Conventional wisdom holds that the minivan segment is in an inexorable decline, with families fleeing to trendier -- but less functional -- three-row crossover vehicles. Some may be doing just that, but there’s still a sizeable market out there. In 2008, the top four players -- the Chrysler Town & Country, the Dodge Caravan, the Honda Odyssey, and the Toyota Sienna -- all easily topped 100,000 units (although only the Odyssey was able to reach that mark in the disaster year of 2009).
For a segment that’s often dismissed as boring, the minivan arena is actually seeing quite a bit of action for 2011, as all four of the top models have been either redesigned or significantly updated.
The new Sienna, which went on sale early in 2010, is the first new van to arrive. Seen in person, it looks huge. But in fact it’s really no bigger than the previous model (length is trimmed and width has grown, but each by less than an inch; height and wheelbase are the same as before). My test example gave the impression of extra mass because it’s the SE model, with extended lower side sills and reshaped front and rear fascias that are supposed to make it look planted on the road. Instead, they end up just making a tall, slab-sided vehicle look even larger.
Besides the lower body treatment, the SE also comes with 19-inch wheels, black seats upholstered in sport cloth and vinyl with contrast stitching, bits of carbon-like trim inside, and higher-effort power steering. The higher effort steering is a disappointment, as there’s a lot of friction in the system and the steering can be lazy about self-centering. Notable in its absence is any change in suspension tuning, which remains soft ’n easy. The seats, at least, are quite nice -- much better than the usual grade of cloth. Overall, though, the sporty message here is pretty muddled. And really, the idea of a sport-model minivan seems more than a little incongruous, which is probably why the Sienna is alone in offering such a variant.
Don’t look for any rip-snorting engine under the hood, either. The standard, 3.5-liter V-6 is the same you’ll find elsewhere -- and in the previous Sienna. Its 266 hp and 245 pound-feet are unchanged from before, and in this softly sprung van, are enough to tug the steering wheel in your hands during hard acceleration. Surprisingly, Toyota has added a four-cylinder base engine this year, in the stripper Sienna and the LE. Its 187 horses would seem to be overmatched by the Sienna’s 4275 pounds (in basic trim), and it doesn’t offer any meaningful fuel economy advantage; its 19/24 mpg ratings better the V-6 by only 1 mpg in the city and not at all on the highway. Perhaps that’s why Toyota is alone among the big four to offer a four-banger -- and in fact Toyota did not offer one on the previous Sienna. In happier powertrain news, Toyota does make a six-speed automatic standard across the board, which neither Honda nor Chrysler can say. And Toyota is the last remaining minivan maker to offer all-wheel-drive as an option.
With minivans, the inside story is always the most important one, and the Sienna has several compelling features. Eight-passenger seating is available, made possible by way of a removable seat in between the middle-row captain’s chairs. It’s a small perch, but usable for kids. When removed, it stores in the sidewall of the cargo area. The middle-row seats, which are quite comfortable, slide on extra-long tracks, allowing for prodigious legroom if no one is in the seat behind. Alternately, one can have second-row seats with a La-Z-Boy-style deployable footrest. The three-passenger third row is roomy enough for adults, and also reclines. It folds into the floor in a relatively simple sequence of maneuvers. Behind it is a deep well and a substantial 39 cubic feet of cargo space. In this SE, interior finish was a mixed bag, with the attractive seats and gauge cluster islands of niceness surrounded by acres of hard plastic on the dash and door panels.
The sport variant may be silly, but the Sienna is nonetheless a capable, family-friendly machine. It doesn’t so make a great leap forward compared to the previous model, which could be trouble given that a new Honda Odyssey is heading into dealerships, and Chrysler has announced an upgrade to its offerings. The good news for families is that although some may dismiss minivans, their makers haven’t ignored them.