Toyota has shot for the moon with its redesigned Sienna minivan, with features that run the gamut from functional to pie-in-the-sky.
The Sienna is the only large minivan left with optional all-wheel drive, and it’s one of the first in a long while to offer a four-cylinder. From that humble foundation, it piles on the goodies: Loaded models can have dual moonroofs and rear lounge seats with footrests, and there’s a sport-tuned Sienna SE for parents inclined to carve corners en route to Charlie’s slumber party.
Good thing that foundation behind the frills holds up well. Though flawed in a couple key respects, the Sienna’s fundamentals are sound. Toyota seems to think the minivan segment is headed for a rebirth. I’m skeptical, but if you’re not high-tailing it out for a crossover, the Sienna deserves a look.
The Sienna comes in five trim levels: base, LE, SE, XLE and Limited. Base and LE models have a four-cylinder, with the V-6 optional on both trims and standard higher up. The LE V-6, XLE and Limited offer optional all-wheel drive. At a California preview for journalists, I evaluated both drivetrains, as well as the sport-tuned Sienna SE.
With obvious similarities to the FT-MV concept shown at the 2007 Tokyo auto show — the acronym stood, perhaps more obviously, for “Future Toyota Minivan” — the Sienna looks handsome. We’ve had a little more than a year to absorb the Camry-based Venza’s left-field face. The Sienna’s face has the same elements, but there’s more canvas to paint them on, so they don’t seem quite so overbearing. Short front overhangs, a tasteful rear spoiler — included standard — and wraparound taillights complete the look. As minivans go, it’s handsome.
Taller and wider than its predecessor — but not nearly as long — the Sienna measures a couple inches shy of the Honda Odyssey and Chrysler’s minivan twins, the Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country. The Sienna’s 36.9-foot turning circle nearly ties Honda (36.7 feet) and beats Chrysler vans’ 39.1-foot circles.
Base, LE and XLE models carry 17-inch alloy wheels. XLE and all-wheel-drive models have 18-inchers; the SE comes with 19s, among a number of other changes.
On most trims, Toyota’s 3.5-liter V-6, a staple from last year’s Sienna and a number of other models, is back in the saddle. Alas, it works through an oafish six-speed automatic that prefers to reach 5th or 6th gear as soon as possible and, when called upon to downshift, hunts indecisively for the right gear. The outgoing Sienna’s five-speed automatic felt far more responsive. However, Toyota’s V-6 is a workhorse, and once the transmission fetches the right gear, it delivers confident thrust and a throaty, satisfying exhaust note. (Yes, even minivans can have cool exhaust notes.) All told, the Sienna’s V-6 feels beefier than the Odyssey’s V-6, and perhaps even a tick gutsier than the Grand Caravan’s 4.0-liter V-6.
I did not sample a Sienna with all-wheel drive. It adds 205 pounds, which shouldn’t sap too much of the V-6’s gusto. Toyota’s 2.7-liter four-cylinder, of recent Venza and Highlander vintage, comes standard on front-wheel-drive base and LE models. It’s matched to a six-speed auto. At the L.A. Auto Show, where the Sienna was introduced, I puzzled over the wisdom of offering a four-cylinder on a large minivan. Color me convinced. Pushed hard, the four-cylinder emits a coarse roar compared with the V-6’s refined growl, but it’s capable enough, moving the Sienna smartly around town.
The drivetrain doesn’t run out of steam until the highway, where 60-70 mph passing feels a bit lethargic, and the transmission gets stage fright trying to pick the right gear. Of course, I drove the four-cylinder with only one other person in the car — the Sienna’s chief engineer, Kazuo Mori — and it’s possible that a full load of passengers could prove to be too much. If you’re shopping the four-cylinder, rope a few family members to come along and see how it does.
EPA-estimated gas mileage works out to 19/26 mpg (city/highway) for the four-cylinder — better than the 17/25 mpg rating both the Odyssey and Grand Caravan attain. The V-6 Sienna gets a competitive 18/24 mpg with front-wheel drive and 16/22 mpg with all-wheel drive. Here’s how the engines compare:
| Drivetrains Compared
| Base and LE (std.)
| Base and LE (opt.);
SE, XLE, Limited (std.)
| 2.7 liters
| 3.5 liters
| Six-speed automatic
| Six-speed automatic
| Horsepower (@ rpm)
| 187 @ 5,800
| 266 @ 6,200
(lbs.-ft. @ rpm)
| 186 @ 4,100
| 245 @ 4,700
| EPA mileage
| 19/26 (FWD)
| 18/24 (FWD);
| Towing capacity (lbs.)
