The Toyota Sienna remains one of the smartest transportation choices an active family can make. Minivans offer more interior room relative to exterior length than any other type of vehicle, and the Sienna is arguably the best of the breed.
Inside, the Sienna is big and roomy, but it doesn't drive bulky, and it's not hard to park. It's smooth, responsive and quiet, and it's more fuel-efficient than an SUV with comparable space for people and things. In just minutes, the Sienna switches from eight-passenger bus to cavernous cargo hauler, with room for full sheets of plywood, 10-foot ladders, or significantly more of anything else than you can put in most full-size sport utilities. With a standard 3500-pound towing capacity, the Sienna will pull a camper or small watercraft. All-wheel drive is available and it's the best choice for wintry weather, though we've found the front-drive models work just fine for suburbia in the Snow Belt.
The Toyota Sienna is available in a wide range of trim levels, making it accessible to a wide range of buyers. The base CE starts below $25,000 and is still well equipped, with a full complement of power accessories, air conditioning with separate controls front and rear, and a six-speaker CD stereo with a jack for MP3 players. The line-topping Limited approaches $40,000, but comes with leather memory seats, high-intensity headlights, and active cruise control; and offers touch-screen navigation and rear-seat DVD entertainment. All models come with a class-leading V6 and a five-speed automatic transmission.
The Sienna offers flexible seating as well, with a choice of second-row captain's chairs that can be repositioned side-to-side for a more bench-like arrangement; or a three-way split-folding bench featuring a center section that can be moved nearly 13 inches closer to the front seats, for easy access to an infant or toddler. All Siennas are equipped with a standard 60/40 split third row seat that folds flat into the floor.
The Sienna also offers all the important safety equipment, and then some. Front passenger side-impact airbags, full-cabin head protection airbags, and a sophisticated anti-lock brake system are standard. Electronic stability control (called Vehicle Stability Control) is now also standard on all models. An optional rear-view camera helps the driver spot objects or children behind the vehicle when backing up, augmenting an audible park-assist system.
Other Sienna strengths are more subtle and less tangible. Among them: hooks in just the right places and seats that fold with one hand. Almost everything works as you'd expect, without struggle or confusion. In so many ways, Sienna reduces the stress of family transport. We've found its power doors are easier to operate and are more convenient than those on the Honda Odyssey.
For 2008, Toyota has made Vehicle Stability Control, traction control, and four-wheel-disc brakes standard on all models. For 2007, Toyota boosted Sienna's performance with a larger and more powerful V6 engine. We love its impressive acceleration, and the way the new engine adds driving excitement. That's right, driving a minivan can be enjoyable.
The 2008 Toyota Sienna is offered in four trim levels, from relatively inexpensive to true luxury grade. All share a 266-hp 3.5-liter V6 and five-speed automatic transmission. All come configured for seven passengers, though the lower-trim CE and LE models are available with seating for eight. All but the base CE are available with all-wheel drive (AWD).
Still, even the CE ($24,340) comes with nearly all the essentials, including dual-zone (front and rear) air conditioning; power windows, door locks and mirrors; sliding doors on both sides; keyless entry; and AM/FM/CD stereo with six speakers and an auxiliary jack for MP3 players. The upholstery is a vinyl/fabric combo, and the wheels are 16-inch steel with hubcaps. Second-row captain's chairs and a 60/40 Split & Stow third-row bench seat are standard. A second-row three-place bench seat is optional ($150). CE buyers can also add a package ($285) consisting of cruise control and a roof rack.
Sienna LE ($25,865) is the most popular model. It adds nicer cloth fabric, audio controls on the steering wheel, a 6CD changer, cruise control, heated mirrors, a roof rack, privacy glass, illuminated vanity mirrors, an engine immobilizer, a fold-flat front passenger seat, and other features. A second-row bench seat that seats three is optional.
The LE AWD ($29,035) adds Toyota's full-time all-wheel-drive system. Like other all-wheel-drive Siennas, it comes packaged with run-flat tires on 17-inch alloy wheels, daytime running lights (DRLs), and a windshield wiper de-icer. It does not offer eight-passenger seating.
Sienna XLE ($29,525) and XLE AWD ($32,285) are more luxurious, with yet another level of upgraded fabric; standard power sliding side doors and power liftgate; tri-zone automatic climate control (driver, front passenger, and rear compartment); eight-way power adjustable driver's seat; JBL Synthesis 360-watt audio with 10 speakers, 6CD changer, rear seat audio controls, and Bluetooth; an overhead console with trip computer and universal garage-door opener; fog lights; leather-wrapped steering wheel; and more. The front-drive XLE comes with 16-inch alloy wheels.
