2011 Toyota Sienna: First Drive

Toyota still has faith in the minivan, and the all-new 2011 Sienna shows us why

2011 Toyota Sienna: First Drive

“Minivans are not cool.” So says the public at large, having quickly abandoned the 1980s vehicle of choice for the ‘90s vehicle of choice, the SUV. Then SUVs became uncool in the ‘00s, and people shifted again, this time into CUVs. Perhaps now we’ll come full circle?

FAST FACTS

1. he 2011 Sienna is now available with a standard 187-hp 2.7L 4-cylinder, getting 19/24 mpg (city/hwy).

2. A 3.5L V6 makes 266-hp and delivers almost equal fuel economy, rated at 18/24 mpg.

3. The Sienna continues to be the only minivan that offers AWD.

4. An SE trim level gets a skirt package, stiffer springs, 19-inch wheels with stickier tires and new seat fabric with better bolstered seats.

5. Pricing ranges from $24,260 to just under $40,000.

That CUVs will be discovered as the large, overweight and inefficient forms of transportation that they are, and that people will flock to minivans again is what Toyota is banking on with the new 2011 Sienna.

Arguably the segment king in overall quality, the Toyota Sienna has long been the go-to choice for customers turned off by the whiff of cheap plastics in the Dodge Grand Caravan, and not involved enough as a driver to care about buying a Honda Odyssey.

AN IMPRESSIVE NEW LOOK, INSIDE AND OUT

With the Toyota Camry being one of the best-selling cars in North America, having a minivan that shares those same values makes complete sense. However, buried deep in the Camry models is the black-sheep SE, which actually turns the beige appliance into something more exciting. Tighter suspension, bigger wheels and an aggressive body kit turn something bland into something bold. Well, more bold, at least.

When it came time to redesign the 2011 Sienna, the team’s project leader and chief engineer, Kazuo Mori, decided that Toyota needed some spiciness. Not flaming, habanera, but more a smoky bar-be-cue. A subtle blend of flavors that mingle into something more than just mush. Convincing the corporate powers that be to mess with the Sienna’s recipe must have been a grand exercise in arm-twisting. The result in a minivan that’s more refined, efficient, better looking and – yes – sportier.

The nose on all Siennas mixes cues from the Camry Hybrid and Venza, and the character line that runs the length makes the body seem shorter and more aggressive. Projector beams and optional foglights bring bling to the front end, while LED taillights brighten the tall tail. The standard rear spoiler hides the rear window wiper arm, which helps in a cleaner design aerodynamically. The Sienna rolls on standard 17- or 18-in wheels, depending on trim level.

CLASS-LEADING CARGO ROOM, BUT ONLY IF YOU REMOVE THE SEATS

Inside, the plastics and touch-points are improved compared to the old Sienna, which definitely had its rough spots. The seats are comfortable and easy to adjust, while the steering wheel is nicely sized and shaped. Depending on trim level, you can also get either wood or leather inserts in the rim. The rest of the dash looks more like shotgun-style design.  The indicator lights aren’t bright enough on the center console either, so in bright sunshine, it can be difficult to see how the climate control is set.

The biggest additions to the party are the second-row party seats that slide, flip, fold and come out with minimal effort. But they don’t fold into the floor like Dodge ones do because the team was concerned they wouldn’t be comfortable enough. In top-level XLE and Limited, those second-row seats also recline and include an extendable ottoman foot stool, which provides enough space for six-footers to stretch out in style.

Also, the dual-view monitor will be a lifesaver for those who haul plenty of kids because with it you can have two different programs, movies or videogames playing at the same time. That’ll totally increase your chances of pleasing at least some of them…

Cargo room behind the third row is rated at 39.1 cu.-ft. and expands to 87.1 cu.-ft. with the third row folded flat. Toyota claims a total of 150 cu.-ft. of cargo room, but as you have to remove the seats entirely, that’s a bit misleading. Chrysler’s Town & Country gets 140 cu.-ft. with the second row seats folding right into the floor.

NOW AVAILABLE WITH A 4-CYL, BUT NO REAL SAVINGS AT THE PUMP

Mechanically, most Sienna models use the essentially carryover 3.5-liter V6 with 266-hp and 245 ft-lbs of torque. For those looking for better mileage and a lower entry price, Toyota now offers the 187-hp 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine. The company was keen to point out that even the four-banger’s 186 ft-lbs of torque are greater than the base 3.3-liter V6 in the Dodge Grand Caravan.

Both engines use six-speed automatic transmissions, and fuel mileage is decent too: the V6 gets 18/24 mpg (city/highway), while the I-4 gets 19/24-mpg. Those numbers make choosing the 4-cylinder seem foolish, however, as the difference in fuel economy is miniscule.

The Sienna is also the only minivan to offer optional all-wheel drive. Available on most grades, the system is nominally front-wheel drive, but can send 50 percent of the power to the rear when things get messy. AWD models also come with Bridgestone’s third-generation run-flat tires, which have much softer sidewalls than previous attempts. This means a more comfortable and stable ride, even compared to the front-wheel drive models.

SE MODEL DELIVERS SPORT UPGRADES

Mori’s dream was realized, though, in the new SE grade Sienna. While it doesn’t feature any more power and only uses front-wheel drive, both aesthetically and practically, it’s aimed at more enthusiastic drivers. Apparently the shocks are 80 percent stiffer than on more plebeian models, and the steering was tuned by Mori himself – something usually far below a chief engineer’s job, but one he wanted to ensure had his stamp of approval. The exterior also features a more aggressive front fascia, lower side skirts, and a rear diffuser. Wheels also increase to 19-inches with sticker tires. Inside, the seats get increased support, special piping and different fabric, while the gauge cluster is unique as well.

The model mix starts with plain-old Sienna in either four- ($24,260) or six-cylinder ($25,500), then LE with both engines, then SE, XLE and Limited. All-wheel drive tends to add about $1,400 to the price, meaning a full-load Limited runs a hair under $40,000. But, the safety, security, comfort and composure would be more than enough to justify a Lexus badge in that trim.

THE VERDICT

So did Toyota succeed and make a minivan cool? No, but they have made it much more tolerable for drivers – they’d already nailed the passenger part. Now the company has to wait and see what Honda will do next with its redesigned Odyssey coming in the next year or so. It’ll have to be pretty special to knock down the Sienna.

RELATED READING

2010 Honda Odyssey 2010 Chrysler Town & Country Review

2009 Volkswagen Routan SEL 2009 Ford Flex Review

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