With gas-guzzling, full-size sport utility vehicles idling in limbo, the more fuel-efficient "crossover" vehicles — SUV bodies on sedan chassis — have retained their forward progress. • But even that may be slowing, as sales of the pseudo-utes begin to falter, dragged under by the general weakening of the economy.
With fuel prices falling again, Toyota is seeking the sweet spot where pricing and fuel efficiency cause buyers to trade in or up to a more stylish set of wheels.
Toyota saw sales of its traditionally styled Highlander fall 24 percent in July as it announced plans to offer a more efficient 4-cylinder engine alongside the current V-6 in the Camry-based crossover.
Similarly, Toyota will offer a choice of a 4-cylinder or V-6 engine in the new Venza, a sportier wagonlike crossover in the midsize category. A new 2.7-liter, 4-cylinder engine will be used to power front-drive Venzas, while the 268-horsepower V-6 is expected to be standard on the all-wheel-drive versions.
Pricing of the Venza will fall between that of the Highlander and the compact RAV4, likely around $22,000 for the base model.
Venza's competition will be fierce. Stylish models such as the Nissan Murano, Ford's Edge and Buick's Enclave will challenge the head-turning capability of the new Toyota.
Based on the FT-SX concept vehicle that debuted at Detroit's 2005 auto show and riding on an Avalon chassis, the Venza is an American-designed vehicle that will be built in Georgetown, Ky., with 70 percent of its components from North American suppliers. Toyota unveiled the Venza design at last year's Detroit show.
"We wanted to create something entirely different," said Kevin Hunter, president of Toyota's Calty Design Research in Newport Beach, Calif., and Ann Arbor, Mich. "Not an SUV, not a wagon, not a coupe and not a sedan. We aimed for a more road-focused vehicle and sporty direction."
Unlike Highlander, Venza will not offer third-row seating, even though it is a longer vehicle. Spaciousness and utility were the major themes for interior designers.
Ben Jimenez, Calty Ann Arbor's chief designer, conceived the illusion of a floating instrument cluster to give front passengers a feeling of equal access to the controls.
"Most car interiors are like dual cockpits, where both driver and front passengers feel as if they only have access to 40 percent of the available space," Jimenez said. In the Venza, "both driver and passenger will feel as if 60 percent of the space is in their personal zone."
Toyota will offer a panoramic roof for the first time, with separate glass panels over the front and rear seats. The front panel will have tilt or slide via a power switch.
Target buyers will be active baby boomers and young families who are looking to move up from a midsize sedan or down from a large SUV, said Toyota Division General Manager Bob Carter.
"On first look, it may seem these two groups are from opposite ends of the spectrum," he said. "But they actually have a lot in common in their desire for a vehicle that will accommodate their families, their active lifestyles and their everyday errands."
2009 Toyota Venza
Type: Front-drive, four-door, five-passenger, midsize sport utility crossover.
Power: 3.5-liter, 268 horsepower V-6; or 2.7-liter, I4; six-speed sequential shift automatic transmission.
Price: $22,000 estimated base price.
Chassis: Unibody construction; power rack-and-pinion steering; power disc brakes with ABS; 20-inch alloy wheels; 245/50R20 tires.
Dimensions: 189 x 75 x 63.4 inches.
Wheelbase: 109.3 inches.
Ground clearance: 8.1 inches.
Towing capacity: 3,500 pounds.
Standard: dual zone air conditioning, AM/FM six-disc CD, tilt/telescopic steering wheel with audio controls, remote keyless entry, electrochromic rearview mirror with compass, a multi-information display, cruise control, rear wiper, privacy glass.
Options: Leather upholstery with wood trim; navigation system; integrated satellite radio capability and Bluetooth technology; premium JBL audio system; rear-seat entertainment system; Smart Key System; back-up camera; power rear door.