The Sienna Limited ($35,465) and Limited AWD ($37,665) are equipped like a full-on luxury sedan, adding leather upholstery and features such as Dynamic Laser Cruise Control, a power moonroof, second- and third- row sunshades, high intensity discharge (HID) headlights, heated front seats with memory, front and rear park assist, auto-dimming electrochromic mirrors (inside and driver's side), and side mirrors with puddle lamps and integrated turn signals. The front-drive Limited comes with the 17-inch alloys and DRLs. Power folding for the third row is optional ($750).
A Tow Prep Package comes standard on all models consisting of a heavy-duty fan and radiator, power steering oil cooler, and 150-amp alternator; but a receiver and wiring harness cost extra ($220). DVD entertainment, DVD navigation, rear sonar and camera systems, and many other extras are available, bundled into packages specific to each trim level.
Safety features include frontal airbags, front side-impact airbags and curtain-style airbags designed to provide head protection for outboard passengers in all three rows of seats. All models are also equipped with a tire-pressure monitor and anti-lock brakes (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist, which together help the driver minimize stopping distance and maintain control when braking and swerving to avoid an accident. Toyota's Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) skid-control system with traction control comes standard on all models.
The Toyota Sienna has an imposing presence. Measuring 201 inches front to rear, on a 119-inch wheelbase, the Sienna is almost as long (although not nearly as tall or heavy) as a full-size Chevrolet Tahoe sport-utility vehicle. There's nothing mini about this van, most especially when its big, angular headlights are bearing down on the car ahead at dusk.
The Sienna was developed expressly for the United States, and it's a very American vehicle, regardless of what its brand name might suggest. It was designed in Southern California and engineered in Ann Arbor, Michigan; and it's built in Princeton, Indiana.
We find the basic shape of the Sienna appealing. Sneering grille work and those big headlights create the Sienna's first impression. The taillight clusters are big, too, in the name of visibility and safety. The windshield is huge, but long wipers and wiper-mounted washer nozzles are up to the worst conditions winter in the Snow Belt can dish out.
In side view, the Sienna's profile is clean. The slot for the sliding doors is cleverly hidden. Black window pillars and extensions on the steeply raked windshield lend a sleek appearance, and make the Sienna look even larger than it is. The overall impression of strength is undercut a bit by proportionally small wheels arches, however. That's one reason we like the look of the Sienna Limited best. Its standard 17-inch wheels and lower-profile tires maximize the impact of the small wheel wells, and its extra splash of chrome trim adds a bit of detail to the expanse of painted metal.
A nearly invisible electric element at the bottom of the windshield is available that keeps the wiper blades from freezing to the glass. Power-folding side mirrors are also available, and these feature bright puddle lights that illuminate when the doors are unlocked, both handy features.
If there's one word to describe the Toyota Sienna interior, it's versatile. In a matter of minutes, with little fuss, the Sienna can switch from carrying eight people in reasonable comfort to swallowing full 4X8 sheets of plywood or drywall, securely enclosed and protected from the elements. This flexibility is both the essence and core appeal of a good minivan (assuming, of course, that the minivan is not a chore to drive), and the Sienna delivers in fine style.
This emphasis on versatility shouldn't imply that the Sienna is Spartan or doleful inside, however. Even the base CE model comes with most of the requisite creature comforts, including air conditioning with separate temperature settings front and rear. In a few places, materials in the CE reflect its relatively inexpensive price; but overall fit and finish are first rate. Moving up the Sienna line, the trim and upholstery get richer, and the high-end Limited has luxury features that not so long ago were reserved for very expensive sedans.
Getting in and out is easy, front or rear. Step-in height is about six inches lower than in the typical SUV, nice when you're dressed up or dealing with toddlers or dogs. The manual sliding doors and manual rear hatch on LE and CE models work easily, with minimal effort. But the power doors are a real convenience. The Sienna's power doors are some of the smoothest going, and they open quietly and relatively quickly.
As noted, the trim materials improve as you go up the line. The basic fabric in the CE is fine, but the door panels and inserts suggest a low price. The LE features richer fabric, and the XLE is nicer still. The Limited is upholstered in leather, easy to clean and better for dog hair.
The Sienna driver sits before a smooth, organic dashboard, with a prominent if slightly awkward center stack housing most key switches and controls. The standard trim is dark, lacquered-look plastic, and it looks good. The faux-wood trim in the XLE and Limited looks tacked on.
The seats are comfortable, even for long drives, and the steering wheel tilts and telescopes on all models. Big mirrors and lots of glass give the driver a good view in all directions. The dash-mounted shifter seems unusual at first, and has a bit of a spindly feel. On the other hand, it has a slightly sportier air than a conventional column shifter, and it doesn't block pass-through space between the front seats, as a floor shifter might.
The heating/air conditioning system works well, and it's easy to operate, manual or automatic. The upgrade automatic system features digital temperature readouts and dual front-seat settings. The three temperature zones (driver, passenger, rear) are easy to sync by pressing a button. Switches for the power sliding doors and power rear liftgate are overhead.
