a “halo” car as I can come up with. It’s rumored that Toyota was losing money on every single LS sold, at first. In order to make up for that, the Lexus stable would otherwise need to consist of much more profitable models that shared their makeup and bodies with premium Toyota products, some of which were mainly JDM models. Thus, the ES (Toyota Windom), SC (Toyota Soarer), GS (Toyota Aristo) and LX (Toyota Land Cruiser).

And the RX 300, which was the Toyota Harrier. As a Lexus, the RX was notably the first SUV-shaped anything to completely eschew pretenses of off-road capability in favor of luxury and reasonable on-road handling, coupled with comfort and space. The subsequent RX 330/400h made a huge paradigm shift into a styling language that remains to this day on the RX…but it, too, was a clone of the Toyota Harrier.

The Toyota Harrier is the one on the right. Who knows whether this crossover was designed primarily for Toyota or Lexus; at the time, the styling of the two brands wasn’t at all divorced, so it didn’t matter.


Again, we have both the Harrier and RX, with not a meaningful difference between them.


In 2005, Lexus was launched in Japan. That probably meant it was unwise to continue having all the Toyota models share their bodies with the Lexus ones, since Toyota was selling almost all those same models in Japan. Not to mention the fact that Lexus was beginning to receive flack for its overly conservative styling. So, that was when Lexus formally got its own design language, called L-Finesse. It was introduced in a series of concepts beginning in 2003, but ultimately first came to fruition with the 2006 GS and 2006 IS, followed by the 2007 ES, 2007 LS, 2010 HS, 2010 LFA, and 2011 CT. It also included the 2010 RX, which was the third generation of that model. Badged as RX 350 for gasoline models and RX 450h for hybrid ones, it was fully divorced in styling and hard points from the overseas Harrier. They weren’t even on the same platform. The RX remained on the Toyota K platform, with the midsize and full-size transverse vehicles like the Camry, Avalon, ES, Highlander, and RAV4. Meanwhile, the Harrier remained on the compact New MC platform, with the Corolla, CT, HS, RAV4, and eventual NX. The fourth-generation RX, introduced in 2016, was even larger—especially after it spawned an ill-conceived “L” variant with three rows—and was (as of 2022) the final K-platform product.

The third-generation Toyota Harrier.


The third-generation Lexus RX.


The first use of the Venza nameplate, meanwhile, was on a five-seat crossover introduced in 2009, and primarily for the North American market. While it was the same length as mid-sizers like the Ford Edge, Nissan Murano, and Hyundai Santa Fe, Toyota made it more of a cross between a car and an SUV. In other words, a raised wagon. In fact, the closest contemporary thing in size and concept would have been the Subaru Outback. Like the Outback, the Venza had a lower roofline and a more car-like seating position than competing crossovers. Nevertheless, it was on the K platform with the Camry, Highlander, RX, and various other products. That model lasted through 2015 and then was unceremoniously discontinued, leaving Toyota without a product in that lucrative segment.

The 2009-2015 Toyota Venza. Toyota marketed this product to people who weren’t ready to step up to a proper SUV or crossover.


Around that same time, Toyota began simplifying its global product development by deploying the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) program. TNGA comprises a set of several disparate platforms that nevertheless utilize similar engineering and construction philosophies. Of those, TNGA-K is the core platform, a transverse-FWD-based structure that underpins all of Toyota’s midsize and large cars, like the latest Camry (2018-), RAV4 (2019-), Avalon (2019-2022), Highlander (2020-), Sienna (2021-), ES (2019-), NX (2022-) and RX (2023-). If you’re surprised that I’ve called the RAV4 midsize, well…that’s because it is. It still competes in a compact-segment cohort of vehicles, but all those cars have gotten so large that they are technically midsize. In fact, the current RAV4 occupies the same basic footprint as the original 2001 Highlander. For that reason, Toyota has had to introduce a smaller crossover, the new Corolla Cross, to imitate the size of the earlier RAV4s.

