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Best Bets get average or better mpg, have average or better reliability, good crash-test ratings, and our experts' recommendations.
Expert Reviews 1 of 4
By Joe Wiesenfelder
November 12, 2004
After building for years what I considered the best overall small minivan, Toyota redesigned its Sienna for the 2004 model year as a full-size minivan. It came standard with roll-down windows in the sliding doors, a tight turning circle and a split third row that folds into the floor without requiring the head restraints to be removed. It offered eight seats maximum and all-wheel drive as options. The Sienna earned a cars.com Best Bet for the Best Large Minivan overall, but the competition is once again stiff as the Honda Odyssey has been redesigned for 2005. The Sienna is basically the same in 2005 as in 2004, with the addition of a power passenger seat for the XLE and XLE Limited trim levels.There are four trim levels: CE, LE, XLE and XLE Limited, which I'll refer to simply as the Limited. The entry, CE, trim level includes features such as dual-zone air conditioning, a CD stereo, four-wheel ABS, power windows in the front and sliding doors, power side mirrors and power locks with remote keyless entry. Exterior & Styling The Sienna is certainly a decent-looking van, but it won't be setting anyone's hair on fire. This, of course, can be said about most minivans. Exterior differences between the trim levels are few. The CE and LE have body-colored door handles but black side mirrors and steel wheels with wheel covers. The higher trim levels add body-colored side mirrors and aluminum wheels. The Limited adds chrome grille accents and bodyside moldings. Front fog lights are standard on the XLE and Limited. The Limited has xenon high-intensity-discharge headlights in place of the lower trim levels' halogen lamps. Sliding doors are standard on both sides.
Ride & Handling The Sienna is in the same class as most minivans with regard to both ride and handling. I always found the smaller, first-generation Sienna to be the most nimble of the minivans, and the new one's girth definitely takes some of that away. Still, it goes where you aim it, body roll is under control, and it isolates occupants from the road well. The 2005 Odyssey handles better when pushed to the limits, but there's little difference in normal driving.
Whatever its actual size, the Sienna is made more manageable by a very tight turning circle of 36.8 feet just 0.1 foot wider than the Camry V6's turning diameter (the four-cylinder Camry turns a tighter, 34.8-foot circle). Where the 2004 Odyssey required 37.7 feet, the 2005 is down to just 36.7 feet and the Chrysler and Dodge vans turn a 39.4-foot circle. The turning diameter combined with a driver's seat that's close to the front wheels, and decent visibility over the hood, make the Sienna remarkably easy to pull into parking lot spaces nose first.
The Sienna is very quiet among minivans and comparable to the 2005 Odyssey. Quiet goes a long way in giving occupants a feeling of quality, and it's my assertion that it's perceived as a smoother ride. I address the all-wheel-drive option in the next section, but it bears noting here that Toyota includes in the Limited, and offers on all three other trim levels, an electronic stability system that it calls Vehicle Stability Control. Going & Stopping The Sienna has one engine/transmission combination: a 3.3-liter V-6 engine and a five-speed-automatic transmission. With 230 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 242 pounds-feet of torque at 3,600 rpm, the engine now trails the redesigned Odyssey's 3.5-liter V-6, which generates 255 hp and 250 pounds-feet of torque. Engine specs alone don't tell the acceleration story because other factors come into play. Weight is a major one, and the lightest Sienna weighs 4,120 pounds compared to the lightest Odyssey's 4,378 pounds, a significant difference. Even the heaviest Sienna, an XLE (or Limited) with all-wheel drive, weighs less at 4,365 pounds than most Odyssey models, which top out at 4,634 pounds for a loaded Touring model. The Odyssey also has a five-speed transmission.
Honda Odyssey vs. Toyota Sienna
Honda 3.5-liter V-6
Toyota 3.3-liter V-6
255 @ 5,750 rpm
230 @ 5,600 rpm
250 @ 5,000 rpm
242 @ 3,600 rpm
Regular unleaded (87 octane)
Regular unleaded (87 octane)
In the real world, the Sienna is plenty quick. The five-speed ensures that power is always available, and acceleration is most impressive from a standing start. The transmission shifts smoothly and efficiently. Kickdown isn't as quick as it is in some Toyotas, but the lag is brief, and the transmission doesn't bog down or hunt endlessly for a gear.
Both of my test vehicles had front-wheel drive. Because it adds about 200 pounds to the vehicle, all-wheel drive will diminish acceleration some. EPA estimates rate the front-drive Sienna an impressive 19/27 mpg in city/highway driving, but the all-wheel-drive versions are estimated to get 18/24 mpg. This beats the earlier Honda, but the redesigned Odyssey's higher trim levels are rated 20/28 mpg. For the Sienna, premium gasoline (91 octane) is recommended. It's not required, so no damage should result from running on 87 octane gas, but all the manufacturer's ratings such as engine output, fuel economy and emissions are based on the more expensive fuel. Regular gas is likely to reduce power and possibly mileage though probably not enough to nullify the lower fuel cost.
