When I drove a Buick Terraza around Berkeley last fall, I was overwhelmed by the sense of occasion that came with it. The car had so much ghetto cachet I almost fell in love with it. It reinforced all of the car enthusiast prejudices I harbored about minivans (i.e., they suck). And for that, I thanked it. The Toyota Sienna, on the other hand, proved to be a bigger challenge. Each time I wanted to hate some aspect of the minivan, I found myself pleasantly surprised. I don't think I'm giving anything away saying right from the outset that the world's most boring carmaker has made the best example of the world's most boring type of car.
The Sienna isn't much of a looker. You'll never associate the van with the insanely hot actress of the same name. Toyota's sensibility signature is stamped all over the vehicle, from its unexceptional one-bar grill to its reasonably-sized badge. Viewed from its side, it's obvious the Sienna pays some heavy tribute to the last generation Dodge Caravan. Bloated-bean styling? Check! Bulbous ass-end? Check! Wheels that look goofily undersized? Check! Check! Check! If non-descript is good, the Sienna is amazing.
The Sienna's interior's Camryness is unavoidable-which, admittedly, is no a bad thing, you know, for a glorified van. [The Camry is, after all, the sedan with the soul of a minivan.] The seats are perfect shaped for protracted posterior positioning. The interior plastics aren't particularly awesome, but they're not particularly Chrysler either. The controls don't snick as much as roll around in imaginary butter, but at least they do what they do, and probably will do for decades.
One gripe: the center stack. No matter what color the cabin, the center stack is unrelenting black. How much would it have cost to fit the Sienna with a matching center stack? All told, though, it's a near-perfect interior for the car buyer who doesn't want to spend too much time getting to know his car's interior.
The test Sienna was equipped with the eight-seating option, whereby the middle row of captain chairs is replaced by a composite bench for three. Full marks for relatively easy way back access. Equally important, even without the power-folding option, the third row folds into the floor with the flick of a wrist. And anyone who disses minivan man doesn't understand the practical value of what is, let's face it, a fancy, big ass panel van with seats.
That's not to say the Sienna is in any way a crude device; the interior is a veritable sanctuary of silence once the Toyota begins rolling. The minivan is unflustered and unflappable, isolating occupants from anything resembling external stimulus. I swear I couldn't tell you the condition of the roads I drove on without stopping, opening the door and looking down. If a fire truck was bearing down on me, the first indication would be in my rear-view mirror.
The Sienna's engine doesn't provide much in the way of stimulus, either. This is, of course, another huge plus. ToMoCo's corporate 266 horsepower 3.5-liter V6 is simply ideal in this application. With 245 ft.-lbs. of smooth, free-flowing torque on tap, the powerplant always has an answer. It never lets the Sienna driver get impatient or frantic or… anything really. Even with four adults aboard.
The Sienna's five-speed automatic gearbox is similarly inconspicuous by its absence. You put it in "D", "P" or "R" as needed and that's the end of it. I repeat: the drivetrain's refinement is literally incredible; it's either pure Zen or automotive monotony, depending on your tastes.
The electronically-assisted steering is a perfect match to the rest of the Sienna's subliminal driving dynamics. You can't help but feel that the minivan's helm is somehow running interference for its "master," surreptitiously autopiloting around road imperfections so as not to interrupt family discussions about what craptastic plastic toys the kids will win at Chuck E. Cheese.
If the Honda Odyssey is the BMW 535i of minivans, the Sienna is the Lexus GS430. The Sienna's chassis is completely dedicated to wafting, not carving. The Sienna plows through curves as you'd expect, but Toyota's designers were thoughtful enough to include anti-roll bars at both ends of the vehicle, which mitigate some of the copious body roll. Coupled with gas-filled shocks at both ends, the Sienna is safe, secure and serene.
Taken as a whole, the Sienna is remarkably unremarkable. It's a minivan whose space, features, power, ride and handling are so unobtrusive they simply disappear. It is, perhaps, the ultimate automotive appliance: an aid to family life that's as indispensable as it is invisible. Other minivans have their relative advantages, but none offer the Toyota Sienna's mind-numbing tranquility. How great is that?