Ride quality, a strength for the last Sienna, remains good. In all but the sport-tuned Sienna SE, the suspension fairly glides over bumps, maintaining excellent cabin comfort. Wind noise on the highway is fairly low, too. But on a couple of models with 17-inch wheels I noticed more road noise than I’d expect in a minivan.
Toyota swapped the outgoing Sienna’s hydraulic power steering for a more efficient electric-power-steering setup, but I’m not wild about the results. The last Sienna’s steering wheel would glide with buttery, Lexus-like smoothness — a satisfying trait that set the minivan apart from its competitors. This one turns easily at low speeds, but it feels artificial. On the highway, I could also use less power-steering assist; the wheel feels firm enough at 40 mph or so, but at 60 mph or 70 mph it has a looser response, requiring a few too many corrections at the 12 o’clock position to stay on course.
Body roll comes with any quick off-ramp jaunts, but it isn’t an ever-present force like in some top-heavy crossovers. The antilock brakes — four-wheel discs — feel strong overall, but it takes a few inches of pedal travel before they bite down. Others have more linear response.
Toyota says it designed the cabin to give the driver and front passenger the perception of personal space — with swooping textures giving Mom and Dad a sense that more than half the dashboard is theirs, no matter which side they’re sitting on. There’s a bit of truth to it. The Sienna’s lowish roofline clips a bit off the windshield, but the dashboard’s swooshed-about trimmings lend an impression of space. Typical of a minivan, you’ll be able to fill it up with all manner of stuff. There are upper and lower glove compartments — both generously sized — plus two sturdy pull-out cupholders, large door pockets and a matted floor tray for a purse. I’m lukewarm on the Sienna’s optional center console, with two cupholders and a large storage compartment. It gets the job done, but it doesn’t convert to a pass-through like the one in the Odyssey, nor does it have the tricks of the Grand Caravan’s jack-of-all-consoles.
Materials quality is middling; areas you’ll regularly touch, like the upper door panels, are clad in cheap, unpadded plastics. But that’s the case for a lot of crossovers and just about every minivan. At least Toyota’s materials look good, with similar graining to those in the Prius and Venza. Controls are logically placed and easy to use, and most of them operate with high-quality precision. The Sienna earns kudos for its wide, extendable sun visors and the speedometer’s 10-mph increments, which make it far easier to see your speed than many cars’ 20-mph readouts. Parents will like that, depending on trim level, the Sienna comes with a minimum of 10 cupholders.
I found the front seats comfortable, with durable, high-rent fabric in the Sienna LE that I spent the most time in. (The base Sienna, Mori told me, has a lesser fabric; there wasn’t one to check out.) The Sienna’s leather upholstery, standard on the XLE and Limited, feels appropriately upscale.
The adjustable second row — offered in two- and three-seat configurations — offers 25.6 inches forward and back adjustment range. That allows for plenty of legroom if you have the seats all the way back, and the chairs sit high enough for good thigh support. Third-row room depends on where the second-row seats are positioned, but adults should be able to work out a compromise. Headroom in both back rows is adequate. As in all minivans and most crossovers, the Sienna’s third row folds flat into the floor. It’s easier to do than in the Odyssey — ironic, given Honda was one of the pioneers of stow-in-the-floor third rows; on the Sienna Limited, it powers down with the push of a button. (Astute readers will note that we say exactly the opposite in our impressions of the Sienna at the L.A. Auto Show — probably the result, a Toyota official told me, of the auto-show prototypes’ third-row-folding mechanisms not quite being ready for prime time.)
Cargo volume behind the third row totals 39.1 cubic feet, with 87.1 cubic feet when the third row is folded and the second-row seats are deployed. The second-row seats don’t fold into the floor, like Chrysler’s Stow ‘n Go, nor do they fold down like most others. What’s more, Toyota says given the Sienna’s mechanical packaging — including, no doubt, the driveshaft space required for all-wheel drive — the second row has no under-floor storage compartments. Chrysler’s vans offer pretty cavernous bins in front of the second row, and even the Odyssey includes a shallow one.
However, the Sienna has a few tricks of its own. Its second-row seats tip and slide forward for easy access to the third row; it’s more cumbersome than the Odyssey’s walk-in feature, but easier than the tumbling seats in some minivans and crossovers. The seats also lock into a sort of collapsed-forward position, giving drivers 117.8 cubic feet of cargo volume. Should you want maximum cargo space, they’re removable for a class-leading 150.0 cubic feet of volume, which is proof positive that minivans, once again, are still more space efficient than crossovers or SUVs.
| Cargo Volume Compared (cu. ft.)
| Behind 3rd row
| Behind 2nd row
| Behind 1st row
Well-equipped Siennas come with all manner of amenities, from second- and third-row sunshades to dual retracting moonroofs. Limited models include footrests for the second row, not unlike first-class airline seats. (Or so I recall, from many years ago. I make a journalist’s salary, remember.) If there’s no one in the third row, second-row passengers can move their seats to the rearmost position, kick the footrests up and enjoy the best seat in the house — provided they’re medium height or shorter. I’m 5 feet 11 inches tall, and with the footrest up, my shoes would have left dirt all over the front seatbacks. This is a minivan chair, after all, not a La-Z-Boy.