The EPA's Green Vehicle Guide rates the Sienna sold nationally at 8 out of a possible 10 (10 being best) for pollutant emissions. The model sold in California and the restrictive Northeastern states rates a 9.
The all-wheel drive uses a simple open center differential. This design divides torque 50/50 between the front and rear axles, and four-wheel traction control is what directs the power away from spinning wheels and toward those with traction. For good measure, Toyota throws in the VSC system in all Siennas with all-wheel drive. These models come with run-flat tires because the all-wheel-drive system displaces the compact spare tire.
I believe the need for all-wheel drive in most areas of the United States is overestimated, but if you live in a hilly, snowy region or otherwise want the feature, the Odyssey can't deliver.
One could argue that traction control is more important in a front-drive model. It's standard only in the Limited trim level, but it's offered in option packages along with VSC for all the other trim levels. All versions of the Sienna with traction control and VSC include four-wheel disc brakes with brake assist. The front-drive models without these features come with front disc and rear drum brakes. I found the brakes very effective in actual use.
The Inside There's not much in the Sienna that's original. Toyota has employed the time-honored practice of copying its competitors' ideas. The standard tray table between the front seats is a copy of the Odyssey's, which Kia had already purloined for its Sedona minivan. In the tray's place on the XLE and Limited is a removable center console, a feature pioneered by DaimlerChrysler. A lift from the Ford Windstar, the convex "conversation" mirror, located in the ceiling where some vehicles offer a flip-down sunglasses holder, allows the driver to keep an eye on the rugrats in the rear seats. The roll-down windows in the sliding doors were a first in a minivan of this size, but they had already appeared in the smaller Mazda MPV.
That said, Toyota's story has never been what it does in its products but how the company does it. Toyota has improved on some of the features it appropriated, and the quality, attention to detail and "fit and finish" are all there.
With so many sport utility vehicles on the market now, the low-slung unibody Sienna reminds you that it can actually be easy to get into a vehicle that has seven or eight seats. Inside, the ergonomics are good. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes to help drivers of all statures get comfortable and distance themselves properly from the airbag. Though it's manual in the CE and LE, the driver's seat includes a cushion height adjustment again to cater to a broad range of driver heights. The LE adds a manual lumbar adjustment. The XLE and Limited add eight-way power driver and front passenger seats. Leather and heated front seats are standard in the Limited and optional in a number of packages for the XLE. My XLE had these options, and I was glad to see the heated seats have five settings, not all of them scorching.
I found the seats in both the cloth-upholstered LE and leather XLE very comfortable. All trim levels include inboard swing-down armrests. Good though visibility is to the front and sides, the Sienna is typical of minivans in that it's difficult to see out the back. A sonar-based parking aid on the front and rear bumpers which beeps in tones of increasing frequency as the vehicle nears an obstacle is standard on the Limited only and not offered as an option. A rearview camera, the best solution to this problem, is available on the XLE and Limited but only in a package with the GPS-based navigation system whose LCD it uses to show what's behind the van when the transmission is in Reverse. The reliance of rearview cameras on costly navigation systems unfortunately is the norm across the market.
Storage provisions abound, including a secondary glove box above the roomy main one. Covered compartments in the door armrests are a nice addition. There's a pop-out cupholder to supplement the two in the tray or center console. The door pockets each include a bottle holder, canted at an odd angle and bearing the warning that it's for capped bottles only. Huh? The total cupholder count in my test vehicles was 15 tallying the real, usable ones.
The sliding doors are average. The manual ones are reasonably light, but I found they didn't stay open when my LE was parked facing downhill on a slight grade. The powered versions work quite well, as demonstrated in the video. However, if one pulls the door closed without pulling the exterior handle out, it stalls and the handle no longer activates the motor. Passengers who don't know how to operate the power doors always seem to find their faults. That's why the Chrysler/Dodge system is best: If someone tugs on the power door, it says the heck with it, disengages from the motor mechanism and operates as a manual door would.
It was only after some time that I realized a trade-off of the sliding doors' side windows: The doors don't open as far when their windows are down. This is because the window frame would lop off a limb against the C-pillar.
The second row seats two, in captain's chairs, or three in a bench that's offered on the CE and LE. The bench is split, 35/30/35, and each segment folds independently. As in some SUVs, the center seat can be positioned almost a foot forward, placing a child close enough for the ol' parental nose-blowing attempt from the front row. The side seats fold and then "tumble" forward to ease entry to the third row. The captain's chairs do the same, and Toyota provides two mounting positions for the right-hand seat, to locate the aisle either between the seats (a welcome demilitarized zone between warring siblings) or next to the curbside door, creating a two-seat bench. Honda abandoned this design in the 2005 Odyssey. The chairs are simple to operate, but each weighs close to 60 pounds when removed.
