Reports of the minivan's death have been greatly exaggerated. Even in a dreadful 2009, the segment managed more than 400,000 sales. That's way down from its heyday but still more than double the volume of, say, the hotly contested luxury compact crossover segment.
That’s why Toyota, although it has led the charge into crossover vehicles, saw no reason to change the formula of the new Sienna for 2011.
“The Sienna is developed for people who see the minivan as the perfect vehicle,” Toyota vice president Bob Carter said at a recent press conference in Southern California.
You’d be forgiven for not instantly noticing the third-generation Sienna’s all-new, CALTY-designed sheetmetal. Unlike most minivan relaunches of late, there’s been no attempt to excise or hide the van’s main attributes: dual sliding doors, a low ride height, and a sloping, easy-to-see-over hood are all present and accounted for.
Under the skin, the biggest addition is the segment’s only four-cylinder engine. The 187-hp, 2.7-liter, which also powers the Venza, nets 26 mpg on the highway, a new best among minivans. Customers can still opt for a 3.5-liter V-6, and both engines are now paired to six-speed automatics. Otherwise, the Sienna is mostly unchanged mechanically, riding on the same 119.3-inch wheelbase and retaining strut-type front and torsion-beam rear suspensions. All-wheel drive is once again an option with the V-6, and it now actively transmits torque to the rear wheels as needed.
Interior advancements -- traditionally the highlight of any minivan redesign -- are mostly evolutionary. The available rear-seat entertainment system can now play two DVDs at once, meaning less fighting over who watches what. Second-row seats fold and slide all the way forward but still don’t fold down into the floor. Removing and carrying them is not hard -- if you can find a place to stow them outside the vehicle, or course. Cargo volume behind the third- and second-row seats is actually down from last year’s van, although total volume is up by about a foot. For drivers, a backup camera is now standard on all but base four-cylinder models. There’s also a designated compartment between the front seats for purses and man bags, so they won’t slide around during aggressive driving.
And, believe it or not, there are situations where you might want to drive the new Sienna aggressively. In an apparent attempt to appeal to younger buyers, Toyota is offering a distinctly sporty, V6-only SE model. It includes firmer dampers, springs, and antiroll bars along with nineteen-inch wheels (seventeen-inch aluminum wheels are standard). Sienna chief engineer Kazuo Mori, a go-kart racer on his own time, adds that he personally took charge of retuning the SE’s electric power steering for better feel and precision. Topping it all off are sporty fender skirts and front and rear fascias that make the van look a bit like a plus-size Mazda 5.
Charging up the Ortega highway, with sharp dropoffs to one side and motorcycles buzzing by on the other, the SE demonstrates remarkably good body control. Some minivan buyers might not appreciate the slight ride penalty, as the stiffer dampening exposes the torsion-beam rear axle’s difficulty articulating over imperfect surfaces. The SE-specific power assist however, is perfect for this application, and it makes us wonder why other Siennas are still saddled with completely lifeless, numb steering.
“The Toyota way,” offers Mori with a wry smile, explaining that some higher-ups still feel that Toyota’s family vehicles should offer pillow-soft rides and finger-light steering.
This oversight aside, all Siennas are pleasant and easy to drive. The new six-speed automatics shift smartly and allow even the 187-hp four-cylinder to keep up with stop-and-go traffic and changing gradients. Ride and road isolation are excellent, and the mostly carryover platform remains commendably stiff, emitting nary a rattle or squeak, even on our preproduction test vehicles.
Overall, the new Sienna doesn’t bring any real innovations, but it remains supremely competent and versatile. That, combined with a promised price drop, should be enough to retain the true believers who wear the soccer-mom badge proudly.