We just spent a year with a Honda Odyssey, a minivan that the Automobile Magazine staff holds in high regard. The Honda is a two-time All-Star winner. That fact might lead you to believe that the Toyota Sienna is merely playing for second place, but I personally think the Sienna has a handful of qualities that trump the Odyssey's attributes.
The Toyota has a slightly heftier, more natural weight to its steering, thanks to a power assist that is much more linear than what you get in the Honda. Also, the 3.5-liter V-6 is much more lively than Honda's engine, with an impressive power delivery that continues to gain steam all the way to redline. And the ride quality is marginally more supple than that in the Odyssey. All in all, it adds up to a better driving experience than what the Odyssey offers.
The Sienna's isn't necessarily a better minivan experience, though. In the world of family hauling, power curves, steering weight, and even ride quality cede importance to more practical aspects, and the Odyssey excels at interior packaging and accommodating the hectic lifestyle that is implied with minivan ownership. The Sienna's third-row seats fold into the floor, but doing so requires a much clumsier procedure than tugging the single strap in the Odyssey. The navigation controls are too dependent on the simplistic touch screen. The small cubbies and pockets aren't nearly as ubiquitous or as useful as in the Odyssey. If you're a driver who has to own a minivan, however, the trade-offs could very well be worth it.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
The Sienna is the second Toyota I've driven recently whose refined and responsive engine was a pleasant surprise. The four-cylinder in the Camry is really good, but the 3.5-liter V-6 in the Sienna is truly impressive. It's buttery smooth, whisper quiet, and, despite the Sienna's significant 4500-pound curb weight, provides snappy acceleration. Equally praiseworthy is Toyota's six-speed automatic, which shifts quickly and quietly. The steering is also excellent. It doesn't necessarily have more feel than its chief competitor, the Honda Odyssey, but it has a better weight and feels a bit quicker. And the quickness is reinforced by the relatively small size of the wheel.
When it comes to interior appointments, though, the Sienna loses ground to the Odyssey. It suffers from the same questionable style and material quality found in its sedan sibling, the Camry. Its interior layout is also less user-friendly than it could be. The controls are easy to decipher, but because of where the shifter is positioned it becomes a visual barrier between the driver and the main part of the central console. It's easy enough when there's time to really look at the controls but, for instance, it takes some concentration to adjust the HVAC mode while driving.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
Alright, Mr. Tingwall, I'll concede the Sienna holds a slight edge in powertrain subtleties and driving dynamics over the Odyssey. After that, however, the contest isn't even close.
In the Sienna, the winning attributes are most apparent to the hands, feet and seat of the driver. And as long as one's gaze is fixed out the windshield, a new Sienna owner can believe they bought the better van, but the moment one's eyes roam within the cabin, buyer's remorse will set in. The acres of awkwardly textured, sterile gray plastic are pierced only by a few chunks of the least-appealing fake wood in any car at any price. The layout of controls is much better in the Honda, which is based around a master control knob and actual, physical buttons for all functions -- you never need touch a screen. In the Sienna, only the climate controls are operated the old-fashioned way, everything else is piled into the touchscreen. Honda also gets the nod for superior surround sound and stereo performance. Blind-spot warning mirrors are missing on this $40K-plus Sienna, and that seems inexcusable in this segment.
Storage in the front seats is skimpier in the Sienna, with fewer door pockets and cupholders and a smaller, shallower console. Aux and USB jacks are down low and force occupants to lay their phones or iPods on the strange floor tray or string wires up to the console bin and pinch them in the lid. Just put those jacks in the bin where they belong. I will say, however, that I really like the layout of buttons above the mirror for controlling the various door functions, and the action of the power sliding doors is quicker than in the Honda.
Toyota does give you a place to stow the extra second row center seat, which is handy, but the seat itself isn't as nice as the Honda's. The captain's chairs in the second row appear to offer more fore and aft adjustment than in the Odyssey.
All of this isn't to say the Sienna is a poor product -- it's an excellent minivan. It is deservedly popular, and actually comes in a few dollars cheaper than the Odyssey, but, regrettably, it also looks and feels many thousands cheaper than it actually costs. Sooner or later, Toyota will no longer be able to coast on its reputation while offering subpar finishes -- not when the competition has surpassed them in style and aesthetics and closed the gap on reliability.
