Toyota brings new 2004 Sienna minivan to market

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Toyota officials had a target for their all-new 2004 Toyota Sienna minivan. 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, at the 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 will try to vault Toyota ahead of Honda in the shrinking minivan segment.

Yokoya tells us he also found a taste for Wendy’s burgers during his cross-country jaunts. But as far as we know, the new Sienna will not come with Wendy’s coupons.

Toyota unabashedly took the best from the Odyssey as well as other competitors such as the sales-leading Chrysler minivans and the Ford Windstar. The new Sienna is bigger, handles better, has more power, features a shorter turning radius and includes 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 than the previous Sienna. It now has more interior room than a Dodge Grand Caravan.

An all-new 3.3-liter 24-valve V6 generating 230 horsepower and 242 pound-feet of torque replaces a 3.0-liter 210-horsepower V6. Although Sienna has 10 fewer horses than the benchmarked Odyssey, performance times for the two competitors (as announced by Toyota and as published in major magazines) are close to dead even.

The Sienna will move from 0 to 60 in 8.3 seconds with a quarter mile time of 16.1 seconds. Published time for the Odyssey is a nearly identical 8.4 seconds and 16.1 seconds. Although these figures may be considered meaningless by most people, they are after-all minivans, they show that the Toyota and Honda are at the top of the segment in performance and have equal ability to transport a full load of people and cargo with confidence in all driving situations.

Toyota officials say the trump card here is gas mileage. The new Sienna is EPA rated at 19 miles per gallon city, 27 mpg highway. Honda’s 3.5-liter engine is rated at 18 and 25.

Premium fuel is recommended in both the Honda and Toyota, but officials at the preview here in Orlando, said that regular gas can be used in the new Sienna, with a very slight fall off in performance.

Toyota’s new engine is rated as a Level 2, Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle, which makes it one of the cleanest burning gasoline engines in America.

As Toyota officials were demonstrating some of Sienna’s features in front of the Universal Studio’s Hard Rock Hotel, a small crowd of hotel guests filtered over to catch the show.

Soon, some of the journalists got in on the act showing a mother and grandmother with kids in tow, how the rear seat folds into the floor, how the DVD system works and how the center console can be moved from the front to the second row.

Granny, who obviously held the purse strings in this vacationing family, was sold. She was ready to drive the high-end XLE Limited home. After a few minutes, we mentioned to a Toyota official that we better get our ride started or we were going to be minus a couple minivans. He said, that’s one of the reasons Toyota staged the event at a family hotel, so families could get a sneak peek.

How the new Sienna passes the test on the showroom floor remains to be seen. But it certainly attracted attention at the Hard Rock.

The Sienna comes in four trim levels with the base CE starting at $23,465, popular
LE model starts at $24,770, an upscale XLE starts at $28,770 and XLE Limited, that officials call the Lexus of minivans, starts at $34,990.

Families on a tight budget can purchase the CE for under $24,000 with such standard equipment as the 230-horsepower V6, 5-speed automatic transmission, power windows and doorlocks, air conditioning, antilock brakes with electronic brake distribution, keyless entry and a stereo with cassette and CD player.
Toyota says with all the standard equipment, the CE actually comes in $950 less than the 2003 model.

Some of the 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. 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 last 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 couple 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; An all-wheel drive option on the LE, XLE and XLE Limited trim levels giving the Sienna an edge on bad-weather roads. Chrysler minivans have offered all-wheel drive for several years.

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. But unlike the Honda’s seats, which slide together on a track, the Sienna’s seats must be lifted, repositioned and locked into place.

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 Limited model in a reclining second-row leather-clad seat watching Star Wars on a fold-down wide screen with sound bouncing through a digital surround sound 300-watt JBL 10-speaker system. The optional was sunshade pulled down to keep the late-morning sunlight out of the car.

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

The Limited also featured a navigation system, heated front seats and a power moonroof. This Lexus side of the Sienna could approach 40 grand loaded with all the available good stuff.

But Toyota officials emphasized 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.

The minivan segment fell to about a million units sold in 2002 and auto industry forecasters do not see an upturn this year. Yet Toyota officials are so confident of their new 2004 Sienna that they are predicting its sales to increase from the 81,000 in 2002 to between 130,000 and 150,000 this year.

One could only wonder which brand will suffer the slings and arrows of Sienna.