Sienna puts Toyota in competitive position with Honda Odyssey

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Toyota officials left no doubt about their target for the all-new Toyota Sienna minivan when it was introduced late in 2003 as a 2004 model.

The bullseye was affixed squarely on the Honda Odyssey. Since the new Odyssey arrived for the 1999 model year, it has been a sales success and it has been the darling of the automotive media.

For example,’s introduction of the Odyssey in 1999 glowingly stated, “This is the best-engineered, most well-planned minivan ever.” Could there be higher praise?

Perhaps higher praise is due the Toyota engineers, led by chief engineer Yuji Yokoya, the mastermind of the new Sienna. Yokoya drove the previous generation Sienna and several competing minivans 53,000 miles across Canada, the United States and Mexico to determine in real-world situations what was right and wrong with the current crop of people movers.

The result is a minivan that, indeed, vaulted Toyota ahead of the vaunted Honda in the shrinking minivan segment in 2004.

Toyota’s sales went up dramatically to 159,119 in 2004 from 105,499 in 2003. At the same time, Odyssey sales remained flat with 154,238 sold in 2004 compared to 154,063 in 2003. Both vehicles trailed the Dodge Caravan.

As good as the Sienna is, and it’s very good, as we can attest to after a week behind the wheel of a loaded XLE all-wheel drive model, but catching the leaders and staying ahead are two different things and like all competitive ventures the targets always seem to be moving, so all bets are off for the 2005 model year because Honda has put an all-new Odyssey in showrooms and through February it holds a narrow margin over Sienna; however, the Caravan and the Town & Country continue to have a stranglehold on the top spot two spots at least for the first two months of the year. It should be noted that only the Odyssey is up year over year. So goes the horse race.

Toyota unabashedly took the best from the previous Odyssey as well as other competitors such as the sales-leading Chrysler and the Ford Freestar.
The new Sienna is bigger and handles better and has more power, a shorter turning radius and more useable features than the old Sienna.

The overriding concern for Yokoya and Toyota was size and horsepower. Those concerns have been addressed. The new minivan is four inches wider, six inches longer and rides on a five-inch longer wheelbase. It now has more interior room than a Dodge Grand Caravan.

An all-new 3.3-liter 24-valve V-6 generating 230 horsepower and 242 pound-feet of torque replaces a 3.0-liter 210-horsepower V-6.

Although Sienna has 25 fewer horses than the 2005 Odyssey, performance times for the two competitors as published by Motor Trend magazine are close to dead even.
The Sienna will move from 0 to 60 in 8.7 seconds with a quarter mile time of 16.5 seconds at 83.6 miles per hour. Published time for the ‘05 Odyssey is 8.6 seconds and 16.4 seconds at 84.6 miles per hour in the quarter.

Although some people may consider these figures meaningless they show that the Toyota and Honda have essentially equal ability to transport a full load of people and cargo with confidence in all driving situations.

Toyota holds an edge with all-wheel drive capability. And Toyota’s base all-wheel drive Sienna XLE comes in at a very reasonable $32,230. You can’t buy an all-wheel drive Odyssey at any price. Honda elected not to offer it in 2005.
Toyota’s engine is rated as a Level II Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle, which makes it one of the cleanest burning gasoline engines in America.

The Sienna comes in four trim levels, base CE starting at $23,790, the popular LE starting at $25,295, the upscale XLE starting at $29,590 and XLE Limited, which company officials call the Lexus of minivans, starting at $35,860.

The all-wheel drive system can be added to the XLE and XLE Limited.

Families on a tight budget can purchase the CE with such standard equipment as the 230-horsepower V-6, 5-speed automatic transmission, power windows and doorlocks, air conditioning, antilock brakes with electronic Brakeforce distribution, keyless entry and a stereo with cassette and CD player.

Innovations Yokoya and his band of engineers commandeered from the competition include: A fold-into-the-floor third-row seat, a feature pioneered by Odyssey and now also found in other minivans including the new Mazda MPV, Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Freestar. Toyota has taken the disappearing seat one step further, splitting it 60-40 so part of it can be used by a passenger and part of it stowed; A power tailgate option, a feature first used two years ago year on Chrysler minivans; Roll-down windows on the sliding doors to allow kids to get some fresh air, a feature first used by Mazda; A center console that can be moved from the front seats to the second row, a feature developed by Chrysler a few years ago; A fold-down mirror that allows the driver to keep an eye on rowdy rear-seat passengers, a neat little feature first used in the Ford Windstar; and like the Odyssey, the Sienna has second-row captain’s chairs that can be separated by a center aisle or can be moved together to form a bench seat.

In CE or LE grade, the Sienna is a well-outfitted family hauler at a respectable price. But if you want to take the new Sienna to the limit in the Limited trim level, it can be turned into a luxury minivan rivaling the top-of-the-line Chrysler Town & Country.

We spent an hour inside a XLE model in a reclining second-row leather-clad seat watching “Kill Bill Volume II” on a fold-down wide screen with sound bouncing through a digital surround sound 300-watt JBL 10-speaker system. No popcorn but what the heck.

Up front, the driver was enthralled with dynamic cruise control that automatically slows the minivan when it approaches slower-moving vehicles. This feature was first used in the Lexus LS430 several years ago.

The XLE also featured a navigation system with the best software in the business, a back-up camera, the aforementioned JBL 10-speaker stereo system, heated front seats and a power moonroof.

This Lexus side of the Sienna can approach 40 grand loaded with all the available good stuff. And, indeed, our test van carried a bottom line of $40,840.
But Toyota officials emphasize that performance, safety and convenience, the essentials of a modern family van can be purchased for under $25,000. From that point, the sky’s the limit based on the thickness of your pocketbook.
Sales figures show that the Sienna has caught the imagination of America’s families. In 2004, only the Dodge Caravan led the Toyota in units sold.

We know the all-new Odyssey will make a run at regaining the top import minivan position in 2005, but the Sienna has the stuff to more than hold its own in this competitive segment.

Who would’ve thunk – minivans are perking up again, and truthfully, at $3.00 a gallon they’re starting to look good compared to some SUVs. Sienna could be what the doctor has ordered.