Thumbs Up: Plenty of room for the kids, the dog and their stuff.
Thumbs Down: Second row seats don’t fold flat, expensive option packages.
Buy This Car If: If you need to haul kids and their stuff, and prefer Toyota over other manufacturers.
A few years back, the average American family had something like 2.54 kids. Throw in a dog or two, and fill the daily agenda with trips to hockey practice, cheerleading, Tae Kwon Do and ballet lessons, and you begin to see why minivans make sense for the modern family. It’s no longer enough to pick kids up from school; now parents are expected to shuttle them from place to place, carting more gear than the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It’s no wonder why minivans have gotten larger and more luxurious over the years; the average family now spends more time in their van than they do in their living room, so it may as well be comfortable.
Toyota introduced their Sienna minivan for the 1998 model year, as a replacement for their previous family hauler, the futuristic looking Previa. The Sienna, like the Previa before it, had one serious design flaw: it wasn’t as spacious as minivan offerings from the competition, and in the world of family haulers, size matters. For the 2004 model year, Toyota went back to the drawing board and penned a Sienna that matched competitors in both size and content. For the first time since offering a small van option in 1984, Toyota looked like they were serious about gaining market share in the minivan segment. This second generation Sienna soldiered on until 2010, when Toyota announced a new Sienna minivan, designed and engineered in the U.S., for the 2011 model year.
The new Toyota Sienna is available in five trim levels, with a staggering amount of custom configurations. Want AWD? Sure, you can have that in higher trim versions. Want captains chairs in the second row, for ultimate long-haul passenger comfort? Not a problem. Prefer a fuel sipping four-cylinder over a gas-gulping six? You can order one. Have a disabled family member? The Sienna can even be ordered with a factory installed auto access seat. If you have to haul passengers and cargo, I’m fairly certain that a Sienna variant exists to meet your exact specifications.
I’m not a minivan guy, and my wife and I don’t have kids. Even the dog prefers the narrow confines of my FJ Cruiser’s hatch to the wide open spaces of a crossover or minivan, so the chances of me shopping for a minivan are exactly zero. They just don’t fit my lifestyle or needs, which is why I’m probably the ideal candidate to review them. Things that the average minivan driver wouldn’t notice pop out at me. Take, for example, the size of the Sienna: it’s big, bordering on huge, which is what the average buyer wants. If you need the seating space and the storage room, that’s probably a good thing. If you prefer small and nimble vehicles for negotiating parking lots and narrow city streets, the Sienna will have a learning curve before you’re comfortable behind the wheel. The back-up camera is your friend, and you will become very good at using it to judge distances your first few times behind the wheel. Even the redundant controls for the rear microclimate are a bit confusing at first; spend some days behind the wheel, however, and every control or function becomes easy enough to figure out.
As for exterior style, the 2011 Toyota Sienna has character, and that’s a good thing. Familiar Toyota design themes such as the notched grille and hood “beak” of the Prius, Camry and Venza carry over, clearly identifying the Sienna’s origin. To be honest, there isn’t much you can do to style a big box on wheels, but Toyota’s designers have managed to create a nicely shaped and relatively aerodynamic people hauler. You won’t see one displayed at New York’s MOMA, but I seriously doubt any buyers would be put off by the Sienna’s looks.
No one buys a minivan because of its exterior styling; people buy minivans because of how they work on the inside. Minivan buyers want easy passenger loading, and it doesn’t get any easier than sliding driver and passenger rear doors. Even accessing the third row seat is simple enough, since the second row seats slide far enough forward to allow easy access. Besides, the third row is for passengers who don’t make the “A” list; the second row is where you want to be, especially if you order up the Sienna with the second row captains chairs and wide screen DVD like my tester had. Prestige aside, it makes me wonder why anyone would order up a Lexus LS 460 L or a BMW 750 iL; if I had the money for a driver, I’d give serious thought to rolling in a Toyota Sienna Swagger Wagon. All it needs is a wet bar and internet access.
Cargo room, as you’d expect, is generous. You won’t be buying a Sienna to haul your racebike to and from the track (not without a trailer, at least), but the cavernous rear hatch will swallow any cargo that a suburban homeowner is likely to throw at it. No, it won’t take full sheets of plywood or drywall, but how many homeowners haul stuff like this in the family car, anyway? It will swallow plenty of cargo for that summer trip to the lake or the Thanksgiving drive to grandma’s house, and you can always add a cargo pod to the roof rack if you need more space.
Behind the wheel, the Sienna takes driver comfort seriously. The leather captain’s chair seating for front and rear seat passengers ensures that your Sienna will eat up the miles with little drama, especially if you keep the rear seat passengers entertained with a DVD. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is comfortable to grip, and the steering wheel mounted controls are well placed and big enough for man-sized hands to operate. I’m not a fan of the faux woodgrain lower dash and door trim or the dash mounted shifter, but neither would be a deal breaker for me if I was shopping for a family van. The in-dash infotainment system is easy enough to figure out, and I’ll admit to liking the top center time, temperature and information display.
Instruments feature a center mounted, oversized speedometer flanked by a left mounted tachometer and a right mounted fuel and temp gauge. The odometer and trip odometer must be cycled through to display (by pushing the selector mounted below the tach), a feature I found odd. There was some instrument panel glare on bright days, but with as much glass as the Sienna has, that’s to be expected.
On the road, the Sienna drives like a big sedan (OK, a REALLY big sedan). Acceleration from the 265 horsepower, 3.5 liter V6 is surprisingly ample, and the Sienna can sprint to sixty from a stand-still in just under 8 seconds. Braking distances are reasonable with good pedal feel, and steering feel is neither too light nor too heavy. If you want a Sienna that’s relatively competent when the road gets twisty, Toyota even offers a sport suspension on SE trim level Siennas. The SE’s body kit is a little much for my tastes, but at least Toyota recognizes that not all minivan drivers are cell phone addled soccer moms. The EPA tells you to expect 18 MPG in the city and 24 MPG on the highway for a V6 equipped Sienna, and I’d say that’s about right. In my city-centric mix of driving, I saw 19.4 MPG, which really isn’t bad give the Sienna’s size and two and a quarter ton curb weight.
My 2011 Toyota Sienna XLE tester, in FWD eight passenger configuration, had a base price of $32,975, including a destination charge of $800. Options on my tester included the $6,225 Premium Package (Dual View Rear Entertainment Center, Voice Activated Touch Screen Nav, Dual Mode Rearview Camera, JBL Ten Speaker Audio System, Bluetooth Phone Integration and Streaming, Smart Key System, Push Button Start, Rear Parking Sonar, Safety Connect) and the $404 Preferred Accessory Package (Carpeted Floor Mats, Door Sill Protector, Cargo Net, First Aid Kit) for a total sticker price of $39,604. A comparably equipped Honda Odyssey Touring Elite would sticker at $43,250, and a similarly equipped Chrysler Town and Country Limited would sticker at $40,490, which makes the Toyota Sienna sensibly priced for the level of content. If you need a minivan, there’s probably a Sienna to suit your needs and your price point.