Even though I'm your Guide to Minivans, I don't have a minivan lifestyle. I don't have kids or grandkids, and though I'm happily married, I'm kind of a loner. But I really love minivans, and my favorites have always been Toyota minivans. So, when the chance to drive the redesigned Toyota Sienna minivan arose, I leapt at the opportunity. The 2011 Toyota Sienna XLE AWD carries a base price of $34,515 ($41,997 as tested), with a 3 year/36,000 mile basic warranty, a 5 year/60,000 mile powertrain warranty and EPA fuel economy estimates of 16 city/22 highway. Let's drive.
Toyota didn't invent the minivan, but they certainly pushed it forward. From the first Toyota Van (1983 - 1989) to the ill-fated Previa (1990 - 2000) to the first two generations of Sienna (1998 - 2003, 2003 - 2010), Toyota vans were innovative in design, motivation and use of interior space. I think that the mid-engine Previa was the best-driving van ever built, and the 1986 Cargo Van that I owned was incredibly durable, efficient and even fun-to-drive. Sienna's more conventional front engine/front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive layout has been more widely accepted. But sales have drooped in the past couple of years, and it was time for a new Sienna to hit the scene.
All new for 2011, the Toyota Sienna is very close in size to the second-generation Sienna, but it looks sleeker and more modern than before. It is still a two-box design, with one box housing the passenger compartment and the other housing the engine in the front. But the boxes have taken on a bit more slanted, rounded wind-swept shape than before, along with echoes of the very modern-looking Toyota Camry with which it shares a platform. Park a Camry and a Sienna next to each other, and it's easy to spot the family resemblances. Love it or hate it, Sienna is not bland. I happen to be well on the way to loving it.
In the Driver’s Seat
Behind the wheel is where Toyota minivans have always been a little better than the rest for me, and this new Sienna continues the tradition. The driving position is more SUV than school bus. I don't love the dash-mounted shifter on any minivan, but I get it. It frees up center console space, and eliminates the transmission tunnel that would make modularity more of a challenge. At least Sienna's shifter isn't in conflict with the steering wheel, as it is on some other minivans.
The driver's seat in Sienna is control central, and there are a few nifty touches that make the experience even better. In particular, I like the small screen at the top center of the dash that gives climate control info, time and external temp. Nice touch. My test vehicle was equipped with the whopping $6,225 XLE Premium Package, which included touch-screen DVD navigation, dual view entertainment center, Bluetooth audio streaming, iPod connectivity, keyless remote with push button start and more. Power leather seating for the driver, power seating for the front seat passenger, heated front seats and a 60/40 split and stow third row were standard, not optional, with the XLE trim level. So was the pair of awesome lounge chairs in the second row, complete with La-Z-Boy-style pop up footrests. I'll bet some big family battles will be waged over the rights to those two perches.
On the Road
Which brings us to the Sienna's biggest strength: Driving dynamics. It starts with a very willing engine, the 3.5-liter V6 that produces 265 hp and 245 lb-ft of torque. Base Siennas can be ordered with a 2.7-liter inline four-cylinder engine, but 187 hp and 186 lb-ft of torque isn't enough for the Sienna, which can weigh from 4,275 - 4,750 lbs, depending on equipment. My test vehicle's V6, along with its standard 6-speed automatic transmission and optional all-wheel drive, delivered sprightly performance. And the MacPherson strut independent front suspension/torsion beam rear suspension combined with stabilizer bars front and rear made for a very controlled, comfortable ride. Sienna's center of gravity is sufficiently low that whipping through snaky passes is almost fun, without the stomach-churning sway and roll that some other minivans produce (I'm talking to you, Dodge Grand Caravan!).
Sienna passes the parking lot test with flying colors, with a tight 36.9' turning circle, compliant shocks and decent (6.2" - 6.7") ground clearance to step over speed humps. Cargo space is extremely generous and flexible, with 39.1 cubic feet of luggage space, 87.1 cubic feet behind the second row with the third row stowed, and a cavernous 150.0 cubic feet if you remove the second row entirely.
Even though I don't have a minivan lifestyle, after a week in the new Sienna, I found myself thinking, "Hey, I could really use this minivan." Taking passengers for a ride was a pleasure, and everyone raved about their comfort. The exterior went a step beyond inoffensive all the way to almost cool, and I actually had fun behind the wheel. I got a slight case of sticker shock at $41,997 as tested, and I would probably seek out a Sienna without the complete package of options. I'd skip the rear-seat entertainment system, because it is expensive and because it blocks the view from the rear-view mirror when it is folded down from the roof. I'd knock off as many of the passenger amenities as possible, while still keeping the driver's seat as a control center. Yes, that's how I roll.
If you're considering a new Sienna, you should definitely hang on a bit, and wait to see how the new Honda Odyssey turns out when it gets redesigned for 2011. The previous generation Odyssey was the sales leader, and I expect Honda to make that minivan even better for its next generation. You should also take a look at the Chrysler Town & Country and the Kia Sedona. And check out the mid-size crossover vehicles, like the Mazda CX-9, Ford Flex and GMC Acadia, which approach a minivan's level of convenience with a more car-like ride.
The 2011 Toyota Sienna is my benchmark minivan for now. I look forward to seeing what everyone else does, as the minivan hits its stride for 2011.