My in-laws live in an Arkansas county that only received its first traffic light in the late 1990s. So it goes without saying that there’s no major airport nearby. Pay airfare for six then still need to rent a three-row vehicle and drive for a few hours? We simply drive the full 800 miles. Extend the route to include Nashville, Memphis, and Chicago, and could there be a better way to test the redesigned 2011 Toyota Sienna?
Manufacturers are well aware that exterior styling isn’t a high priority for minivan buyers. So with a minivan, designers are generally given a box and told to do what they can with it. In this context, the designers of the 2011 Toyota Sienna did well. Where the previous Sienna suffered from a droopy face and bland styling, the new one looks solid, bold, and even a touch sporty without the bloat that afflicts the current Honda Odyssey. Credit a higher, more horizontal hood, squarer greenhouse, and subtly sculpted bodysides. While not pretty the way the 1990s Chrysler minivans were, the new Sienna stands a much better chance of competing with crossovers. All of this said, hardly anyone over the course of two weeks commented on the new Sienna’s exterior styling.
Inside, the new Toyota Sienna’s designers appear to have enjoyed a bit too much freedom. As in other current Toyotas, the instrument panel appears overstyled, with many details that neither serve a purpose nor meld to form a coherent whole. What’s the point of the swoosh in the instrument cluster, and why is the gear indicator to the left of the speedometer? The shifter is, of course, to the right of the steering wheel. The way the faux wood sweeps across the dash might be interesting if it formed part of a coherent whole. As it is, it joins forces with the shifter to squeeze the HVAC controls into a narrow band that extends far beyond easy reach of the driver. Everything on the right side of the center stack, including the radio-tuning knob, similarly requires the driver to lean well out of position. A protruding center stack as seen in other minivans would greatly improve ergonomics, even if it would cut into perceived roominess.
Much of the IP and door panels are covered with the textured hard plastic that Toyota has been using in everything lately. It looks like hard plastic from ten feet away, feels like hard plastic, and clearly communicates that even with a copious amount of faux timber you’re not in a Lexus. But minivans tend to be abused vehicles, so the hard stuff is more defensible here than elsewhere.
Aside from the IP ergonomics, the 2011 Toyota Sienna’s driving position is excellent. The instrument panel has been raised just enough that you don’t feel like you’ve got nothing ahead of you as you rocket down the highway. It’s still plenty low to provide excellent forward visibility. With a much lower beltline than you’ll find in a crossover, visibility to the sides and rear is about as good as it gets in a vehicle this large. Compared to the Flex we drove last year, the Sienna is much easier to drive on Chicago’s city streets and in crowded parking lots. My wife also found the Sienna surprisingly easy to drive for such a large vehicle.
A rearview monitor helps when backing up. The monitor has both normal and wide-angle views. There could be a situation where the latter provides an advantage, but I didn’t encounter it.
The moderately cushy driver’s seat proved comfortable during 400-plus-mile stints behind the wheel. My lower back isn’t the best lately, but any soreness during this trip was the fault of some overly soft hotel mattresses. The driver’s seat also provides better lateral support than those in some supposed sport sedans. The active headrest does not jut uncomfortably far forward. Too many do these days, and this would have made a long drive unbearable. The perforated leather-wrapped steering wheel deserves special mention. It is unusually comfortable and almost too good for a minivan.
The center console includes a bin large enough to hold a two-liter caffeine supply, camera, and whatever else we cared to chuck in there. The nav system was less accommodating. You must be fully stopped to enter a new destination using the touchscreen, even if the weight sensor for the airbags registers a co-pilot. Want to find lunch while cruising down the highway? Then the tedious voice control system is your only option. A decent portable system is more handy.
The Sienna XLE AWD (tested) and Limited include recliner-style legrests in the second row. Being male, I was eager to try these out—hence the hour my wife spent behind the wheel (for some reason she hates to drive when I’m in the car). My main takeaway from these seats: minivans are going to get even less mini. Like the current Chrysler minivans, the new Sienna could use at least another six inches of length, and ideally a foot, to fully take advantage of its innovative seats. My inseam is only 30 inches, yet I had to sit behind my 5-4 wife AND slide the second-row seat nearly all of the way back AND empty out the map pocket AND remove my shoes to get barely enough room to use the legrest. I could not slide the seat all of the way back, because I had to leave a few inches for my young son’s skinny legs. When the second-row seats are all the way back they press firmly against the third-row bench. So for adults to fully utilize the second row, there cannot be anyone in the third row. Kids in both rows? Then no problem.
I learned other things from my stint in the second row. Relatively low front seats and generously sized windows make it easy to see out, so there’s none of the closed-in feeling you get in some crossovers. The ride isn’t nearly as smooth or quiet back there, no doubt because your inner ear is directly over the rear axle. Also because three kids are very noisy. Would a soundproof partition be too much to ask for? Driving on the shoulder (construction!) induced a repetitive rear end bounce-and-shimmy, which from the second row felt like airliner turbulence. The sunshades don’t cover the last few inches of the side windows, so you can still end up with sun in your face (I did). The rear HVAC controls are mounted far forward in the headliner—they appear to have lost the battle for scarce space along the window header. On the other hand, the rear ceiling vents are located so that my son could too easily reach one and direct it to blow cold air directly onto my sparsely covered scalp. Which was simultaneously cool and totally uncool.