Matt Tierney, Photographer
When I realized that I had the Sienna for two days, I wished that I had kids or several adults or some large items to move, because the Sienna is all about utility and user-friendliness. Alas, I was in possession of the Sienna on a Wednesday and Thursday, both workdays, and my most heavy-duty chore was a quick trip to the grocery store. As it was, I did look back and admire the copious room in the rear quarters and the easy access to both rows of seats, which would surely be a boon to any minivan owner.
The seating position is quite good for the driver, with nice sightlines helped by cutouts at the front of the A-pillar. The dash-mounted gearshift means that there's more room in the center console for lots of cubbies and storage, but I'm not a fan of the oddly textured plastic that covers the dashboard. It feels and looks too downmarket for a vehicle that costs $40,000. The cutouts in the plastic that show the P, R, N, D of the gearshifter look particularly unfinished.
One might think that driving a minivan would be like sitting in a penalty box, but that's not the case with the Sienna. The 266 hp produced by the 3.5-liter V-6 is probably more than sufficient for most minivan drivers, although I admit that I was driving the Sienna without a full load. Merging onto the freeway was no problem, as the transmission quickly downshifted when I mashed the accelerator and passed the slowly merging traffic in front of me.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
Minivans are fantastically useful vehicles, and I've enjoyed them over many thousands of miles, from the two Chrysler products that my parents owned when I was a kid to various long- and short-term minivans that I've driven for Automobile Magazine. This Toyota Sienna is one of the best that I've driven, particularly when it comes to steering feel and acceleration. However, I have a hard time loving it because of its pug-nose front-end styling, which doesn't appeal to me at all. I also don't like the unattractive wavy-grained plastics on the dashboard and the door panels.
I made use of all eight of the Sienna's seats on a Saturday night as my family of four was joined by four of my in-laws on a trip to dinner at a brew-pub near Albion, Michigan. The impressive powertrain that my colleagues have already praised had no problem moving the fully loaded van. The makeshift "jump seat" that goes in the middle of the second row did the job, but it was very tight and is a vastly inferior solution to the Honda Odyssey's real eighth seat. The third row had the tightest spot (far left), because the LATCH anchors are offset to the left side of the car -- we had one kid in the far-left middle-row spot and one in the way back. Still, it was pretty impressive to have six adults and two baby seats, and we needed only one designated driver. (Speaking of beer, a half-gallon growler fits very nicely in the huge center console.)
The Sienna could be the ultimate long-road-trip car for four adults because the second-row seats can be slid WAY back for business-class-like legroom, and there's still a ton of luggage space behind them, whether you have the third row folded flat or in place.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
I have no kids, but as a homeowner, it always seems I find myself needing to carry either mass quantities of objects, or things far too large for a trunk. The latter was true during my time with the Sienna: Menards had a sale on storm doors, and per my wife's suggestion, I trucked back two of those suckers after hiking my way up to the nearest store (in Lansing, which is some 70 miles from our office).
Rusty is not a fan of the teeny little fold-'em-up center seat, but I appreciated it, especially when it came time to load those two doors which, when shrouded in packaging, are surprisingly long. The outboard seats aren't easily removed, but the inboard section certainly is - and, unlike Honda's center seat, the Sienna provides a spot in the cargo area to secure it when not in use instead of throwing it somewhere in your garage. It's a neat idea, though I think it's executed a little better on the Highlander, where it actually stows within the center console; the same space here is instead used for a pair of flip-down cupholders for rear-seat occupants.
The second-row's ability to slide far aft also struck me as interesting, but I didn't have a chance to be chauffeured around. I spent most my time up front, behind the wheel. The Sienna's cockpit is roomy, airy, and not the least bit claustrophobic, though the materials and plastic grains used could stand some revision. I'm a bit puzzled as to why the audio input and power outlet need to be placed so close to the floor, but I am thankful that the DVD changer and its switchgear aren't lumped in with the audio and infotainment buttons.
The V-6 offers adequate pep, as my colleagues note, but the six-speed automatic is possibly one of the best in its class - it's smoother than the Odyssey's, and it doesn't lag upon throttle lift-off like Chrysler's. Steering feel is surprisingly good, but as my colleagues note, few minivan buyers purchase minivans for such a quality. Perhaps a few would buy a Sienna for one mechanical feature: six-cylinder Sienna models are the only minivans presently sold in North America that offer all-wheel-drive as an option.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor