To understand that cars are as much about fashion as they are transportation, one only has to look at the minivan. Back when Chrysler unveiled Caravan and Voyager in the early 80’s they couldn’t make enough of them. Hot as blue jeans in the old USSR. More than just practical, this exciting new kind of vehicle offered buyers a modern escape from the stodgy station wagon. Now ask yourself this - How many friends of yours are wearing Member’s Only jackets these days?
Sales of vans have been in decline for years but even in 2009’s horrible market the industry churned out over 400,000 of them last year. The “mommy mobile” fashion statement they make isn’t exactly Prada (or even Banana Republic for that matter). Why the stigma? Are people ashamed that the public knows they’ve had children? Personally I’m rather proud of mine. Besides, minivans are supremely functional. To own one is to know ultimate freedom.
Toyota believes sales in this segment will pick up as folks rediscover the flexibility to acquire large antiques and refrigerators at will so they’ve built the 3rd generation Sienna. Smart move. Ford, GM and Nissan have abandoned the segment, leaving the pie mostly to Honda, Chrysler and Mr. T. Base V6 models start at $26,300 after destination. A 4-cylinder will be available in the spring beginning at around 25 grand. At 46 large, the top ‘o the line Limited model I’m driving at the San Francisco press launch is the Lexus of minivans.
Generation 3 gets an upgraded wardrobe. Squint and you’ll see elements of Toyota’s swoopy Venza crossover. Integrated door tracks at the base of the rear window keep the look clean (looking at you Honda). Sienna has improved driving dynamics too. More on that in a bit.
Space. The final frontier.
Function is what matters with this genre and Sienna improves on the outgoing version. The exterior is slightly shorter and yet the interior is roomier. The 2nd row has nearly 2 feet of fore and aft travel making the seating arrangement more flexible this go around. Sienna holds 7 or 8 depending on model. Those opting for the 8 seater will find a removable center chair in the middle row that straps into a spot behind the third row when not in use. Installed it looks small and uncomfortable but parking my Levi’s in it, I’m fine.
The seats perform different tricks than Chrysler vans. No, the mid row doesn’t fold into the floor but it does slide right up to the front chairs to free up as much space behind them as possible. They remove but it’s cumbersome. And what if you need them for the return trip? Mid-row chairs in Limited models do a great LA-Z-Boy impression, reclining way back complete with foot rest. Passengers will fight for this seat, guaranteed.
Add popcorn and the DVD entertainment system and Sienna becomes a rolling luxury screening room. The unusually wide LCD monitor that pulls down from the roof has enough real estate to display Cinemascope movies with room to spare or show two different sources if you plug a second video player or game console in.
Entry to the 3rd row is easy, either between the captain’s chairs or through the wide space provided by the easy sliding second row. Space is generous back there too, provided those in row #2 don’t slide all the way back. Toyota is offering a power seat in the second row that reaches outward and down to provide easy entry for the physically impaired.
So glad I’m traveling
I’m on a press launch so no TP trunk test this week. Good for me, bringing 25 packs of bath tissue out of Costco is not fun. I’ll guesstimate that 5 packs will easily fit with the 3rd row usable. Limited Siennas get power split rear seats that kids will play with for hours. Just a warning (you know it’s true). Manual versions easily disappear into the floor much quicker with one fluid motion.
More for the driver, more for the passenger
The interior has a calm feel to it, nice for those days when the children aren’t. Toyota uses an optical illusion to make each of the front occupants feel that they command the lion’s share of the instrument panel. Materials are OK in appearance but hard, almost brittle in feel. The dash mounted coin drawer has a decidedly flimsy feel to it. Base models get black painted trim, SE’s faux carbon fiber, Limiteds sport plastic bark.
Higher trim levels get standard iPod and Bluetooth support. Limited’s keyless ignition automatically unlocks any door the transponder carrier tugs at. Optional on Limited Siennas is radar adaptive cruise control complete with a warning system to alert drivers if they’re closing in on traffic too fast. There are also optional automatic high beams. A panoramic roof is standard with Limited.
Tri-zone climate is standard, it’s automatic on the higher trims. Cave-like storage is provided in the front center console, the back half sliding rearward a good foot and a half it seems. Good for delivering drinks back to the kids and creates a corral of sorts for toy or trash storage. The driver gets knee airbags in addition to the full arsenal of bags expected on vans these days. Hope you’ll never need them.
Power to the 7 or 8 people
Sienna’s get up and go comes from either a 3.5-liter 266 horsepower V6, or, unique in the minivan world, a 2.7L 187 horse 4-cylinder. Transmissions are unique to each engine but both are 6-speeds. The V6 provides Sienna with smooth powerful acceleration across the powerband and it’ll tow 3,500 pounds. EPA rates its fuel economy at 18 city, 24 highway for Limited. Need all-wheel drive? V6 Siennas are the only minivans that have it. The new system is more fuel efficient, kicking in rear power only when needed.
Surprisingly, in everyday driving the pre-production 4-cylinder Sienna has decent power with a good amount of torque off the line (186 ft-lbs to be exact). Put your foot into it and the engine and transmission will certainly tell you it’s working harder than brother 6. FYI, I drove it on slightly undulating roads in San Francisco’s Presidio with one other passenger on board. Those shuttling soccer teams on the hilly streets of Seattle may prefer the bigger engine. At this writing EPA figures for the 4 weren’t available but Toyota says it should get a couple MPGs more than the V6.
Look out Odyssey
For years the go-to minivan for folks wanting some amount of driving fun has been Honda’s Odyssey. Sienna? Generation 2 was a comfy couch, Toyota is not known for sporty driving dynamics. The new edition changes that in two levels. Overall Sienna gets some welcome improvement; reducing body roll and increasing road feel a smidge. It’s no longer the full Novocain experience.
For those forced to trade the Porsche in for family hauling duties, heads up. SEs get more aggressive trim and a sport tuned suspension to back it up. Lowered by an inch, this package makes a noticeable difference with higher steering effort and increased road feel. Sienna’s chief engineer is a go-kart racer. It’s a huge departure for Toyota where SE historically stands for Sportiness Excluded.
It’s all the same, right?
Toyota claims that buyers don’t see a big difference between crossovers and vans like Sienna. Right, and my Nikes are the same as Cole Haans. Women I’ve talked to are acutely aware of what they’re driving. Minivans are tools, not fashion statements. But if they were they’d be the North Face Gore Tex parkas of the automotive world. They go anywhere and do everything. Can the new Sienna close the sales gap with Odyssey and the Chrysler twins? Can its improvements make shoppers look past today’s headlines? Let’s check in this time next year to see if they sell more than 45 thousand, which is last year’s count. In the meantime, check one out if you have a family to haul. It’ll make your life easier and besides, your friends already know you have kids.