Without the kids (or anyone else in the third row) on a smooth road the second-row lounge seats would be outstanding. You could nap, watch a movie, or even play a video game. The 16-inch screen is essentially a pair of 8-inch screens mounted side-by-side. Each side gets its own screen, but there’s only one player. To use the second screen, attach another player or a game console using the supplied AC outlet and A/V inputs. I almost brought along a Wii, but thanks to my sons’ inability to put things where they belong I couldn’t find one of the two controllers. Probably a good thing—I wouldn’t have wanted arms waving about in the rearview for 2,200 miles. In single-screen mode, the image can be set to various widths and either centered or positioned in the left or right screen. The wireless headphones have two channels.
Even without the second row all of the way back the third row is less roomy than in the previous Sienna, but it is at least higher off the floor that the third row in a crossover. The official specs suggest that legroom across all three rows is down a substantial eight inches compared to the 2010 Sienna. Some of this must be a change in how legroom was measured, but at least part of the decrease is real.
The third row does flop easily into a well to leave a large flat cargo floor. Even without stowing it there was plenty of room for our family’s luggage for two weeks. Stuffing the same amount of luggage into a Ford Flex last year was a challenge. My largest suitcase was swallowed by the subfloor well, which you won’t find in the large GM crossovers. So, aside from their full-size SUVs, GM and Ford no longer offer a vehicle that can compete functionally with the new Sienna.
The new Toyota Sienna is a couple hundred pounds heavier than the old one, yet for the first time is available with a four-cylinder engine, specifically a 187-horsepower 2.7-liter. The four manages a single additional MPG in the city, 19 vs. 18, and ties the 266-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 on the highway with an EPA rating of 24. The price difference is $1,240 on the base model, but only $620 on the LE. It seems Toyota doesn’t want to actually sell many four-cylinder minivans.
The tested Sienna XLE included another 205 pounds of all-wheel-drive handware, for a total of 4,735. Add in six mostly small people and their luggage, and the V6 was motivating 5,500 pounds. Assisted by the smooth six-speed automatic, it performed without strain even when ascending hills with the front and rear A/C blasting. This being very much a minivan, some will pooh-pooh the automatic’s manual-shift feature, but it does aid selecting a lower gear for steep descents and curves. We encountered no snowstorms in the mid-South summer, so I cannot attest to the all-wheel-drive system’s benefits aside from noting an absence of torque steer.
Observed fuel economy ranged from 11 in downtown Chicago to 18 in the suburbs and 21 cruising in the mid-70s on the highway. Jettisoning the kids and luggage and driving mid-60s on rural highways bumped the figure to 24. The EPA suggests that the front-wheel-drive Sienna would go a couple miles farther on each gallon. These figures are similar to those for GM’s and Ford’s large crossovers. They should further improve if and when Toyota fits the six with direct injection.
Even with the regular suspension (the SE model includes a sport suspension) the new Toyota Sienna leans moderately and understeers minimally when helmed through curves. Unlike in the Camry, the electrically-assisted steering isn’t overly light, loads up naturally as the wheel is turned, and even provides a bit of feedback. Add in good grip from the 235/55R18 run-flat tires and excellent forward visibility, and corners can be taken at speed with confidence. Not that all is perfect with the handling—bumps induce some float and bobble in the underdamped rear end, especially if the van isn’t heavily loaded. Ride quality is similarly very good but not perfect. Over most road surfaces the Sienna rides very quietly and smoothly, but over patchy roads the rear end gets a little busy, especially for people in the rear two rows.
Would the SE’s firmer suspension and lower-profile tires help, or hurt? Good question, but I haven’t the answer. Opting for the SE would certainly involve other tradeoffs—many features are only available on the XLE and Limited. If the SE’s steering and suspension tweaks are beneficial, Toyota should consider offering a sport suspension option on the XLE and Limited.
The new Sienna isn’t cheap. The tested XLE AWD with nav and entertainment listed for over $42,000. The most comparable 2010 Sienna listed for about $4,000 less, about half of which can be justified by the 2011s additional features. This being the first model year of the new design, Toyota has dropped last year’s “Extra Value Packages.”
If you want a minivan with all-wheel-drive, then the Sienna is your only option. Drop the all-wheel-drive, and the Honda Odyssey (with a redesigned 2011 coming in the fall) and Chrysler Town & Country are key alternatives. Using TrueDelta.com’s car price comparison tool to configure vans with leather, sunroof, nav, and entertainment indicates that the 2010 Odyssey EX-L lists for $850 less, but that the Toyota includes about $1,600 in additional features, such as the double-wide screen and venting windows in the third row. The 2011 Odyssey will no doubt narrow if not close the feature gap. Even without including rebates the Chrysler is the value play. Comparing list prices it’s about $2,800 less. But invoice-to-invoice the difference is only about a grand. Large crossovers are thousands more than any of these minivans.
After two weeks in the 2011 Toyota Sienna, my family wished we had one for this trip every year. I was the only person with any complaints at all, centered on IP ergonomics and not quite enough room to lounge in the lounge-style second-row seats. Everyone else was surprised and delighted. And yet, even with the bolder exterior, this remains a place my wife and I prefer to visit rather than live. Neither of us can imagine driving a minivan or even a large crossover day-to-day. But then every time we make this trip we’re offered the choice between the road to Success (MO), and a road leading elsewhere, and we always take the latter. For anyone ready, willing, and able to make comfortably transporting five-plus people a top priority, the new Sienna warrants a very close look.
Toyota provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review
Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data