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Quick Take: 2018 Toyota Sienna

Under my skin

Aaron GoldwriterThe Manufacturerphotographer

Testing the 2018 Toyota Sienna has taught me that minivans can be very dangerous things.

I don't mean they are dangerous to drive—heavens, no. Statistically, minivans are among the safest places to be, somewhere between riding in a school bus and holing up in your own basement with a week's supply of provisions and a Netflix membership.

No, the problem with minivans is that they sometimes grow on you. It's a lesson I learned the hard way with the Toyota Sienna.

Among car buffs, minivans are supposed to be disliked, disparaged, and disrespected. Sure, we acknowledge their usefulness; I don't think there's a gearhead alive who denies that the best way to ship your family is in a box. Cubic foot for cubic foot, a minivan does a better job hauling groups of five to seven than pretty much any SUV on the market.

But we aren't supposed to like them.

And yet that's what happened to me when I had the Toyota Sienna, and under rather peculiar circumstances.

It started after my first night with the Sienna. (Er, I meant that I drove the Sienna home for the night. Minds out of the gutter, please.) My first impressions of Toyota's aging minivan were good: The 296-hp V-6 pulls smoothly, the eight-speed automatic shifts seamlessly, the handling is surprisingly responsive, and the ride is steady, quiet and comfortable.

The steering is a bit worse than I expected; it feels overboosted and there's little resistance as you pull it off-center. New for 2018 is standard-fit lane-departure assistance system, part and parcel of the Toyota Safety Sense system which also includes adaptive cruise control, collision mitigation, and automatic high beams. If it thinks you're drifting out of your lane, it will make steering corrections—and the force of those corrections is way out of proportion to the steering's light heft. It makes for an interesting ride down the highway, that's for sure.

Overall, the Sienna was pretty much what I expected: An appliance on wheels. A weapon of mass transportation.

And then the unthinkable happened.

Wednesday. Lunchtime. I perused the list of cars visiting the Automobile office for testing, looking for a suitable ride to my favorite sandwich shop. There was a Jaguar F-Type coupe with the new 2.0T engine. We had a Cadillac CT6 with the new plug-in hybrid drivetrain that I've been eager to try out. The Honda Civic Type R, a favorite from our Four Seasons fleet, was knocking about. There was plenty of good metal to choose from.

And then, out of the blue, a thought crossed my mind, a thought so bone-chillingly horrifying that my fingers are shaking with the very thought of typing it:

I'll just take the Sienna.

The notion was so deplorable, so abhorrent to every fiber of my car-crazy being, that I was stunned—stunned, I tell you!—to the point that I could do nothing but walk, zombie-like, to the waiting mommymobile.

As I cruised to lunch in the Sienna, I tried to think: What was it about this car that had so enamored me?

Let's be honest: Even among minivans, the Sienna is not at the top of its game. Sure, it has lots of nifty features, most of which were on display in our top-of-the-line Limited Premium tester (no, seriously, that's the name of the trim level—not just Limited, not just Premium, but Limited and Premium!). The third-row seat motors down into the luggage well, leaving a nice flat load floor. A split-screen rear-seat entertainment system lets Thing 1 watch a Bluray movie while Thing 2 watches whatever is plugged into the HDMI port. It has second row seats that recline corporate-jet style. It even has a rear sunroof that actually opens.

There are toys for the driver as well. Driver Easy Speak—I'm sure most families will come to know it by my pet name, the Voice of God—amplifies the driver's voice over the rear speakers, making threats to turn this van right around and go straight home extra-effective. And once parked, pressing the camera button shows a 360-degree spin which then pulls out to a top-down view, allowing you to see if you've docked this ship between the lines.

All cool. But worth giving up a ride in a Civic Type R or a Jaguar F-Type? (Okay, maybe the F-Type.)

No. There were other forces at work. Forces beyond my control. Forces too powerful for me to comprehend.

And lest you think I am exaggerating for the sake of the story, I can tell you that whatever the nature of this strange minivan-loving affliction may be, it's contagious.

On Friday, a Nissan GT-R arrived at the office. Executive editor Mac Morrison was on the list to take it home, and I broke the Sienna's grip on my soul just long enough to borrow the hi-po Nissan for lunch. (Er, I drove it to lunch. I did not actually have the GT-R for lunch, although I'm sure it would have given me my daily supply of iron. Oh! Thank you! I'm here all week!) Afterward, I went to Mac's office to give him the key.

"Oh, uh, thanks, but… I was hoping to take the Sienna for the weekend," he said.

"What, the minivan?" I asked, incredulous. This man owns a Porsche.

"Er, yes."

"But you're signed up for the GT-R," I said.

"Well, yes, but I need something, er, different," he said.

"Mac, you're the executive editor of Automobile. Why would you willingly give up the GT-R for a minivan, let alone a Sienna?" I asked.

"Kids," he said.

"You don't have kids," I said.

"Listen, take the [expletive deleted] GT-R keys, get back to your [expletive deleted] cubicle, and stop asking so many [expletive deleted] questions."

Monday morning, I was back in Mac's office to check in with him.

"How was the Sienna?" I asked.

"Oh, it was great!" he bubbled. "It has seats that… er…" A confused look came over his face, which then clouded with annoyance. "It was boring. Of course it was boring. Stupid minivans."

"But you just said—"

"Don't you owe me a Lexus writeup?" he snapped. "Unless you want to spend the rest of your career vacuuming floor mats for Car and Driver, I suggest you finish it. Now."

And back to my desk I went, trying to figure out this ridiculous affection we were developing for the Sienna.

Among minivans, it just doesn't stand out. The Chrysler Pacifica is nicer (and offers a terrific plug-in hybrid system for pollution-free school runs). The Kia Sedona feels more upscale and less van-like. The Honda Odyssey has better steering. Sure, the Sienna is the only one to offer all-wheel-drive, but it's the oldest of this bunch—the current iteration dates back to the 2011 model year—and it's the most expensive at both the bottom and the top of the model range.

But the Sienna does seem to have a strange sort of charisma (or is it swagger?) that the other vans lack. No matter how much you resist it, it's hard not to admire the Sienna, or at least to appreciate it.

I breathed a loud sigh of relief when the Toyota people came to take it away.

The conversations portrayed in this review are works of fiction. Any resemblance to conversations I actually had with Mac Morrison, living or dead, is purely coincidental. That said, that thing about him trading me the GT-R for the Sienna? That really happened.

2018 Toyota Sienna Specifications

PRICE $31,895 (base) / $48,580 (as tested)
ENGINE 3.6 liter 24-valve DOHC V-6/296 hp@6,600 rpm, 263 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 7-8-passenger, front-engine, FWD/AWD minivan
EPA MILEAGE 18-19/24-27 (city/hwy)
L x W x H 200.6 x 78.1 x 68.9-71.3 in
WHEELBASE 119.3 in
WEIGHT 4,430-4,615 lb
0-60 MPH N/A