Toyota’s new Dual-View Rear Seat Entertainment system has a 16.4-inch wide, flip-down screen for the second row. It can play in widescreen and extra-wide formats, or it can play two separate programs side by side — different DVDs, for example, or a DVD and a video game. Each outboard passenger can listen to his or her own channel with wireless headphones. Dual View is nifty, but I find Chrysler’s dual-input screens more functional. A screen is placed in both the second and third rows — a setup that allows, for example, an adult to watch something in the third row while the kids in the second row view something else. Toyota’s common viewing area, obviously, does not allow that level of privacy.
You don’t have to spring for the pricey navigation system to get the Sienna’s backup camera; it’s also available as a cheaper, stand-alone option, where it resides — like in the Highlander crossover — in a small information display atop the dash. Get navigation and the backup camera comes as Toyota’s Panorama Camera, which displays a 180-degree view behind the bumper, with guiding lines for the intended path. It’s useful for a crowded parking lot, though the fisheye lens may take some getting used to.
It’s the quintessential oxymoron, this idea of a sporty minivan. Why create a sport-tuned Sienna SE? Toyota thinks there’s a market for it, and the automaker may have won at least one convert. From the instant Toyota began talking up the SE, Cars.com senior editor and prospective minivan shopper David Thomas has watched with keen interest.
Truth be told, the SE feels most like Toyota’s shot at the Honda Odyssey, the segment’s most dynamic minivan. With a sport-tuned suspension, dialed-down power-steering assist, 19-inch wheels and a host of racy styling cues, the Sienna corners crisply, with well-managed body roll and similar turn-in precision to its Honda rival. The steering wheel requires more effort to turn at low speeds, but it’s not so heavy as to be a chore. At higher speeds, it returns a satisfying firmness that’s missing in other Siennas. The front seats have faux leather side bolsters. They’re firmer but not any larger, though I wish they were. When taking quick corners in the Sienna SE I could have used more lateral support.
The price you pay with the Odyssey is in its ride, which is on the firmer side. Alas, I only had time to take the Sienna SE on a short jaunt on glass-smooth roads at the end of the media preview — nothing near the succession of surfaces on which I drove the LE and XLE. The SE rode comfortably enough, but we’ll have to get one to our well-rutted Chicago offices before making a call.
The 2011 Sienna has not yet been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Standard safety features include the usual raft of airbags — dual-stage front, side-impact and three-row side curtain, plus a driver’s knee airbag — as well as antilock brakes, active head restraints and an electronic stability system. Optional on the Sienna Limited is Toyota’s Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system, which attempts to better manage vehicle stability. VDIM is fairly widespread among the automaker’s Lexus lineup.
Parents will want to know that there are Latch child-seat anchors for the outboard second-row seats, as well as the center position in the third row.
Standard features on the base Sienna include the usual power accessories, keyless entry, three-zone air conditioning, cruise control and a CD stereo with an MP3 jack. Climb the trim ladder, and you can get USB/iPod stereo compatibility, power-sliding doors and a power tailgate, a navigation system, a backup camera, heated leather upholstery, one or two moonroofs, rear DVD entertainment and much more.
With a starting price of $24,260, the 2011 Sienna packs impressive value. For that reason, among a lot of others, Toyota could gain a bigger slice of the minivan pie. My concern is the pie itself: It’s shrinking — and fast. Excluding the Kia Sedona — a bit player by sales popularity — the four major minivan nameplates are down 30 percent through November in annual sales. That’s a few ticks worse than the auto industry’s general sales malaise and far worse than the sales of comparable large crossovers.
Toyota division manager Bob Carter told me he thinks the segment can rebound in the years to come — perhaps as much as 30 percent better than what it’s doing today. That would be quite a turnaround, especially given car shoppers flight from anything with sliding doors.
That flight is a shame, really. You can stuff minivans full of people or gear, or both. They’re relatively fuel-efficient and indisputably comfortable. Maybe as shoppers return to the basics of what they need in a car, the minivan will see its day come again. I’ve been hoping for that all year, though, and I have yet to see any signs of it.