Before you ask, the answer is: yes, unlike another hole in the head we do need another crossover vehicle. At least someone at Toyota thinks so, and since they work for the world's largest automaker, I will defer to their judgment on the matter for the time being.

The question you should be asking is whether or not the 2010 Venza is any good. The answer to that one is also yes, but first a little context is in order.

While Toyota's literature refers to the Venza as a "crossover sedan," it is listed under 'Cars' rather than 'SUVs' on the company's website. This is appropriate because, despite the big wheel, high-roof design, it's actually not very large at all. It stands a mere 6 inches taller than the Camry on which it is based, and that much shorter than the Highlander, which is also cut from Camry cloth.

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What this means to you is that the Venza is a little easier to get into than the Camry, and has a higher seating position, but with ride and handling characteristics closer to a car than a double decker bus. The downside is that it's also a lot harder to spot in the parking lot than a Land Cruiser.

What it means to Toyota is that it has created a car with no direct competition. Hitting one where they ain’t. Of course, it’s quite possible that the hole in the outfield exists because there isn't much of a market for this kind of vehicle. The only thing that comes close in concept is the much smaller Infiniti EX35, but since Toyota is the world's largest automaker ... blah, blah, blah.

When all is said and done, the Venza is basically a replacement for the dearly departed Camry wagon, and helps fill in the gap left in Toyota's lineup when the Highlander grew to become a 3-row, eight passenger mini-behemoth. It has a sharper appearance than either of those ever had, and in person is quite striking on its own merits.

The front end is severely blunt, but a shiny jumbo version of the Camry's grille gives it the presence and soothing charm of a baleen whale. More impressive is the way the rear wheel arch connects with the sloping roofline and one of the most complex tail light covers in the biz. Imagine a dollop Close Up sitting on a toothbrush. Very fresh.

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For couples with three children and no friends, the Venza should do just fine as the family car it aims to be. Rear seat room is spacious thanks to the upright seating, and the cargo area behind it is a healthy 34.4 cubic feet that expands to 70.1 when you use the remote releases located just inside the liftgate to fold the seatbacks down. The flat floor created is nearly as low as a minivan's, making for easy loading, and an optional power door takes your personal energy exertion to new lows.

The only major flaw I found back there is that the anchors for child seat top tethers are located under the carpeted mat, and there aren’t any slots to feed the belts through. As a result, you have to flip up the leading edge of the mat and rest it on top of the straps, eating into floor space. A significant oversight in a car built to carry a brood.

As far as the driver is concerned, the Venza is a Toyota, so don't expect any racing of your heart or otherwise. But given its mission, what you get is more than suitable to the task at hand.

A front-wheel drive, four-cylinder version is just starting to roll off of the assembly line, but the car I tested was fitted with the top of the line 268 horsepower, 3.5 liter V6 sending power to all four wheels. In a straight line it can be brisk, but the real payoff of the big engine is a tow rating of 3,500 pounds when you order a $220 package that adds an engine oil cooler and upgrades the alternator and radiator fan.

The all-wheel drive system is "on demand," which in this case means that it really only kicks in when the car starts to slip and slide. There are no buttons that allow you to demand anything.

The V6 has an EPA rating of 18 mpg city/25 highway, nothing special there, but the four-cylinder gets up to 29 mpg highway which is excellent compared to other vehicles that look sort of like this one.

Big cushy tires mounted on 20-inch wheels (19's are standard) conspire with a soft suspension to provide a plush ride with a little more roll than a Camry, but much less than anything approaching SUV status can manage. Big comfy chairs are ready for the long-haul, but, despite their sculpted appearance, offer little lateral support. You’ll be advised to stick to thruways instead of twisty mountain roads.

The nicest surprise inside is that the cockpit of the Venza is way more stylish than what you find in a Camry. Aside from a very legible, but flat and featureless instrument panel that would look right at home in a Reagan-era Corolla, the collection of asymmetrical curves that make up the top of the dashboard could be transplanted into a Lexus tomorrow and no one would be the wiser.

The $2,590 navigation system with XM satellite radio may be a tip-off, though, as it comes across as a little last generation. The graphics are a bit dull and dated and, while it does offer live traffic, there are no cutting edge bells and whistles like weather reports, local gas prices, or what's on the menu for dinner.

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It does have voice activation and bluetooth connectivity for both phones and streaming audio, but oddly there is no USB input, just a run of the mill auxiliary jack in the center console. Making it easy to use are cable pass-throughs built into the center console cover so you can keep your digital music player topside and not have to keep opening the compartment whenever you want to change a song. There is also a spring-loaded slot next to the transmission selector that will hold your iPod in place when you find yourself on one of those twisty mountain roads you were supposed to avoid. This combination of low-tech, but useful features is unique and all automakers should infringe on Toyota's patents immediately.

Given the choice, I would take a Venza over a Camry any day of the week, except maybe Thursday when my paycheck arrives. It packs much more usability into the same footprint without many of the drawbacks that come with a traditional crossover (yes, they are ubiquitous enough now to be considered traditional).

With a sticker price $25,975 for the base model and $29,250 for the 4WD V6 the cost of entry is reasonable, but add a premium option package, navigation system, and a double-pane panoramic sunroof like my test car had and you're quickly heading north of $38,000.

There are a lot of cars you can buy for that kind of money, just none like this.

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2009 Toyota Venza

As Tested: $38,493

Type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, 5 passenger, 5-door wagon

Engine: 3.5L V-6

Power: 268 hp, 246 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

MPG: 18 city/25 highway

What do you think of the Venza?

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