Ahhh… the mundaneness of it all. Few, if any, vehicles exemplify the very word and feeling of dull better than the innocuous minivan. That pedestrian people mover that goes about its daily task of reliably and safely carrying its thirty-something moms and endless soccer playing teens and tots to their destinations of choice. And all the while fading serenely into the background clutter of traffic congestion and parking lot mayhem.
|1. The Sienna starts at $24,540 for the CE model and tops out at $37,500 for the Limited, with our well-equipped AWD XLE tester priced at roughly $35,000.
2. The Toyota Sienna is rated at 17/23 mpg (city/hwy) for front-drive models but just 16/21 mpg for AWD versions.
3. There’s 148.9 cubic feet of space available with 43.6 cu.-ft. behind the third row.
4. All Sienna models get a 3.5-liter V6 with 266-hp.
LOOKS THAT DULL
Enter the Toyota Sienna, a people hauler that at first and second glance silently screams boring. The Sienna offers up the same rear boxy dimensions as any other minivan, along with the prerequisite long nose and steeply racked windshield that make it practically indistinguishable from any other vehicle of its genus on the road. Cover the squared dimensions in a muted tone such as Blue Mirage Metallic like our test vehicle, and the Sienna almost disappears from conscious view. It isn’t ugly by the strictest definition of the term; it just doesn’t seem to be there. Sort of like a wallflower at a school dance.
The Sienna comes in four main guises including the CE, LE, XLE and Limited. Our test model, fetched from its stint in Colorado, was a very well appointed XLE with all-wheel drive. With power side doors and a power rear hatch, all immeasurably convenient for ingress and egress with a five year old and a one year old, it offered many of the standard and optional features found in the manufacturer common minivan clan.
The flip down DVD screen with wireless headphones and nifty remote control were a terrific attention pacifier on one of our longer drives. (Trying to insert a DVD into the player from the front seat requires a yoga master’s technique and flexibility.) Thankfully, our test vehicle came equipped with sunshades for the side door windows and third row passenger side windows, making the late August Phoenix sun just that little bit less intense.
Each Sienna model comes with a 3.5-liter V6 featuring Toyota’s VVTi variable valve timing technology for more power with supposedly better fuel mileage. At an estimated 16-mpg city and 21-mpg highway for the all wheel drive models and 17/23 for the front wheel drive though, the Sienna is hardly a miser on gasoline. Although, with a 20-gallon tank, either model, driven with an eye toward fuel economy, could see you past the 400-mile mark before the next fill up.
The Sienna in CE guise offers both 7- and 8-passenger seating, which is based on the layout of the second row seat. While the LE, XLE and Limited offer only 7-passenger seating with two buckets in the second row, the CE offers a bench behind the driver and front passenger for three-across seating. Head and leg room in the Sienna is excellent with a comfortable seat to be found anywhere in the house.
The Sienna does offer class leading cargo room with a positively cavernous 148.9 cubic feet of space available behind the front seat. There is even a healthy 43.6 cubic feet of baby stroller, diaper bag and luggage storing space behind the rear seats.
The Sienna boasts a safety conscious structure as it earned four and five star safety rating across the board with a perfect five star, front and rear, side-impact rating. The Sienna sports the usual myriad of airbags throughout the driver and passenger compartments, and scored a four star rating for driver frontal impacts and rollovers.
The interior of the Sienna is actually a bit more visually inviting than the exterior, and is the first hint that the Sienna is more than it appears. A leather and wood trimmed cabin gives a sense of luxury and the stereo/nav system screen that tilts in three different positions to decrease glare from the sun gives a sense of thoughtful ergonomics.
The dash with brightly lit gauges is easy to see and read and everything is within easy reach, and for the most part in a logical location. The driver’s area holds enough buttons to make a shuttle astronaut jealous, and (thankfully) there is even a switch available to turn off the chime from the proximity radar system. (When you pull into a familiar but tight garage at night with the kids just falling asleep, the last thing you want is that chime urgently barking its “your gonna hit your mountain bike that’s been sitting there for six months” warning!)
A little advice for the buyer on interior colors though – with kids, a somewhat darker hue seems to be better. The light tan leather and carpeted areas of our test vehicle, while attractive in their tone, were not the right color for a family with toddlers, as stains and dirt become easier to see.
And what storage room! We tried packing stuff in, just to see how much would fit. The deep set enclave aft of the raised third row seat is room enough for light luggage for four people, a sit and stand baby stroller and a good sized diaper bag. Certainly, the majority of minivans on the market provide ample cargo space, after all it is seemingly part of the definition of a minivan, but the Sienna is especially clear on making good on that promise.
IS IT A CAR OR A VAN?
Ultimately though, the Sienna must be driven from place to place to properly get tasks completed, and as it turns out, the driving experience is what in many ways sets the Sienna apart. Perhaps no other description of what it feels like to take a drive in the Sienna better fits the experience than terming it car-like. Steering is direct, precise and predictable, and in the handling department in particular, it is easy to forget that you are in a minivan. The Sienna reacts in such a car-like manner that really, one couldn’t be faulted for thinking they were in a Camry sedan as opposed to a much larger and taller people and cargo hauler.
The Sienna also delivers in the all-important task of merging onto freeways with a sense of confidence. The 266-hp V6 with its impressive 245 ft-lbs of torque moves the 4,270-pound Sienna with surprising authority if not cheek pulling acceleration, and the wonderfully smooth 5-speed automatic shifts almost seamlessly.
The AWD system offers an unexpected benefit, even in dry-as-a-bone Phoenix desert weather, by helping the spunky motor put power down efficiently from a standstill especially over some of the bumpier roads in the outlying areas of the city. More than just enhancing traction per se, the system seems to make delivery of power smoother on varying surfaces. Be aware though that owing to the addition undercarriage room that the AWD models take for drivetrain components, they come sans a spare tire. As such they use RFT, or run flat technology tires. RFT tires allow a driver to continue driving on a tire that is completely deflated as long as that driver stays below a manufacturer determined speed and distance.
MATTERS OF THE WALLET
So, what’s the price of admission for the Sienna? A base CE that lacks some of the more convenient options but still comes with the exceptional drivetrain, build quality and ergonomics, cargo room galore, and seating for at least seven, will start somewhere in the $24k range. However, move up to an XLE with AWD and the (yikes) $4,000 options package that includes a really cool touch screen DVD nav system, JBL stereo, rear seat DVD with wireless headphones, leather trim, seat heaters, back up camera, parking assist system and moonroof, and the price jumps to $35,000. Not cheap by any means, but a competitive buy when compared to other minivans and sport utes.
The refinement of handling and power, thoroughly evaluated ergonomics, silent interior and overall comfort in driving the Sienna are what create the oceans wide gap between it and the plasticky, cheap feel of some other makes. Despite a few fit and finish issues (the wood trim on the driver and passenger side door armrest squeaked when opening and closing the door), the Sienna appears to be a very solid, high quality machine.
Overall, the Sienna was a very pleasant driving experience over the long haul, across town, or the short jaunt to the grocery store. It makes one more able to overlook the stigma of driving a minivan and actually makes you want to drive the thing as opposed to simply using it for moving people and stuff. It certainly made me look at minivans differently, even though it looks like any other minivan. Perhaps my five year old son, who, upon first sight of the Sienna was clearly disappointed that I didn’t have a sports car for the week, put it best when he got out of the Sienna and exclaimed, “Dad, that thing is cool.” Indeed.