The first Toyota Sienna was perfectly nice and perfectly forgettable, but after its redesign for 2004, the Sienna stepped forth with some personality. This time the bubbly shape got much-needed creases, the engine snapped to attention, and the interior warmed up. Meanwhile, most every important minivan parameter was met. The Sienna still has a ways to go in exterior and interior appearance, but it's not bad. We rather enjoyed testing the 2005 version.
The Sienna CE, a seven-passenger hauler weighing 4120 pounds, starts at $23,225. The chassis-shared with all other models-has a wheelbase of 119.3 inches. The body's overall length is 200.0 inches, and total cargo volume with both rows of rear seats eliminated is 148.9 cubic feet. A 3.3-liter V-6 motivates this and every other Sienna. The highly sophisticated DOHC engine employs Toyota's VVT-i technology for variable valve openings; it generates 230 hp and 242 lb-ft of torque. As we say, most every parameter is met, and these figures place the Sienna high in the minivan category. There's a five-speed automatic transmission with a gated shift that's well placed in the center stack. A graphic on the instrument panel replicates the clever shift pattern. The powertrain provides brisk acceleration, hyperalert downshifts, and creamy smooth operation. EPA fuel economy is 19/27 mpg for front-wheel and 18/24 mpg for all-wheel-drive models. One drawback: unleaded premium fuel is required. For safety's sake, the CE features advanced front air bags and impact beams in all side doors, but stability control and side air bags are unavailable.
The Sienna LE ($24,730) also seats seven. There's also an eight-passenger version ($24,880) and an all-wheel-drive, seven-passenger version ($28,345). The LE adds such luxury and convenience features as power sliding side doors, ten-speaker sound from a six-disk CD changer, rear DVD entertainment with two wireless headphones, and a rear 115-volt outlet with jacks for video games. The LE has available side and head curtain air bags and traction and stability control, standard on the all-wheel-drive model and optional otherwise.
As you move up in the model line, the options packages get ever more redundant and confusing. With the XLE ($35,295), look for a large sunroof, heated front seats, leather trim throughout, and touch-screen DVD-based navigation system sharing screen time with live reports from the backup camera. So much parking assistance is built into every corner, four traffic cops couldn't do more for you. It seems as if everything about the Sienna is metered, measured, and monitored. You learn to tune it out, like the overeager smoke alarm that always squawks when the kitchen is used.
We tested the XLE Limited ($37,495). Woodgrain accents and a wood steering wheel relieved its dismal gray interior. The aluminum-trimmed instruments also provided bright spots. Because of how dramatically the hood drops away, you see nothing beyond the cowl and really get the feeling you're at the helm of a bubble (or maybe Jane Fonda's spaceship in Barbarella.) Although the ergonomics are generally good, the steering wheel obscures master switches for power sliding door and tailgate operation, and to the right, the radio is oddly placed atop the center stack where you must reach up to get at it. But the clearly marked controls are easy to learn. One touch down and up for the driver's window is appreciated. Trying to be a girl Friday, the removable center console's lid flips over to double as a clipboard. Panel fits and material quality aren't up to the high bar Toyota set a decade ago, but only the most interior-neurotic among us have trouble forgiving Toyota's stark cost cutting. The gathered pleather on the door panels is particularly unconvincing, but overall the interior is much like the rest of the Sienna: inoffensive and functional.
In the second row, passenger assist handles are integrated into overhead, outboard modules along with reading lamps and air vents. Bag hooks and map pockets are included on the backs of the first-row seats. (Bag hooks are also found behind the third row.) Caution must be used when stepping through the sliding door while the DVD screen is in the down position, for it's easy to bump your head. Power windows in the sliding doors are a welcome feature, and sun shades here and in the third row shield occupants. The naughty pups that are the second-row seats struggle when you try to take them out, but the split-folding third row is as easy as Madeleine Kahn in Young Frankenstein. Three chirps sound to let you and the neighbors know when the power tailgate rises and drops.
Although the V-6 engine is quite vivacious, no one besides the driver will notice this or anything else about the way the Sienna drives. It's meant to shroud (if not to numb) everyone from the outer world. While there is never any jostling, the feather-light, power rack-and-pinion steering and the strut-front and torsion-beam rear suspension do collaborate to keep the driver involved. The AWD version we tested exhibited pronounced understeer, as if we were trying to direct France into Iraq. Plastic pieces in the interior jangled on our bumpy roads, but those wireless headphones shielded second-row passengers from any inconvenience.
What distinguishes the Sienna XLE AWD from the competition? The answer is found when you look up through the extra-large sunroof or raise the third-row sunshade. Or when you back out of a parking spot or swing into one: no minivan will raise more of a protective clamor. The optional all-wheel drive-a plus in the tougher climate zones-is another distinguishing factor. But generally speaking, this minivan meets the category's broadest parameters without in any way exceeding them. It pleases in most every way, neither shocking nor spooking, and always provides an aura of safety and security. Yes, we see the appeal.