Toyota Sienna — Getting a head start

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Minivan sales are going to rebound.

That’s not our prediction or a proclamation by automotive experts although sales of the people movers have been on the upswing. That’s the prediction of the Japanese Big Three (and Chrysler Group). They are voting with their pocketbooks, betting billions of dollars on the once-healthy segment returning to a semblance of its former glory.

The bets are down as follows:

• Toyota — an all-new Sienna on the market since early 2010
• Honda — an all new 2011 Odyssey, on market since Oct. 1.
• Nissan — an all-new Quest, which left the market after the 2009 model year, being developed for the 2011 model year and made its debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show earlier this month and goes on sale early next year.
• Chrysler – a  heavily refreshed Town & Country and Dodge Caravan for 2011 made public debuts at the Los Angeles Auto Show as well. Both are expected in dealerships before the end of the year.

The Sienna got the leg up in the three-horse race among the Asian manufacturers and initially it has paid off for Toyota.

Sienna saw its sales grow 72 percent in June, backed by a spirited marketing campaign of a rapping middle-class family. Total sales are up 12 percent for the year, giving the Sienna a bigger share of the minivan market, which, based on half-year numbers should be between 650,000 and 700,000.

While Honda sales have been down awaiting the new Odyssey, and Quest sales are non-existent awaiting a new vehicle after the first of the year, Chrysler continues to lead the segment with the Town and Country and Dodge Caravan. Chrysler started the minivan craze in 1983 and has led in sales every year since. Nothing has changed for 2010 as the corporate twins lead the competition by a wide margin. They are expected to retain that position with the new 2011 versions as well.

What have changed are sales which peaked at 1.37 million in 2000. The SUV and more specifically over the last decade, the car-based crossover sport utility, have eroded minivan sales. But nothing can compare to the boxy minivan with easy-access sliding rear doors for passenger and cargo hauling efficiency and Toyota, with a wide array of improvements, is betting with its new Sienna it will attract enough new customers to make its efforts worthwhile.

One of the biggest hurdles is to convince would-be buyers that the minivan is not just “mom's car.” The van’s tarnished image must be polished and the man of the castle must be persuaded to give up his crossover.†In that vein, Toyota has tired to make the Sienna more appealing to all members of the household. While you will not mistake the Sienna for anything other than a minivan, it has an edgier look than the second generation vehicle.

It has decent road manners that more resemble a big crossover than the minivan of old. Toyota says, “(the) third-generation Sienna looks and drives more like a sedan.”

Particularly sedan-like is an SE edition with a sport-tuned suspension and 19-inch wheels. We found on some winding California mountain roads that the SE indeed puts a bit of driving excitement into the mix. Typical minivan body roll was not evident. Granted, this is no sports sedan — far from it — but the Sienna SE we tested felt as solid and well-planted in the twists and turns as a mid-sized crossover. And, the Sienna can be purchased with all-wheel drive for bad-weather confidence.

The Sienna comes in five trim levels and with two engine choices depending on your needs, desires and thickness of pocketbook. For families on a budget, the Sienna starts at $25,070 in 4-cylinder guise, and rises to $40,580 for a Limited V-6 with all-wheel drive.

Toyota has returned a 4-cylinder engine to the minivan lineup for those who want the lowest price and the maximum fuel economy (19 mpg city, 24 mpg highway). It makes 187 horsepower, which would seem adequate for light loads in the more-than-two-ton minivan. But we did not drive the four-banger, so be advised to take a test drive with the minivan loaded the way you would use it in normal situations.

The thing here is that the gas savings is only one mile to the gallon in city driving (no difference on the highway) over the V-6 making the efficiency case pretty weak, but it enables Toyota to use a low price for advertising purposes. We found the 266-horsepower V-6 — standard in the top three trim levels and optional across the board — very attractive. It gave the minivan a true sense of urgency in all driving situations. And while we never carried more than four passengers, we think it will work well under full-load conditions. It’s mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.

Important to minivan owners, the Sienna is extremely quiet at speed — an attribute that Toyota/Lexus has mastered — with a smooth, comfortable ride. The driving position is excellent and seating throughout the cabin is designed for long-distance travel.

The top-line Limited has an optional feature noteworthy to fans of comfort that you won’t find in any competitor. It sold us even though most of the time we are drivers, not passengers.†It may be the best minivan innovation since Chrysler’s Stow 'n Go seats.

Toyota has designed living-room like recliners complete with foot rest for second-row passengers. All that’s necessary to take advantage is to persuade someone else to do the driving allowing you to cruise the streets and freeways in unprecedented style. The seats can be slid back to allow the recliner-like foot rests to go up.

Another intriguing long-distance option is a split-screen monitor rear-entertainment system that allows for two different media — a movie on one side and a video game on the other, for instance.†While we still prefer the two screen format it seems the split screen in gaining some popularity as it is also available in the Honda Odyssey. On the consumer side the screen can also be used for wide screen viewing. On the manufacturers side it is probably less expensive than the separate screen set-up.

As before, the rear-most seats can be stored flat into a well. One thing we’ve liked about the rear well is its ability to hold a lot of cargo when all three rows of seats are in use.

Toyota has made most popular features standard on the $25,000 base minivan, which should interest those on a tight budget. Standard features include 17-inch alloy wheels, full power equipment, dual sliding doors with roll-down windows, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, cruise control and four-speaker audio with CD/MP3 player.

Standard safety is impressive. It includes four-wheel antilock disc brakes, stability control, traction control and a full complement of airbags. Move up one trim to the LE and a rearview camera is included. Our adequately equipped V-6 SE including a $1,545 Preferred Package featuring a power rear door, three-zone automatic climate control, and a complete compliment of tech and entertainment items. With front-wheel drive, standard 19-inch alloy wheels, sport tuned electric power steering and all the comfort and convenience  items you can shake a stick at our test van came in at $33,738 including destination charges.

While Toyota has its hands full with some heady competition it has done a commendable job creating a modern minivan and we feel it will hold its own, gaining share in this once again growing segment.

Base price: $25,070; as driven, $33,738
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Horsepower: 266 @ 6,200 rpm
Torque: 245 foot-pounds @ 4,700 rpm
Drive: all-wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/2/3
Wheelbase: 119.3 inches
Length: 200.2 inches
Curb weight: 4,380 pounds
Turning circle: 36.9 feet
Towing capacity: 3,500 pounds
Luggage capacity: 39.1 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 150 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 20 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 24 mpg highway, 18 mpg city
0-60: 7.9 seconds (
Also consider: Chrysler Town & Country, Honda Odyssey, Kia Sedona

The Good:
• Quiet, well-styled cabin
• Powerful V-6 engine
• Available all-wheel drive

The Bad:
• 4-cylinder option no more fuel efficient than V-6

The Ugly:
• Some options packages are expensive