I was surprised when Toyota announced that it would bring the Venza nameplate back from the dead. Only this time, it would be an entirely different kind of car. It would be a proper crossover, with a tall roof and a higher seating position, and it wouldn’t look like the other US-market Toyotas. While Toyota’s had great success with its new styling, I find myself a bit alienated by what seems like a haphazard, deliberately offensive strategy of creases and curves and faux grilles. I kind of like and could drive some of the new US-market Toyotas, but I wouldn’t call them beautiful. However, the 2021 Venza—as details came out—would look much more toned-down…because it would share its body and interior with the latest Japanese-market Harrier. It would also be hybrid-only, equipped with a familiar 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder engine, and e-AWD hybrid. And while Toyota markets it as midsize-class and therefore an alternative to the current Ford Edge, Nissan Murano, Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport, and Hyundai Santa Fe…it is entirely a sleeker version of the compact-class RAV4 Hybrid. Really, I would say the Venza exists in a category of premium compact-class crossovers that also includes the Buick Envision and Mazda CX-50, though the Venza is the only one of the three that comes in a hybrid.

Reunited, and it feels so good!


So, to recap, the Harrier and RX started out as “midsize” twins. Then, as the RX got bigger and became more of a Lexus, the Harrier wound up sharing its body with the more-subdued Venza and its basic dimensions with the “compact” NX.

Back to Me

When I saw the new Venza, I was smitten. I found its excellent proportions, elegant details, and son-of-Lexus shape to be preferable to both the blocky, crude RAV4 Hybrid and to the ill-designed first-gen NX 300h. The NX 300h, by the way, was still on the old New MC platform and had an earlier, much worse-performing hybrid system (the Gen. 2 NX had not yet debuted). The Venza both looked and performed better. It almost looked like a prettier Jaguar E-Pace, if you squinted.

What proved to be harder than necessary was finding a Venza equipped the way I wanted it. Toyota doesn’t do factory orders. Dealerships can request to receive a specific specification of a car, but they are mostly at the whim of whatever Toyota (or its distributors, in states where those are still applicable) wants to send, or dealer-trading. And in July 2021, when I was looking for one, the shortage was in full swing. No one was trading anything, and many dealers were selling out of stock before it even hit the lot or attaching ludicrous markups to their wares and getting them. Toyota hybrids were especially hot-ticket items.

A conversation I had with one out-of-state salesperson. I’m sure someone came along and paid their asking price.


Meanwhile, the other car on my list was the latest Subaru Outback. The Outback was much more practical, had a superior AWD system, and—in top Touring XT spec—was much more potent. On top of that, Subaru Corporate had somehow managed to put the kibosh on the markups at its dealerships, so its dealers were selling for MSRP, and maybe a nominal doc fee. On a good day, you weren’t getting much off of a Subaru anyway (they were never the purveyors of heavy discounts), so a customer buying a Subaru during the pandemic really wasn’t in a bad spot versus before. WASPy Ex immediately expressed his fervent preference for the Outback. And, since it was my money being spent and not his, that made me want the Venza even more. Besides, it was prettier. So, a Venza it was. I felt a bit like the drag queens in To Wong Foo: “Style or substance?”

I wanted a Venza Limited, because I wanted the nicer JBL audio system, the 12.3-inch infotainment system (optional on XLE, standard on Limited), and the Star Gaze Panoramic Roof. The Star Gaze was the only option for any sort of sunroof on the Venza, and consisted of a non-moving, full-length piece of glass that—rather than having a sunshade—could simply turn opaque at the press of a button. Mercedes and Maybach had debuted this technology years prior, but it was interesting to see it on a Toyota. I wanted one of the lighter colors. And, most crucially, I wanted the light gray interior, and not the brown-black combo or the black one.

