First Drive: 2011 Toyota Sienna

2011 Toyota Sienna SE

2011 Toyota Sienna SE

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.

2011 Toyota Sienna SE

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.

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