Revamped people hauler scores with room, styling and performance
To be perfectly honest, most car writers don't look forward to reviewing minivans. Sports cars are fun. Trucks are practical. Sport utility vehicles can be adventurous. But minivans are basically designed just to move people and their possessions from point A to point B.
But fortunately, when I was assigned a 2011 Sienna to test, that's what I had to do - drive myself and a number of other car writers from Portland to Everett for a press event. And the new Toyota minivan was perfect for that assignment, just like it will be for soccer moms and anyone else who needs to haul people and their possessions around on a regular basis.
For starters, the Sienna isn't very mini anymore. First introduced in 1998, it has grown over the years to become one of the largest vans on the road today. That translates into a lot of interior space that Toyota uses well. Drivers and front seat passengers have plenty of shoulder, head and leg room.
So do the second row passengers, whose seats slide back and forth on extended rails. They also have extendable foot rests, like a La-Z-Boy lounger. Room is tight in the third row, of course, but still sufficient for three small children.
Our test model was also equipped with a number of luxury options that made the drive even more relaxing, including plush leather seats and a sumptuous stereo system with satellite radio. It also came with a DVD player for rear seat passengers, although we didn't use it.
Getting in and out of the Sienna was a breeze. The front doors are wide and the side doors automatically slide back with a gentle pull on the handle or the touch of a button. The third row can be reached by walking between the two second row seats, or by sliding them all the way forward. The rear hatch opening is enormous, as is the deep cargo space behind the third row of seats.
Both outside and inside, the 2011 Sienna is remarkably attractive for van. The exterior lines are bold and sweeping. The front end is large and angular, with a low air dam that would look good on a sport sedan. The flanks are sculpted and flow back to a rear end with a European feel. The result is surprisingly sporty-looking for such a large vehicle.
The interior is remarkably upscale for a van. The dash is an asymmetrical mix of high-quality plastics, including a large faux-wood trim piece that sweeps from the passenger door to the center of the console. It is complimented by other trim pieces on the doors and top half of the steering wheel. Though unconventional, all passengers thought the effect was attractive and added a touch of class to the cabin.
The gauges - some elliptical - were easy to read. The air conditioner included large rear seat vents that helped cool the entire interior on our drives from Portland to the near the northern tip of Washington and back. Because the control buttons are arranged around the angular dash design, they were a little confusing at first but made more sense after the first few tries.
Our test model was equipped with the optional 3.5-liter V6 engine. With 266 horsepower on tap, it moved the Sienna briskly through traffic and made freeway passing a breeze. Handling was good, A low growl was occasionally noticeable when accelerating from a stop, but it didn't sound like a problem.
Handling was generally good, although some body roll was noticeable on fast corners - a gentle reminder of how large the Sienna is. The brakes were more than adequate, however.
Driver visibility is excellent, thanks to the high seating position and large front windshield. The front end is so steeply angled that the front fenders are not visible from inside, however, meaning caution needs to be used when driving through traffic and parking. Fortunately, the steering is very precise, making even tricky maneuvers relatively easy.
Our test model also came with the LTD Premium package, which included a backup camera. This is a desirable feature because the Sienna is so long and the view out the back window is partly blocked by the head rests on the rear seats.
The Sienna is the only minivan that is available with all-wheel-drive these days. Our test model was equipped with it, although the weather was so nice, we didn't need it. That isn't always the case in the winter, of course, the additional traction is frequently appreciated.
Toyota has come a long way from its first minivan. Simply called the Toyota Van and introduced in 1984, it featured a four-cylinder motor between the front seats and rear-wheel-drive - not the most space-efficient design in the world, but good for maintaining a low center of gravity. Redesigned as the Previa in 1990, it moved the motor out front for more interior room. Although available with all-wheel-drive and a supercharged V6, the Previa did not sell well, however.
Toyota remedied that with the first Sienna, which debuted in this country 12 years ago. Based on the Camry front-wheel-drive chassis, it soon began outselling practically every other minivan on the market. Two generations later, the 2011 Sienna is an appealing mix of space, styling and performance for young and growing families. It might not be the first choice of car writers, unless they need to move people and their possessions in comfort, too.
Facts and figures
• Model: 2010 Sienna AWD.
• Manufacturer: Toyota.
• Class: Minivan.
• Layout: Front engine, front and all-wheel-drive.
• Style: Five door hatchback.
• Engines: 2.7-liter inline 4 (187 hp, 186 lb-ft torque); 3.5-liter V6 (266 hp, 245 lb-ft torque).
• Transmissions: 6-speed automatic with manual shift mode.
• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 16/22 (as tested).
• Price: Beginning at approximately $26,000 ($44,595 as tested).