Toyota has finally mastered the art of the minivan, boasting that its revamped Sienna for 2004 has grown bigger, better, faster and more luxurious. Already, reviewers are calling the second-generation Sienna the best of the bunch, even trumping
minivan-master Chrysler with design, features and versatility. Sienna really is a great minivan. But it's still a minivan and as such must contend with a hopelessly dorky image. Teens hate minivans. So do aging, ego-fragile dads. As for moms, I
remember one friend complaining after she bought a purple Dodge Caravan, "Nobody flirts with you when you're driving a minivan." So be it. Now Chrysler, credited with inventing the modern, front-wheel-drive minivan, has again moved the target
with a new kind of craft. That would be the Pacifica, which manages to look sharp, drive well and fulfill the functions of a minivan without looking like a soccer mom's nightmare. But Sienna makes no bones about its role as a family transport and
utilitarian people-mover. A day trip to Tucson with five people on board helped Sienna show off its exemplary driving characteristics and roomy accommodations. This was the top-rung XLE model, a pricey piece that bottom-lined at $35,511 after being
loaded up with luxury options. But then the teenage denizens in the backseats had no problem with riding in a dorky minivan when it's equipped with a DVD player. What it is Revamped from bumper to bumper, Sienna is now big enough and powerful
enough to compete with top dogs such as Honda Odyssey and Chrysler Grand Caravan. With all seats deployed, it can seat seven. With the seats folded into the floor, it can carry a truckload of cargo or a full sheet of plywood. The well-equipped base
model starts at $24,000. Engine and transmission Power from Toyota's new workhorse 3.3-liter V-6 grows to 230 horses, 20 more than last year's 3-liter engine, and a strong 242 pound-feet of torque. This provides enough acceleration and smooth
freeway cruising, even with a full load. Fuel economy is improved despite the extra power, with the EPA's rating at a respectable 19 miles per gallon city and 27 highway. However, Toyota does recommend expensive 91 octane. The five-speed
automatic shifts seamlessly, enhanced by an "electronic intelligence" program that helps control gear changes to increase fuel mileage. Handling and drivability One of the best features of any modern minivan is carlike handling, and Sienna
drives as well as a nice sedan. Outside Tucson, we went over the twisting two-lane road that traverses Gates Pass toward the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and Sienna zipped through the tight turns with maneuverable handling and minimal body sway.
Steering is responsive rack and pinion, which thankfully is becoming a common feature on today's vehicles. Toyota tout
s the Sienna's tight turning radius of 36.8 feet, not bad considering the long 119.3-inch wheelbase. The four-wheel-disc brakes (rear discs are optional) are very strong. Standard are anti-lock brakes with brake-force distribution, which
electronically balances brake pressure to each wheel, and brake assist, which adds pressure in panic stops. Sienna comes with optional all-wheel drive, though the test van was a standard front-driver. Vehicle stability control, which helps prevent
skids, and traction control, which controls wheelspin under acceleration, are optional on front-wheel-drive and standard on all-wheel-drive models. Styling Pretty standard stuff, though Toyota designers added some nicely faceted creases to the
basic baby-whale minivan style. Interior The last-generation Sienna was faulted for being too small inside, so Toyota responded with an interior that is significantly longer, wider and taller. With
a wheelbase increased by five inches, four inches added to the width, and overall length of 200 inches, Sienna now has the space for roomy seating all around and luggage room in the back. Having the middle and rear row of seats fold into the floor,
station-wagon style, boosts flexibility because it allows quick changes for added cargo or humans. The dashboard is very nice, and there's a seemingly endless array of nooks, cubbies, sliding drawers and cupholders. The center console detaches
so it can be placed between the front or middle seats. The base CE and upgraded LE versions have a decent array of standard features, and the XLE tested here pushes into luxury territory. There's also an XLE Limited model that has every bell and
whistle known to mankind. As it is, the well-equipped XLE included a monster package of options, with leather seating, a fine JBL audio system with 10 speakers, and the DVD video player with wireless headphones. Pricing Sienna XLE is a
pretty cushy ride at $28,260, but the options package came in at $6,545, putting it into an exclusive level. The package is an amalgam of luxury and safety features, including the leather, audio upgrade and DVD video, as well as moonroof, skid and
traction control, rear disc brakes, daytime running lights, side-bolster airbags up front and side-curtain airbags for all three rows. With $196 for floor mats and something called a door-sill protector, and $510 shipping, Sienna came out to $35,511.
Bottom line Toyota scores a solid hit with the redo of Sienna, retaining the qualities that made the first generation a success while fixing the size and power issues. For those who chafe at an import brand competing head-to-head with U.S.
automakers' products, Sienna is built in Indiana with 90 percent of its content sourced in North America, according to Toyota. Toyota Sienna XLE Vehicle type: Seven-passenger minivan, front-wheel drive. Base price: $28,260. Price as
tested: $35,511. Engine: 3.3-liter V-6, 230 horsepower at 5,600 rpm, 242 pound-feet of torque at 3,500 rpm. Transmission: Five-speed automatic. Wheelbase: 119.3 inches. Curb weight: 4,165 pounds. EPA mileage: 19 city, 27 highway.
Highs: Roomy accommodations. Overall drivability. Luxury features. Lows: Mundane styling. Expensive options. That minivan stigma.