RAV4 meets luxury. If anyone remembers the original Toyota Venza, congratulations – your memory is better than ours. The first wagon-esque crossover to use the name was built briefly in the early 2010s and lasted but a single generation before Toyota sent it to the glue factory.

The new 2021 Toyota Venza is sized and priced similarly to the Toyota RAV4, and the two vehicles share a chassis as well. This might all seem a bit perplexing, as logic says anyone who might otherwise buy a RAV4 – or, for that matter, a Lexus NX – might now spend their money on a new Venza instead. This could put the RAV4's best-selling status in jeopardy. Where's the logic in that?

There's method to the madness, however. The latest RAV4 has taken aim at Subaru, going so far as to offer a full-on TRD trim with all-terrain tires and skid plates.

The Venza, on the other hand, is all about luxury. From afar, even those who keep us with the latest crop of crossovers will mistake this handsome vehicle for a Lexus, particularly if it's viewed in profile. If Lexus could finally do away with the oversized hourglass grille, the result would be the Venza.

Hybrid power. Unlike the RAV4 or NX, the Venza strictly comes with hybrid propulsion: all models get three electric motors that are spun by a lithium-ion battery. A 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine keeps the battery charged and steps in when necessary. Total combined output is 219 horsepower.

All-wheel drive is standard, and one of the three electric motors sits in the back to spin the rear wheels. Up to 80% of power can be sent to the rear, though in most instances power is kept up front.

Hybrid crossovers typically aren't the most fun vehicles to drive, and the Venza isn't much of an exception. 60 mph is an seven-second affair that isn't thrilling or enjoyable for either you or the engine; its audible wailing makes clear that such sprints aren't its favorite.

The continuously variable transmission, which eschews traditional gears, doesn't help matters. It keeps the engine droning at a high rpm as it tries to maximize power without the benefit of a natural powerband. Like a supermodel attending their first spin class, hustling the stylish Venza quickly reveals how little coordination and stamina it has.

The Venza is much happier tootling along at a leisurely pace. It's quiet and refined when adhering to the posted speed limit, and its soft ride goes from clumsy to cossetting when you dial back the aggression.

To maximize efficiency, the Venza can use navigation information to learn common routes in order to travel more efficiently when traveling them. There's also an Eco drive mode as well as an efficiency gauge in the instrument cluster that shows drivers how economically they are driving. Even without trying to hypermile, the Venza is rated for 40 miles per gallon city, 37 mpg highway, and 39 combined, according to the EPA. This makes it one of the most efficient crossovers in the class, along with the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid.


Toyota Venza

Features and value. The Venza offers plenty of upscale features to match its winsome looks. Standard equipment includes luxuries like a power liftgate, an 8-inch touchscreen, and an eight-way power driver seat.

All the usual standard safety equipment is standard as well, such as automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert.

Seating material is the one giveaway that this isn't a bona fide luxury ride: the base LE gets cloth, the XLE gets leatherette, and only the top-spec Limited boasts real leather. But aside from the upholstery, the Venza comes off as luxurious enough to merit the Lexus badge.

All this has the NX tugging nervously at its collar. The Venza starts at $33,590, only $3,000 less than the base NX. That gap widens when you focus in on the cheapest hybrid NX, but the larger gap between the comparable models only underscores the value proposition the Venza is presenting.

For those who don't put much stock into the badge on the hood, the Venza is a great way to get a crossover with Lexus styling and features for a discount price.

Final thoughts. The 2021 Toyota Venza is a hybrid in more ways than one. Yes, it's a gas-electric that gets 40 mpg in the city, but it is also a cross between luxury accommodations and mainstream pricing. Like Mazda, which has been pushing upmarket in recent years, the Venza aims to be more aspirational than its Toyota origins would otherwise suggest.

We think the Venza has a shot at realizing those expectations. There's real shades of luxury here, both in style and in execution. It's a convincing luxury crossover – enough so that it makes us worried for Lexus. Toyota's flagship luxury brand defines itself by its exclusive styling and amenities, so what happens when those attributes are copied onto a cheaper Toyota that wears a better looking grille? We imagine that more than a few buyers who would otherwise shop the NX lineup will end up taking home a Venza.

No matter the long-term ramifications of the Venza, shoppers will come out ahead. The Venza carves out a unique niche in the compact crossover market by successfully bridging the luxury and mainstream camps, and its well-rounded persona should win it plenty of fans from both.

Check prices for the 2021 Toyota Venza »