I wrapped up 2020 the same way I started it, with a cross-country trip from Los Angeles to Houston. Last year I drove our long-term Volvo S60 to visit my family during the holidays and had such a great time that I decided to repeat it (and who knows, maybe it will become a tradition). This time, my chariot was our 2021 Toyota Venza—the hybrid-only SUV that serves as an alternative in Toyota’s SUV lineup to the off-road-looking RAV4. I’ve chaperoned the Venza since October, but this was the first time I took it on a long road trip, and overall it excelled at its job. Instead of opting for the direct route, I went via the scenic way.
My road trip started before 5 a.m. when I left Playa del Rey and headed south to San Diego, where I then took I-8 to Tucson. Instead of taking the direct and boring way on the I-10, I opted for the more scenic route, driving through the Cuyamaca Mountains, the Imperial Sand Dunes and along the All-American Canal before ending on the I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson. After a quick lunch stop in Tucson, I continued onto El Paso, Texas, where I spent the first night. In total, I traversed 853 miles and averaged 33.5 mpg, according to the Venza’s computer.
After 11 hours of driving, I found the seats very comfortable, providing great back and thigh support. The optional SofTex package—which includes leatherette seats, heated, ventilated, and powered front seats, and heated steering wheel—felt worth it. Crossing the desert in the winter means cold and hot temperatures throughout the day, so I used both the heating and ventilation often.
On day two I stopped in in Marfa, Texas, a town in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert with chic shops and art galleries that will make you think you’re on Abbott Kinney Blvd in Venice, California, or somewhere in Brooklyn. During a quick stop in the town of Valentine I visited the famous Prada sculpture that artists Elmgreen and Dragset permanently installed in the middle of the desert—a taste of what Marfa is really all about.
Highway 90 connects the desert cities of Marfa, Alpine, and Marathon in West Texas, and continues along the Rio Grande bordering Mexico. The drive is way more entertaining than I-10, with hills, river crossings, and swoopy corners at times. Border Patrol agents are seen almost every 15 minutes, and with a speed limit of 75 mph, this two-lane highway is captivating to drive. The Venza produces a good amount of tire noise, and the cabin was loud when we drove over harsh pavement, but the ride was always settled. With the 2.5-liter l-4 engine and three electric motors mated to a CVT, the Venza feels adequately powered, but it lacks the punchiness of turbo-four engines or thirsty V-6s of other SUVs in the segment.
After a night stop in Del Rio, Texas, I headed north to the quaint town of Fredericksburg. Known for its wineries and German heritage, there’s a cozy feeling walking on its sidewalks and seeing the historic Vereins-Kirche building. Nestled in the heart of the Texas Hill Country, Fredericksburg is home to many great roads and vistas. There’s no doubt that central Texas was blessed with a fantastic landscape.
I arrived to Houston after driving 1,726 miles over three days, averaging 34.2 mpg. I confess I was getting tired toward the end of the road trip, but visiting all of these great places gave me a taste of Texas that I had not savored before despite having lived eight years in the Lone Star state.
With my brother tagging along on the way back, the drive was more enjoyable. Our first stop was Big Bend National Park, but before we got to our hotel in Alpine, a massive winter storm dropped over 24 inches of snow in some parts of the state, making the roads icy and dangerous. On our drive to Alpine, we saw ice and snow on the road, but we made it to the hotel without any issues. Thankfully, the Venza comes with standard all-wheel drive, which was very useful during this part of the trip.
Big Bend National Park provides some of the most stunning vistas I’ve seen in my life. The Santa Elena Canyon’s enormous walls are split by the Rio Grande, creating a natural division between Mexico and the U.S. Because the park also got a lot of snow, the basin, which is home to many trails, campgrounds, and a lodge, was closed. So we headed west to Big Bend Ranch State Park, taking FM 170, which follows the Rio Grande. With cliffs and hills on both sides of the border, the views were breathtaking, and the twisty turns made this road quite fun. I was most impressed with the landscape in this part of Texas—it seems like a well-kept secret compared to other places in the country. Note to self: Come back with a truck and off-road equipment; there’s plenty of trails to experience.
The next day we left Alpine for Tucson. We stopped at El Paso for lunch and noticed how close Ciudad Juarez really is from its northern sister city, as we got a panoramic view of it driving on I-10.
Sitting in the front passenger seat, my brother had quite a bit of trouble with the capacitive touch buttons on the center console. He’d confuse the temperature controls for the radio tuning controls and often hit the wrong button given that they are very touch-sensitive. One of the Venza’s weakest points is interior space. Despite being positioned between the RAV4 and the Highlander, it has less space than even its smaller sibling. That was especially notable on the return trip when we were carrying two large suitcases, a bag of golf clubs, and a couple of biggish boxes. Even with the rear seats folded, cargo space is limited.
After a mostly boring drive, dozens of songs, and a couple of podcasts, we were happy to stop in Arizona for the night.
An early wake-up call had us on the road by 7:30, and we continued our way west on I-8. After our visit to White Sands National Park last year, we decided to visit the Imperial Sand Dunes in California for a Sahara-like experience. Although it’s not nearly as impressive as the African desert, the scenery is beautiful, and it served as our last stop before we ended our trip.
With 4,020 miles added to the odometer, the Venza proved itself to be a comfortable and efficient SUV. At 33.2 mpg on average, that’s a bit under the EPA’s ratings, but weather and high speed limits are to blame. There will be more road trips with the Venza, and this one was a great start.
Photos of the road trip are courtesy of Andrés Cortina.
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