Toyota's navigation system is among the best. Its screen is larger than most, and its touch-screen operating system is far superior to the point-and-click systems used by many luxury brands.
The rearview camera is a great feature that you'll get so used to using you'll miss it when you get in cars without it. Shift the Sienna into reverse and a video camera mounted in the rear door automatically displays a wide-angle view behind the vehicle on the navigation screen. The viewing perspective provided by such cameras has improved considerably since their introduction, and in the Sienna it really helps when parallel parking or backing into tight spaces. More important, the rearview camera can help the driver spot small children or obstacles that might be hidden below the rear glass. Shifting into reverse also turns on an outside warning beeper, which sounds like a good thing for crowded parking lots, but could get old and may not be popular with neighbors late at night.
The rearview camera is a nice complement to the optional park-assist system, which sounds a tone inside the vehicle when backing up or pulling forward
The Sienna is a big vehicle, yet it never feels overly bulky and it's never hard to handle or park. It's generally smooth, responsive and quiet, and compared to many family vehicles with comparable functional capability, it's relatively fuel efficient. An owner won't feel guilty or excessive driving it empty for errands. On long trips or school runs, loaded with people or just the driver, the Sienna is always comfortable and pleasant to drive.
The more powerful engine that's been used starting with the 2007 models nudged the Sienna closer to actually being fun. The 3.5-liter V6 features the latest in control and materials technology, including four-cam variable valve timing (Dual VVT-I in Toyota parlance). VVT-i helps reduce emissions and deliver more power without increasing fuel consumption. The 3.5-liter V6 generates 266 horsepower and 245 lb-ft of torque. That gives Sienna class-leading horsepower and puts it near the head of the class for torque.
We never considered previous Siennas underpowered, but the new engine makes it a hot rod among minivans. By the seat of our pants, we'd say that the Toyota is now the quickest accelerating minivan you can buy, bar none, despite its hefty overall weight (more than 4500 pounds for loaded all-wheel-drive models).
Yet the hot-rod quality extends beyond acceleration. The 3.5-liter V6 is so powerful that it responds aggressively, even abruptly, to anything more than a bit of gas. A driver may jerk some heads until he or she gets a bit of practice and adjusts to the throttle response. Moreover, peak torque and particularly peak horsepower come fairly high in the engine's rpm range. We wanted to keep the gas pedal floored well past respectful cruising speeds just to keep the engine pulling toward peak output and to feel maximum acceleration. The V6 remains smooth and relatively quiet all the way to the redline on the tachometer.
Gear ratios in Sienna's five-speed automatic help exploit all that power, and the engine and transmission interact nicely. At steady speeds, the transmission keeps the engine purring at fairly low rpm. Yet if the driver floors the accelerator, the transmission immediately kicks down a gear or two, and holds that gear all the way to the redline before shifting up again smoothly and smartly. A low first gear offers quicker response off the line; the overdrive fifth gear means lower engine speeds when cruising, which translates into less engine noise and better gas mileage. Even the EPA's new and more pessimistic estimates credit the FWD Sienna with 17/23 mpg city/highway; and the AWD model with 17/21.
The same balance of smoothness and response in the engine/transmission package applies to the Sienna's ride and handling. On curving mountain roads in Southern California, the Sienna drives more like a car than a minivan or sport-utility. Its steering is responsive and there's only a little body roll, or lean, when cornering.
Transient response is good, meaning the Sienna can quickly change directions without losing composure. It feels stable at high speeds. The steering is nice and light at low speeds. The Sienna is easy to maneuver through tight parking lots or make U-turns; that's thanks to a turning radius of less than 37 feet, tighter than most minivans.
The ride, too, is generally very comfortable, helped by a long wheelbase that limits chop, or bounce, over recurring pavement joints. On smooth pavement, few will notice any more suspension movement or roughness than one experiences in a typical sedan. On rough pavement, the Sienna's solid rear axle makes its presence known, lacking the sophistication of an independent rear suspension.
Braking is smooth and the brakes perform well. Making big 16-inch wheels standard equipment allowed Toyota to equip Sienna with big disc brakes. It's also equipped with all the latest electronics: anti-lock brakes (ABS) with electronic brake-force dis
If we were choosing one vehicle to fill every transportation role for a large or growing family, it might be a Toyota Sienna. The Sienna is one of the most appealing minivans available. It's among the most powerful yet it's reasonably economical. It's comfortable, responsive and roomy, with flexible seating options and the capability to tow a camper or pick up a big-screen TV. It's up to the rigors of Midwestern winters, even in front-drive trim, a benefit of its active safety features.
J.P. Vettraino reported from Detroit, with Kirk Bell in Chicago.