As a child of the minivan era, I've always respected these vehicles for their excellent versatility. To wit, I used the Sienna to pick up a new dining table and six chairs, still boxed, and the Toyota swallowed all contents fairly easily and without having to fold the middle-row seats (which can't fold down into the floor anyway). Once I unloaded the furniture, I marveled at how far the middle seats can slide back and forth. Minivans are ideal for families with children, but if four dads wanted to get away for a long road trip, the Sienna would excel in that application, too. The guys in the middle row can slide their seats all the way back for truly limousine-like legroom, still leaving plenty o room in the way back for luggage. Even better, the middle captain's chairs have La-Z-Boy-style footrests, so the guys in back (especially if they're five-foot-six or shorter) can get some solid business-class-style sleep while the other pair drives and navigates. The Sienna's occupants might not feel very cool, but they'd certainly be comfortable.
I signed out Toyota's new swagger wagon to drive a handful of twenty-something friends down to Detroit for a Tigers baseball game. It may not make a style statement, but the Sienna had them totally impressed with the backseat comfort and entertainment options. I grew up riding in the back of minivans (my parents owned at least four Mercury Villagers) and it was well established that your parents' van wasn't cool unless it had rear heat and/or audio controls. My Detroit-bound cadre was seriously wowed by the reclining second row and widescreen television. I should note, though, that Toyota's lawyers have a warning that says you shouldn't use the ottomans when the vehicle is in motion. Yeah right.
As far as driving goes, the powertrain is robust, the six-speed automatic is polished, the chassis is composed, and the steering is okay. My main gripe is that you can't fold the seatbacks of the second row to for hauling. You either have to deal with them in place or remove them completely.
Nothing comes close to a real minivan for successfully combining people comfort and cargo carrying ability but, as evidenced by General Motors and Ford dropping their minivan offerings, most Americans think that the uncoolness of minivans outweighs their utility. I guess I'm not most Americans because I'm not the least bit embarrassed or apologetic about my fondness for the minivan and after driving the Toyota Sienna for a weekend I can see why it's one of the segment leaders.
Around town, the Sienna is smooth, quiet, and comfortable. To me, the 3.5-liter V-6 seems like overkill, but I'm guessing it's necessary once all the seats are full and the cargo area is loaded to capacity. Unfortunately, the interior is a bit of a disappointment in this new Sienna. It looks nice from a distance but get a little closer and most surfaces look and feel plasticky, though most of the controls-radio, nav, and HVAC-feel nice and have a good weight to them.
The rearmost seats are a cinch to flip down into the floor and the sliding second row seats move forward enough to make the cargo area cavernous. But I did notice a few negatives. Because the headrests are fixed, the flipped down third row seats don't create a continuous, even surface. This made it difficult for me to slide large, heavy boxes across the cargo floor. Another problem is what to do with the shoulder belt for the 1/3 rear seat when it's stowed. I couldn't find a place to secure it out of the way so I had to work around it when loading.
Last week, the staff of Automobile Magazine gathered up our current crop of test cars and spent an afternoon driving them on a back-road route from Ann Arbor to Kalamazoo. We switched cars every 25 miles or so, giving everyone a chance to drive several cars in one day. The Toyota Sienna was my ride for the first stint - one of my co-workers saw me climb in and mentioned that it looked like I'd drawn the short straw, seeing as the rest of the group were driving cars like the Audi S4, the Mercedes E350 cabriolet, and the Acura TL SH-AWD.
I have to say, however, that it didn't really feel like I'd been shortchanged. On winding Huron River Drive, the Sienna handled quite well for a vehicle with a high center of gravity. Body roll wasn't excessive, the suspension absorbed pavement irregularities, and the engine had adequate power to keep up with the rest of the group.
In the cabin, the driving position is nice and high, the gearshift lever on the instrument panel means there's more room in the center console for storage, and the rear seats are very passenger friendly, with a reclining option that includes a stowable footrest. One unfortunate detail was the textured plastic on the dash, which both looked and felt downmarket for a vehicle in this price range.
A Sienna? Stylish? Considering Toyota's minivan has always erred on the side of dowdy, it's an amazing feat. I know some consumers balk at the sight of sliding rear doors, but designers have done a great job of injecting some pizzaz into this third-generation model. In fact, I'd argue it's almost more attractive than the Venza crossover, which seems to have inspired a number of features on this minivan (including the unfortunate dash texture Amy mentions).
Granted, this full-tilt XLE trim does include a number of accoutrements, but the Sienna itself seems like a solid choice among minivans. The 3.5-liter V-6 provides adequate muscle, and the throttle response and transmission calibration provide a prompt downshift when you're really searching for power.
I love the idea of the sliding second-row bucket seats for when you carry adults - not children - in the second row, but as Eric notes, they don't flip, fold, or tumble to make way for cargo. Short of removing the seats altogether, your only option is to push the seat backs as far forward as possible, until they virtually touch the front seats.
2011 Toyota Sienna XLE
Base price (with destination): $35,315
Price as tested: $42,211
6-speed automatic transmission
Active torque control AWD system
4-wheel disc brakes
VSC with TRAC, ABS and brake assist
Dual power sliding side doors
Power tilt/slide moonroof
Heated front seats
Tri-zone climate control
AM/FM/MP3 CD player with 6 speakers
Options on this vehicle:
XLE premium package -- $6225
Dual view entertainment center
Voice-activated touch screen
Navigation system with backup camera
JBL AM/FM/MP3 4-disc CD changer
XM satellite radio
USB power with iPod connector
Push button start
Carpet floor mats/door sill protector -- $324
Roof rack cross bars -- $185
Wireless headphones -- $82
Cargo net -- $51
First aid kit -- $29
Key options not on vehicle:
Sienna Limited -- $7755
Rear seat entertainment -- $1999
Remote engine start -- $529
16 / 22 / 18 mpg
Size: 3.5L DOHC VVT-i V-6
Horsepower: 266 hp @ 6200 rpm
Torque: 245 lb-ft @ 4700 rpm
Curb weight: 4735 lb
18-inch aluminum wheels
235/55R18 Bridgestone Turanza all-season tires