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Toyota to stop making the Venza? Not exactly…

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The previous piece this author wrote for Kaizen Factor, on the Toyota Harrier back in mid-January of this year, briefly touched upon the Toyota Venza, a mid-sized 2-row seating crossover SUV that occupies an odd upmarket-but-non-luxury-brand niche dominated by the Ford Edge and the Nissan Murano. Weeks later, the Venza was making news of its own as word came that June 2015 would mark the end of Venza production for the United States, hardly a surprising state of affairs given its steadily declining sales (save for a bit of an uptick in 2012) and its being squeezed and cannibalized by the RAV4 from below and the Highlander from above, and even laterally by the luxury-badged Lexus RX.

One-and-out: Toyota has done that before
The list of Toyota models that have been produced for only a few years and a single generation of design is a long one, and runs the gamut from sports cars (Sports 800, 2000GT and Lexus LFA) to mundane Japanese Domestic Market sedans (Brevis, Progrès and Verossa) to truly niche and “out-there” efforts such as the Hummer H1-inspired Mega Cruiser, the retro RS series/S30 Crown homage Origin and the beautiful but mechanically humdrum butterfly-door Sera. Also on the list: the Venza’s JDM doppelgänger and inspiration, the Mark X ZiO.

A stealth announcement
Although Toyota announced the North American discontinuation of the FJ Cruiser (again, after a single generation) in an official news release, that wasn’t the case when Lexus quietly pulled the plug in the U.S. and Canada on the slow-selling HS 250h sedan in mid-2012. Similarly, the Venza cancellation was announced at the dealer level, and not in the official Toyota newsrooms. Although the word spread quickly enough (arguably via a CarsDirect story from 2 March 2015), the first Internet mention of the Venza’s impending demise was actually on February 27, in the Toyota of Naperville (Illinois) blog.

Mentioned in some but not all of the Venza-is-dead stories, however, is the fact that it would continue in production for select export markets through 2017. Cue the Mark Twain misquoted cliché “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated”.

The export markets
Technically, Canada is the closest export market for the Kentucky-built Venza, but it, as well as Puerto Rico and U.S. territory Guam are likely to follow the United States in discontinuing the Venza in June of this year.

Beyond our neighbors and territories, the first major Toyota Venza export market was South Korea, as announced on 14 Nov 2012. Just over 3 months later came official word that warring neighbors Russia and Ukraine would follow suit. The final remaining export market is the world’s biggest overall: China.

With South Korea’s piddling Venza take rate (on the order of 600 or so vehicles annually), Russian and Ukranian sales in the toilet because of Western sanctions over the annexation of Crimea, and China subject to the whims and saber-rattling over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands, we suspect that Venza production may well dip to ultra-low LFA or Mirai-like levels for its final year or two of production. Still, Toyota has seemingly promised no layoffs over that sharply-diminished production, instead redeploying those workers to the new Lexus ES production line in Georgetown, Kentucky that should be in full swing by the end of this year.

Built but not sold here: Toyota has done that before, too
The aforementioned Lexus ES is one of several Toyota-company vehicles that shares a distinction with the post-June 2015 Venza: it will not be sold in its country of manufacture. During its first 4 generations, the Lexus ES was basically a rebadge of the Toyota Vista or Windom sedan. Upon the Lexus brand’s Japanese domestic market launch in 2005, the ES was pointedly excluded. The following year saw the debut of the 5th generation ES, the discontinuation of the Toyota Windom and still no ES in Japanese Lexus showrooms, a situation that remains to this day. Nonetheless, 5th and 6th-gen Lexus ESs to date have been built at the Miata Miyata plant in Japan. Once the Kentucky plant starts up, it’ll be interesting to see if North America will see a mix of locally built and imported-from-Japan vehicles (as with the RX’s varied Japanese and Canadian sourcing), or if Lexus will stop Japanese production altogether of a model that isn’t even sold there.

Another prominent built-but-not-sold-in-Japan model is the Scion tC front-wheel-drive hatchback sports coupe. In its second generation, it also saw alternate badging as the Toyota Zelas, and sales expanded from the first generation’s U.S.-only into Canada, China and a number of African, Middle East, Central and South American markets, all imported from Toyota’s Tsutsumi plant in Japan.

A final surprising omission from the Japanese market is one of Toyota’s core popular models that is widespread throughout the world: the latest, 4th-gen (XA40) RAV4. Although plants in Tianjin, China and Woodstock, Ontario, Canada supply the world’s largest automotive markets, the rest of the world presumably gets its RAV4s from Japan’s Tahara or Takaoka plants. Yet, Toyota Japan’s official website currently shows the RAV4 in its outdated, 3rd-gen (XA-30) short-wheelbase guise! Our best guess for this anomaly: in Japan, the RAV4 has been moved downmarket, making the latest XU60 Toyota Harrier the newer 4th-gen RAV4’s de facto JDM counterpart.

Built but not sold here is hardly a unique Toyota trait. Mercedes-Benz builds its tall station wagon/sleek minivan/crossover R-Class solely in Vance, Alabama in the United States, yet stopped selling it there in 2012 and in Western Europe the following year. It’s still in production, though, buoyed by demand in China, Japan and a handful of other Asian, African and Eastern European countries. And, even as demand and production dwindle, Mercedes has opted not to discontinue it, but to subcontract its manufacture to AM General in Mishawaka, Indiana.

Random Venza memories
Although we highly doubt there’ll be a large outcry to bring back the Venza, this author has a couple of random interesting and fond Venza memories. A Toyota U.S. insider once shared the tale of a visit to the United States by president and CEO Akio Toyoda. He was received with two vehicles: a chauffeur-driven long-wheelbase Lexus LS for Mr. Toyoda to ride in, followed by security and other staffers in a Venza. No sooner did Toyoda-san disembark that he glanced at his automotive entourage and exclaimed, “Venza!” Given that it was, in the company’s own words, primarily engineered at Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan; designed in Toyota’s Calty Design studios in Newport Beach, California and Ann Arbor, Michigan; and assembled at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky (TMMK), in Georgetown, with over 70% North American supplier components, it was little wonder that it was the rare Toyota product that the company’s namesake had never personally sampled. Needless to say, most of the staffers piled into the Lexus LS while Akio Toyoda drove himself in the Venza.

The November 2011 press preview for the 4th-generation Lexus GS in southern California roughly coincided with the 60th birthday celebration of a distant cousin of mine that I hadn’t seen in about 45 years, who had made his home in Arcata, California, near the border with Oregon. With the Lexus and Toyota press fleet in Torrance nearly depleted because of the press preview activity, I was left with a couple of choices: a Camry V6 or a Venza all-wheel-drive V6. I chose the latter, figuring that other cousins I’d be picking up along the way would be more comfortable in the Venza’s roomier back seat for the roughly 1325-mile round trip. It turned out to be a wise choice, as the Venza handled everything from gridlocked city driving to boring stretches of freeway to bits of scenic California 1 to touristy drives through giant sequoia trees (um…wouldn’t Toyota’s largest SUV have been more appropriate?) with aplomb and with zero complaints from vehicle and passengers alike. Granted, road noise is bound to be somewhat noticeable in a two-volume hatchback riding on low-profile tires on 20″ wheels as is the case with the Venza, but it acquitted itself surprisingly well for a wide 2-ton vehicle in the final seemingly interminable stretch of twisty mountain roads approaching Arcata.

Perhaps the world at large won’t miss the Toyota Venza, but this author, who isn’t usually a crossover or SUV fan, has a bit of a soft spot for this particular one. Thanks for the memories.

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