It's not that the Sienna doesn't have gadgets, it just doesn't have as many as its competitors, and that's a good thing. It didn't seem like Toyota was trying to hide any deficiencies in the van by adding some shiny toy to distract me. It was pleasant to drive and very useful, too. If I were shopping for a minivan, it's the type I'd want to buy.
It Is What it Is
The Sienna doesn't hide behind the kind of fake-SUV styling that other companies have tried. It's a van, thank you very much, complete with sliding side doors and a rear liftgate.
Our test model came with the optional power-sliding doors and power liftgate. The power-operated doors were fine. Either use the key fob or gently tug the handle to open or shut the doors.
On the other hand, the liftgate-opening functionality was only OK: Make sure the doors are unlocked, then hold the button on the key fob down and it powers open nicely. I would prefer if it motored open when you tug on the handle, but it's acceptable. (If you're inside the van, there's a button on the ceiling above the driver's seat you can press to open it.)
Closing the hatch is where the Sienna really comes up short: You can either press and hold the button on the fob, walk around to the driver's seat and press the button in the ceiling, or reach up and tug on the raised liftgate. The last option is the worst because the hatch begins to move like an unpowered one would, then stops suddenly, beeps loudly and slowly powers shut. I think a button in the rear of the cargo area is the better setup — and it's the approach used by every other minivan and SUV I can think of.
Also, until I got used to the Sienna, I must have set some kind of record for "Most Hatch Beeps in the Course of a Van Review," as I was always trying to manually close the hatch when the power-closing feature was engaged. I'd like to take this opportunity to apologize to my neighbors for all the noise.
Inside the Van
The good side of all this is that I can authoritatively say the interior of the Sienna is very nice and soothing — just the sort of place to undo a bit of hatch embarrassment.
My test model came with leather and imitation wood trim. I've never been a fan of wood trim of any sort, but the Sienna's looks particularly bad to my eye. The leather seats, however, were among the most comfortable of any minivan I've been in. They weren't too soft, which I find tiring on long drives, but they certainly weren't aggressively bolstered, like racing seats. There was just enough support that I felt like I was sitting in the seat, not sliding around on top of it.
The Sienna also has a manually telescoping steering wheel, which always adds immensely to my driving comfort. There's nothing like getting something exactly the way you want it. Adjustable pedals, which aren't offered, would be extremely welcome for shorter drivers, but I didn't need them.
The layout of the controls (except for the optional multimedia interface) deserves special praise, too. Individual controls were easy to find and intuitive to use, and they didn't feel cheap. You might think that by now all designers would know how to lay out controls in a way that makes it easy to work a three-zone climate-control system, but you'd be wrong. Toyota's designers, however, do know, and they did a nice job here.
It's not all sweetness and light inside, though. Our test model came with an optional touch-screen that controlled both the audio and navigation systems. The navigation system was easy, but the stereo side wasn't so hot. I mean, it's super-easy to change the bass/treble/balance settings, but actually setting a radio station as a preset required cracking open the owner's manual. That's probably not a big deal in the real world — you set your stations once and forget about it. I still think it's annoying.
Finally, our test model came with an optional audio system that can accept Bluetooth input, meaning if your MP3 player can stream music over Bluetooth, you can use this feature to pick up the Bluetooth stream and play your music. I didn't test that out, but I did use my iPod through the MP3 jack. There's a very thoughtful cubby for MP3 players below the jack that would also work if you were streaming Bluetooth. It was these kinds of nice, thoughtful little touches that made me really like the Sienna. I had the feeling it was designed by people who intended to buy one and drive it once they were done building it.
Overall, the interior gets an A+ from me.
I don't think anybody buys a minivan unless they intend to haul either kids or cargo. I don't have kids, but the Sienna I tested could carry seven people on three rows of seats. (There's the option of seating eight if you choose a different second-row seat).
You can't get a power-folding third-row seat, which some competitors offer, but the manual mechanism in our test vehicle was so easy I'm not sure why you'd want one; I found I could easily raise and lower the seats with one hand.
The second-row seats also fold forward and are removable, but the process is difficult and the seats are heavy. It might be enough to tumble the seats forward and secure them with the attached straps. That gives you a really large cargo area.
I used the Sienna to take a bike to the bike store, as well as a few trips to Target and the grocery store, and I'd say its capabilities make it a strong entry in this field. If you're more likely to haul kids than bikes, check out the review on our sister site, MotherProof.com.
Getting Around Town
Visibility is excellent around town. There are absolutely no blind spots, and that's not always the case with minivans. Also, the A-pillars (the ones that frame the windshield) weren't so large as to interfere with forward visibility. That's getting to be rare in cars these days.
Our test model came with a rearview camera, which was really nice in parking lots. It's a great help if you're always running errands in places where there are small children, who can "disappear" from a van's mirrors. We also had the optional sonar-assist parking feature, which beeps when you get close to something. I found visibility in the Sienna to be so good I rarely needed to use the system during my week of testing.
The Sienna isn't a dragster; you're not going to blow the doors off anybody moving away from a light or on the highway, but you will be able to keep up with traffic, as well as merge and pass when you need to. There was no road noise to be heard in the cabin and very little wind noise.
Around town, the steering has a light touch that I thought I would especially appreciate if I'd spent the whole day moving furniture or wrangling children. It made it easy to navigate tight parking lots, too. However, it was too light at highway speeds; I didn't get any feeling from the wheel that I was turning when I was. It was like playing a video game, and that's not good.
The all-wheel-drive XLE Limited that I tested was rated 16/21 mpg city/highway. Without all-wheel drive, mileage increases to 17/23 mpg. To me, that's not a huge mileage penalty for all-wheel drive. The front-wheel-drive mileage figures compare well with competitors such as the Honda Odyssey and Chrysler Town & Country, neither of which offer all-wheel drive.
Safety & Reliability
The Toyota Sienna is rated Good in Insurance Institute for Highway Safety frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests.
Standard safety equipment includes side-impact airbags, side curtain airbags for all three rows of seats, standard antilock brakes and an electronic stability system. Also, there are three-point safety belts for all seating positions. See the full list of safety features here.
Consumer Reports rates the Toyota Sienna Better than Average for reliability.
Sienna in the Market
Our test model cost $42,749, including a $745 destination charge. At the time of this writing, there's an available $2,200 Value Package incentive that would bring the sticker down to $40,549. That price reflects the Sienna's highest trim level. The base two-wheel-drive model starts at $24,540, and the least expensive all-wheel-drive version starts at $29,235. Currently, Toyota is the only company offering an all-wheel-drive minivan.
Now, $42,000 is about as much as you can spend on a minivan. While our model was loaded, it lacked some fancy features — like swiveling chairs and removable tables — that minivans from Chrysler and Dodge offer. It's up to you whether you want to spend that much for a Sienna and not get those goodies. If it were my money, I'd take the all-wheel drive but go for a lower trim level.
Minivans are often seen as dowdy family vehicles and their purchase as surrender to suburban drudgery. Many of my friends refuse to consider them because they don't want to be seen as Soccer Moms or NASCAR Dads. That's too bad, because just like people who refuse to watch soccer, they're missing a good thing, especially where the Sienna is concerned. Once you get past the fact that it's not a fashion statement and just consider it as a vehicle, you're left with something that can carry nearly everything you'd need and keep you comfortable while doing so. I'm not sure what else you could ask.
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