Sneaking up on the Lead
We like to think of the Toyota Sienna as the consumer's ark. Crisp creases and relatively even front and rear overhangs give it a shiplike shape, while an emphasis on safety, security, and entertainment is meant to reassure the driver and keep everyone else occupied through any and all travails.
This isn't to rap the Sienna's performance, though. It's nearly the Odyssey's equal. Toyota's sophisticated and robust 3.3-liter V-6 produces 230 hp and 242 lb-ft, which is sent through a five-speed automatic. Power delivery couldn't be smoother. But premium fuel is required, and the all-wheel drive XLE Limited that we tested has an EPA rating of 18/24 mpg. (The front-wheel-drive model achieves 19/27 mpg.)
As for ride and handling, even though it has humbler suspension components than the Odyssey, Toyota's ark manages to be perfectly civil and gracious; our big complaint concerns the pronounced degree of understeer, which makes the Sienna rather reluctant in the turns. Steering effort rates the lightest of these three minivans yet returns sufficient feel to the driver. While road and engine noise are suppressed almost as well as in the Town & Country, a bit of jangling from plastic pieces sounded through the passenger compartment as we hustled over bumpy back roads.
A wood steering wheel and large sunroof brighten the XLE Limited's drab gray leather interior. The seating for seven or eight is similar to the Odyssey's, with a second row that must be lifted out and a third row that tumbles backward into the well inside the cargo area. Looking ahead to the instrument panel, aluminum trim highlights the pretty display. The center stack (DVD navigation and backup camera are available) positions the radio quite high, but most of these buttons-along with those for the climate controls-are at-a-glance propositions. As in the Odyssey, the sliding side doors feature power windows, but the Sienna goes a step farther by offering roll-away sunscreens in not only the second but also the third row.
The Sienna CE starts at $23,225, the LE is $24,730, and all-wheel drive increases the sticker price to $28,345. The XLE ranges from $29,024 to the Limited AWD's $37,495. Toyota offers all-wheel drive despite a relatively low number of minivan buyers seeking the feature.
The Sienna's true character is represented by the XLE Limited's daytime running lights and the vociferous parking assist that beeps as objects come within range of any corner. The power-sliding side doors and the liftgate beep three times before opening or closing. There are advanced front air bags and front-seat side and three-row curtain air bags; traction and stability control; antilock brakes with brake assist; tire-pressure monitoring; and run-flat tires. This minivan can probably also detect and report a flame left burning under the teakettle.
For the ultimate in convenience and refinement, the classic Town & Country fills the bill with its diabolically clever Stow 'N Go seating. As usual, the Odyssey offers the right combination of size and interior features and packages them with the sportiest engine and suspension. The Sienna intelligently and attractively blends all the crucial elements, manages to satisfy in most every way, and stands out through the availability of all-wheel drive. We prefer the handsome Honda with its eager responses-but wouldn't argue against the purchase of any of these minivans. In fact, we would argue with SUV intenders that one of these three paragons of automotive efficiency most bounteously meets their real-world needs.