I was able to test-drive a base-model Venza LE, just to see how the thing drove and felt, and that was the only one in the state. And it sold soon after, at which point Oklahoma dealers wouldn’t have any for several months. Meanwhile, there were many dealerships in nearby Dallas that had cars that were not quite right. They were the wrong exterior color or the wrong interior color or were missing the sunroof. I ended up spending half a weekend trying to find a candidate. For whatever reason, cars that are pre-sold often still show up on a dealer’s site and on the aggregators (, CarGurus, AutoTrader, etc.). Further out than that, some dealers wouldn’t deal with an out-of-state buyer, while others had mandatory $1,000 doc fees and other prep packages that tacked thousands onto the MSRP. I finally found a dealership in the St. Louis area that was willing to play ball at MSRP with no doc fee, and they paired me up with a very nice salesperson. The car in question was a Limited trim, in a silver/gold color called “Titanium Glow”, and the inside was the light-grey “Boulder” hue. It also had the all-important sunroof. Deal.


I flew in on a Wednesday—by way of a ridiculous flight that took me from Oklahoma City to Pensacola, FL to Atlanta to St. Louis—and the process to buy the car was smooth. When I got to the finance office, the gentleman tried to offer me a lower rate if I’d take the Toyota extended service contract. After I informed him that conditional financing was illegal, he acquiesced and gave me the lower rate without the warranty. But other than that, it was no trouble at all. Within a couple of hours of arriving, I was on my way for the 5 hours back home to Oklahoma City.


As I drove on the interstate, I noticed just how much road noise there was. This, it turned out, was due to the Venza’s very loud low-rolling-resistance tires. I could change those, but then I wouldn’t get the 40 MPG that I was getting on my trip. I also noticed what loud, thrashy noises the powertrain made if you floored it. This sure wasn’t Austin’s 2016 RX 450h, which had a silky-smooth and potent V6-based hybrid system.

By the time I got home, I wondered if I’d made a mistake and bought the wrong car.

Two weeks later, I realized I had.

Keep in mind that, during this time, I still had the GX 460. The company that had agreed to buy it had paid my lender off, but hadn’t yet picked up the car. And here I was already contemplating selling it. I offered it to the same place that had bought the GX, and they came up with a reasonable offer that would have had me—including tax—breaking even. But I thought I could do better. And it turned out that a certain online retailer was overpaying for cars, and offered me an amount a whopping $5,000 more than I’d paid for the entire transaction, thanks to the scarcity of the car. So, I sold it to them and collected a check.


While I had the Venza, there were a few things (in addition to the unrefined hybrid system and road noise) that I thought were a bit asinine or otherwise undesirable. The first was that Toyota chose to mount the rear indicators in the bumper…meaning that the pretty, full-width red light bar in the upper section went uninterrupted, but at the expense of safety and common sense. The second was that the Venza didn’t have rain-sensing wipers. At least, mine didn’t. That was bundled with an options package on top of the Limited trim. I hadn’t realized it until after I’d bought the car, because I’d just assumed that it would be a standard feature in a $45,000 car. Alas. Third, my car had the Digital Rearview Mirror. It worked as either an ordinary mirror or—at the flick of the switch on the bottom—turned into an LCD screen that showed a camera-fed view of what’s behind you. It’s really only great for when you have the cargo area full of stuff or too-tall occupants in the rear seats. Otherwise, the fact that it doesn’t move with your head/eyes and the greenish tint at night takes some getting used to. What was useful, though, was that the LCD screen would pull up prompts when you programmed the garage door opener, letting you know what to do and what was happening… where most other cars have you relying on cryptic LED flashes.


Really, though, this was a lesson for me. I was so set on the car’s styling that I didn’t realize I didn’t actually like the way it drove and sounded. I also must admit that I fell prey to the trap of wanting something more because it’s scarce. I imagine if I had been able to pop down to the local dealer and buy exactly what I wanted, I’d have taken my time and made a different decision.


And while I was smitten with the Venza’s styling, I can’t imagine it makes sense for most people to spend $7,000 or more on it, versus a comparable RAV4 Hybrid, which is an objectively better car. The RAV4 Hybrid has more cargo room and gets better fuel economy. And the new NX 350h, in loaded spec, costs not much more than the Venza: just $54,000 and change, as of this writing.