Sacramento, California - I looked at a 2011 Toyota Venza in a showroom last fall, and I must admit that I was not impressed.
Touted as a crossover between a sport-utility vehicle and a sport sedan, I thought it looked more like a wagon with limited cargo-carrying capacity.
What was that they said about first impressions?
Turns out I liked the Venza a lot when I recently had the opportunity to pilot it in a unique environment - California's Wine Country. In that world - where I was a relative peasant among homes, cars and possessions well beyond my pay grade - the Venza was a welcome and comforting performer.
It helped that the delivered vehicle was a gorgeous Tropical Sea Metallic - think soft ocean blue -- that still managed to look stunning parked among the ocean of Mercedes, Porsches, Acuras and Bentleys in the winery lots.
My tester was the front-drive V-6 starting at $28,300, but that doesn't begin to tell the tale. This Venza had more add-ons that a congressional highway bill, bringing the bottom line to a head-turning $37,024. I'd say it was the fanciest "affordable" Toyota I've ever driven.
Here I was driving a Venza with mahogany-style inlay, high-intensity lights with automatic high-beam on/off control, leather-trimmed seats, power moonroof, panoramic glass roof at the back end, backup camera and power lumbar supports to name just a few.
Not that I minded the extra perks.
But honestly, the most impressive points on the Venza were how it drove and what it carried.
The 268-horsepower V-6 was an enthusiastic power plant, capable of doing the quick pass of a poke and gliding up those sometimes-steep driveways one finds in the Wine Country. And yet the vehicle was nimble enough to maneuver through tight town streets and cramped parking lots.
I had no trouble whatsoever putting this car through its paces in areas where I was not an everyday visitor. That might be the ultimate compliment for a car: It makes you feel secure on relatively unknown roadways.
The Venza'a cargo-carrying configurations are much, much healthier than I originally thought. And the automatic power liftgate on the rear of the tester made loading a snap. Here's a vehicle you want to take on vacation.
With the V-6, fuel mileage ratings weren't so hot at 19 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the highway. No surprise there.
But virtually everything else on the Venza did surprise me … in a pleasant way.