Minivans are wonderful for families, no other vehicle is more practical.
But in saying that, I know I’ve scared off at least a sizeable portion of my readers. Hear me out, Toyota’s Sienna is a fine people and cargo hauler and get this, it offers all-wheel-drive. It’s the only minivan that still does, so is perfect for wintery Wisconsin.
My test van was a handsome Sky Blue Pearl, a silvery blue, Sienna XLE Premium with AWD. It seats seven with captain’s chairs in the front and middle rows, and by that I mean the individual seats feature fold-down armrests. The split bench in back will seat three and folds neatly down into the van’s cavernous cargo area to create a flat floor.
Lower both seats, a manual operation here, and then fold the two center seats and you’ve got 150 cubic feet of cargo area, much larger than a pickup’s bed. Oh, and it’s enclosed so you can haul stuff even when it’s raining and snowing.
This model also features a power hatch, so with the push of a button on the key fob or dash, the hatch powers up, or down. Hatches, by the way, are great for protecting a person loading or unloading in bad weather.
Not sold yet?
OK, for young families there’s the benefit of power sliding side doors, on both sides. Got a load of stuff AND a couple of wee ones to strap into a car seat? Press the button as you approach and then let them crawl in by themselves. Now you can put down the diaper bag, groceries or other kid gear and step into the van to strap them in. Again, if it’s inclement you’re out of the muck. Also, it’s easier to latch a kid in a car seat when you’re not trying to reach over their squirming selves.
Need more to like?
The Sienna has a fold-down mirror where you also can store your sunglasses in a roof compartment above the rearview mirror. Now you can spy on the kids, or bad-influence grandparents, in back to control their shenanigans.
Naturally the test van was loaded, and that included a 16.4-inch fold-down screen for the rear seats’ occupants to stare at on a long trip. Controls are up front for mom and dad to monitor. Oh, there’s climate controls and air vents in back so the kiddos will be comfortable, so no worries there.
Parental units also will be comfy with dual climate controls and rheostat-controlled heated front seats that allow a wide range of control, not just two or three settings.
Safety also is a concern, particularly in a family-oriented vehicle. Sienna has 8 airbags, traction and stability control and disc brakes all around. The AWD provides traction to the wheels needing it most. I encountered a couple slippery wet days of testing and the wheels never lost grip. There’s also a cool little graphic on the dash that will show you exactly where the power is being applied, if you’re curious.
I like the blind-spot warning system, rearview camera and parking sensors in the XLE Premium too.
Other pluses include a power sunroof, well laid out dash and easy-to-use touchscreen for the radio and navigation systems. The trip computer is digital between the main dash gauges and there are big buttons and knobs on the center stack that are within quick reach and are well labeled. That stack juts out from mid-dash, which is fine, except for the large gearshift lever. It sticks up fairly close to the steering wheel and I found myself hitting it when I reached for the windshield wiper lever that’s to the wheel’s right. It’s an odd placement and I feel Toyota should consider push button shifting if it continues with the jutting center stack control pod.
There’s a manual tilt/telescope steering wheel here too, with the usual radio, phone and trip computer buttons on the hub. Cruise control is a stalk behind the wheel, which seems old school now.
Likewise the plastic trim on this otherwise attractive dark gray over light gray dash and doors. It looks dated and feels inexpensive, considering the van’s cost. More on that in a moment.
Toyota’s gray leather seats are soft and supple and mildly contoured.
The second row captain’s chairs’ bottom cushions do angle back fairly severely, the front edge sticking up high and the back end down low, sort of like bucket seats.
Driving dynamics are exactly what you’d expect in a minivan.
Toyota’s 266-horse 3.5-liter V6 is plenty strong to haul the 4,705-lb. van and occupants to highway speeds. Shifting from the six-speed automatic is fairly smooth too. If you’re wondering about Honda’s Odyssey minivan, it has 248 horses, but a torque rating of 250 compared to the Sienna’s 245. So a touch more oomph from the Honda, but these two are about as evenly matched for power as any competitors today.
Ride is generally comfortable, the long 119-inch wheelbase and a retuned suspension helping there. The more people and gear on board, the smoother the ride seems.
While generally the wind noise is mild, there is considerable buffeting noise, sort of an echo-like sound in back that you get with many vans. It’s especially noticeable when the third row seats are stowed.
Steering remains vague, but moderately light. Some feel this is desirable in a van where wind can push it around a bit on the freeway, but I’d prefer more direct steering. And because of the van’s weight, it sometimes feels that it’s lumbering down the road, especially in city driving.
Speaking of which, I got 19.5 mpg in about 50% city and 50% highway driving. That makes sense as the EPA rates this at 16 mpg city and 23 highway. If you prefer the front-drive model it’s rated at 18 mpg city and 25 highway.
Which brings us to price. The tested Sienna lists at $40,555, plus an $885 delivery fee. This one added $330 worth of carpeted floor mats to end up at $41,770. That seems steep for a family hauler, but the Sienna XLE Premium is fairly loaded and does give you AWD. A base 2WD L model with the same engine and mechanicals starts at a more reasonable $29,485, including delivery. A Limited Premium model with AWD tops 16 trim choices at $47,035 including delivery.
Bottom line is that if you need a minivan to haul a large family, Sienna is a solid choice and to be honest, there aren’t more than a handful of minivans to choose from anymore as sport-utility trucks, which often only seat five, have taken over the market. Moving to an SUV that seats 7, or 8, can cost much more than a minivan, especially if you can refrain from a luxury trim level.
Minivans, still family friendly and practical. But you knew that!
Hits: Comfortable ride has good power and AWD. Roomy interior, seats 7, big cargo well, third row seats fold into floor, heated front seats, power sliding side doors and hatch, blind-spot warning, rearview camera, sunroof and video screen for rear seats.
Misses: Vague steering with lumbering wagon feel and noisy interior especially with third row seats down. Gray plastic on doors and parts of dash look cheap and shift lever is awkward sticking from dash’s stack that juts out mid-dash.
Made in: Princeton, Ind.
Engine: 3.5-liter VVT-i V6, 266 hp
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Weight: 4,705 lbs.
Wheelbase: 119.3 in.
Length: 200.2 in.
Cargo: 150.0 cu.ft., max.)
MPG: 19.5 (tested)
Base Price: $40,555
Dealer’s Price: $38,195 (includes delivery)
Carpeted floor mats, $330
Test vehicle: $41,770
Sources: Toyota, www.kbb.com
Photos: Mark Savage