We went hands-on with Toyota’s new people-hauler to learn how it’s evolving the family minivan, and why it’s gone all-hybrid.
It wasn’t the usual type of reveal event. On a Wednesday that couldn’t decide on overcast or sunny weather, I found myself at Toyota Canada’s head office, just outside of Toronto. There were two pre-production 2021 Siennas, a current-model minivan, and a few Toyota employees to walk the media around the new model. The media count? Just me.
The more intimate setting let me get up close and personal with the new family hauler. It’s no secret that the segment has seen better days in terms of sales. But Toyota isn’t giving up, instead gifting the Sienna with more family-friendly features and styling closer to the vehicles people are buying instead of vans: crossovers.
If you threw a new Supra and the Japanese shinkansen bullet trains into a blender, you’d probably expect results closer to Brundlefly than anything else. Yet the combo works: Toyota says the bullet trains influenced the 2021 Sienna’s blunt nose, and the connection is clear from any angle. In profile it shares an aggressive shoulder line with the tw0-seater, while a higher belt-line makes it look longer and lower than the dowdy current model.
Is it busy? Absolutely. It’s able to pull double duty at this preview event though, looking stately in lux Platinum trim and sporty in XSE. Toyota is proud of the fact the latter comes with gigantic 20-inch wheels—a first for the minivan—though I’m most curious about how they’ll affect ride quality. They certainly look fantastic though, with little carbon-fiber-like inserts in the spokes. All the bling of the Platinum gets the black-out treatment here.
I ask Toyota’s Olivier Depenweiller about the conscious decision to move towards more SUV-like styling, something competitors are doing as well. “I think there’s a lot of people that hesitate between the two. They want the practicality of the minivan, but they like the SUV trend. But now you get the best of both; you get the all-wheel drive, you have all the features from the Highlander too.” Olivier points out that, with the Sienna and Highlander now sharing the versatile TNGA platform, the main difference between the two boils down to ride height.
Romaric Lartilleux, PR manager at Toyota Canada, chimes in. “Some people don’t want to be seen driving a minivan, they’re kind of ashamed almost, and by looking more like an SUV it becomes something they’re more happy to own.”
There’s certainly some truth to what Lartilleux says, even if we all agree that driving the right tool for the job—a minivan for moving around a family and all their stuff—isn’t shameful, but rather honorable. It’s a very Japanese way of thinking, and something we heard on the Highlander launch late last year. But as Depenweiller says, “nothing beats [the Sienna] for practicality and space.”
I jump aboard the Platinum model to test the claim. Sure enough there’s more than enough room in either of the first two rows for me. Toyota’s added a more substantial handle aft of the front seats to help not just bigger folks into the back, but children too. The kick-to-open feature from the tailgate now works on the sliding doors as well, with a small symbol on the rocker panel making it clear where to wiggle your foot. Both the doors and the trunk are powered, on all trims. The sliding door opening is roughly the same as before; we couldn’t get exact numbers during our time with the Sienna, but a rough test with some string suggested there’s no loss.
Both Siennas on-hand feature captain’s chairs, providing a clear path to the way-back. I was able to get comfortable in the third row without issue: I have a long torso for someone only 5’10”, and yet my hair wasn’t brushing against the headliner. I couldn’t say the same in the current model there for comparison—though to be fair, that one had a sunroof equipped.
Material quality is noticeably higher in the new model, even given its pre-production status. The current model favored quantity (of space) versus quality, but the fourth-gen model finds the best of both worlds. The upgrade is most noticeable at the front, with an attractive new dash layout and what Toyota is calling a “Bridge Console”. There’s still a big space down by the driver and front passenger’s feet for a purse or laptop, but the center console now extends over it. It allows for easier access to cupholders—one of which doubles as a mobile device holder and wireless charger—and increased storage space. Toyota has stuck to a traditional shifter too, which I’m sure I’m not alone in preferring.
The second row gets most of the best new goodies however. The Platinum features an optional fridge/freezer back there, allowing you to haul ice cream without it melting. How long you can stop the kids from simply devouring it is a whole other question, though. Toyota has also added a vacuum to Sienna, as seen on other rivals. The big difference here is that it’s situated in the second row, where you’re more likely to need it. The middle row now slides up to 25 inches (63.5 cm) fore and aft, and the Limited even comes with available ottomans.
A unique geometric pattern adorns the SofTex seats of the XSE. It’s funky, and it’s convincing enough that I wouldn’t miss the real leather found in the Platinum. If, like me, you love the Glazed Caramel leather of the new Highlander, some bad news: it won’t be making the jump to the Sienna.
We’ve gone this far without diving into it: the Sienna, along with the 2021 Venza, will be available only as a hybrid. Toyota may be most associated with the tech, but the Sienna isn’t the first minivan to offer it; that title goes to the Chrysler Pacifica. When it arrives in dealers later this year, the Sienna will go one better however, offering all-wheel drive. While you can have AWD in the Pacifica, it only comes hooked up to the gas version.
Every one of the 2021 Sienna’s five trims will offer AWD; the Platinum will only come with it. The setup will be familiar to anybody who has spent time with the new Highlander. That boils down to a 2.5-liter four-cylinder paired with two (FWD) or three (AWD) electric motors. No matter whether two or four wheels receive power, they do so from a continuously-variable transmission. Combined power sits at 243 horsepower, which is down roughly 50 ponies over the existing V6 Sienna. However, Toyota is targeting a 33 mpg average fuel economy (7.1 L/100 km), which is the sort of number you expect out of a Corolla.
It’s too early to say, but given my personal experience driving both the V6 and hybrid Highlanders last December, I doubt many will miss the V6 here. Solidifying the new Sienna’s case is it retaining the current model’s 3500-pound (1600 kg) tow rating, regardless of drivetrain.
“We’re targeting one electrified option for every vehicle in our lineup by 2025. So this is part of our strategy,” says Lartilleux when I press him about the Sienna going all-in on hybrid power. “We could have had gas, but we thought it just made more sense to offer hybrid. The price premium now between gas and hybrid is very limited, and when you compare this powertrain to the previous V6 the power is going to be very similar. But when you look at the fuel economy it’s almost half (or twice, in mpg).”
This being a minivan, family safety will be a top priority for buyers. Sienna 4.0 comes with Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, including the full suite of driver assist aids found elsewhere in the lineup. We’re talking dynamic cruise control (with start-stop), automated emergency braking, lane-keep, lane departure assist, and auto high beams (with LEDs). In addition, every Sienna trim features blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.
Toyota’s also bumped the airbag count up to eight. Should the worst happen, a new second-row side airbag setup increases protection for those in the middle of the minivan.
On higher trims, the Highlander’s digital rearview mirror is also available. With the flip of a switch it offers a camera feed from above the rear window.
The Sienna contains the sort of amenities you’ll need for long-distance hauls too. There are no less than seven USB plugs inside, including USB-C. Heated front seats are standard, as is three-zone climate control. The latter expands to four on higher trims. Toyota has stuck to a 120-volt outlet in the back of the 2021 Sienna, but this one is now rated to 1,500 watts.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to drive the new Sienna quite yet. We expect to soon however, and given the improvements the TNGA platform wrought behind the wheel of the 2020 Highlander, we expect a similar jump in refinement and comfort with this. Between the Sienna, the upcoming Kia Sedona, and the refreshed Chrysler Pacifica, the minivan segment is seeing the most action it’s had in a decade. We’re looking forward to seeing how they all fare later this year.