For roominess, the Sienna is tough to beat. According to our model data, it ties or beats the Town & Country and the Odyssey in all seat dimensions except third-row headroom (Odyssey wins by 0.3 inch), third-row legroom (Odyssey by 1.6 inches) and third-row shoulder room (Odyssey by 0.1 inch and Town & Country by 1 inch). What's more, the second-row captain's chairs adjust forward and backward. Even with the second row set fully back, there's legroom enough in the third row for most adults. I'm 6 feet tall, and my knees were just touching the second-row backrest, and I had at least an inch of headroom to spare (see the video). With the second row positioned forward, I could stretch out my legs a bit. The third row folds flat into the floor, as I describe below under Cargo & Towing. It's split, 60/40, for more versatility. A strap that pokes through either backrest segment allows the passenger to adjust its angle.
The rear quarter windows don't roll down, but they do tilt outward as in most minivans. The CE's are manual, and the other trim levels' are powered. The powered ones can't be opened independently of each other, and the only switch is on the dashboard. Another switch for the third-row passengers would be a worthwhile addition.
Safety As of this writing, the Sienna has the top score among minivans in Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests. It also earned a quadruple five-star rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Not to rain on Toyota's parade, but I find fault with NHTSA's side-impact tests, and there's a higher percentage of quad-five-star ratings among minivans than in any other vehicle class. Be sure to check out our Guide to Interpreting Crash Tests and Rollover Ratings.
In terms of safety equipment, the Sienna is reasonably well equipped or equippable. Standard features include front-impact airbags that deploy at one of two speeds depending on crash intensity. There are lap-and-shoulder seat belts and head restraints for all seven or eight seats, and all of the head restraints adjust high enough to protect an adult.
Side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain-type airbags for all three rows are standard in the Limited and optional in all other trim levels, though they are always packaged with other features, including non-safety items.
Cargo & Towing When people think about cargo and minivans, they think about third-row seats. That's because for years, third-row seats were solid, hulking benches that had to be removed to accommodate cargo. Then Honda came along with its Magic Seat, which folds flat into the floor, and everything changed. The general concept has been copied by many competitors. Toyota set out to do the Odyssey one better: The head restraints collapse into the backrest so they don't need to be removed before folding; the seat is split, 60/40, for more passenger/cargo flexibility; and the seats are spring-assisted for easier folding. Not surprisingly, the 2005 Odyssey matches this design.
Toyota cites the Sienna's cargo volume as 43.6 cubic feet behind the third row, 94.5 cubic feet behind the second row and 148.9 cubic feet total. For comparison, the Odyssey is rated 38.4/91.1/147.4 cubic feet (behind row 3/row 2/row 1). In all but the CE trim level, the front passenger seat folds flat, roughly level with the folded second row. With the second row removed, the Sienna accommodates 4-by-8-foot sheets of building material with the liftgate closed.
All Siennas have a gross vehicle weight rating of 5,690 pounds. Payload ratings range from 1,325 pounds in an XLE or Limited with all-wheel drive to 1,575 pounds in the seven-seat front-drive CE and LE. Properly equipped, a Sienna can tow a trailer of up to 3,500 pounds. This is comparable to the Odyssey, though the Honda requires a more extensive option package to reach this maximum.
Features There are no glaring omissions in the Sienna's features list. Though there are virtually no stand-alone options, which means you may have to pay for a feature you don't necessarily want, Toyota offers a mountain of option packages so you at least have a shot at getting mostly what you want. If you take the time to slog through them, you might find a package that saves you money over what you'd pay for features a la carte. All the Sienna's standard and optional features and their prices are available by clicking on the buttons to the left.
One notable feature is the pair of 110-volt (100-watt) household power outlets that come in the back of Siennas equipped with the optional backseat DVD video system. Where many vehicles with such video systems include input jacks for a video game, camcorder or the like, few provide the household current required to power most of these items. The Sienna conveniently locates one of the outlets on the C-pillar adjacent to the audio/video input jacks. The Sienna has such outlets in its top trim level. In both cases the outlets are for low-current electronics, not high-draw appliances like refrigerators or cooking gadgets.
The DVD system is full-featured and includes two wireless headsets. My only gripe is its combination joystick/enter button, which appears on the overhead unit and the remote control. Found on some navigation systems, this attempt at ergonomics is actually dysfunctional. A separate enter button makes it much easier to get the intended result, rather than entering when you want to move the cursor or moving the cursor when you're trying to press enter.
Sienna in the Market When the larger Sienna made its 2004 debut, buyers encountered waiting lists and/or sale prices at, or even above, sticker prices. Though the crush has eased somewhat, cars.com visitors continue to prove this high demand. In the second quarter of 2004, the Sienna was the model with the third most requests for dealer quotes, behind Honda's Accord and Civic.
Though overall profits may be funneled overseas, the Sienna is assembled exclusively in this country, at Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Princeton, Ind. The engine and transmission are assembled at the Toyota Motor Manufacturing powertrain facility in Buffalo, W.Va., and Toyota says 90 percent of the vehicle's content comes from North American suppliers. The only real casualty of the Sienna overhaul is the loss of a desirable small minivan. If that's what you want, and a used Sienna won't satisfy, check out the current Mazda MPV.