Toyota Sienna —Staying competitive

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The once-thriving minivan segment has boiled down to three main players — Chrysler Pacifica/Town and Country, Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna — with several other nameplates filling in the bottom half of the card. Of the three, the Sienna is by far the oldest iteration, the current third generation hitting the market in 2010.

Despite its advanced age in car years, Toyota has kept the Sienna competitive with a steady stream of improvements to maintain a healthy sales pace. For instance, the Sienna is on schedule to sell about 125,000 copies in 2016, just below 2015's total and in second place among U.S. nameplates just ahead of the Odyssey and trailing the combined sales of the Chrysler Town and Country and its replacement, the Pacifica.

While a new Sienna is on the horizon, Toyota continues to give the current Sienna relevance. For 2017, the big news is a revised V-6 engine — shared with the 2017 Toyota Highlander — mated to a new eight-speed automatic transmission. Toyota can now brag it has the highest horsepower minivan on the market sporting 296 ponies and 263 pound-feet of torque, up 30 horsepower and 18 pound-feet of torque over 2016.

You can feel the new-found performance from behind the wheel and we think the family who uses its minivan for hauling large numbers of passengers and cargo will appreciate the upgrade. Combined with the mew eight-speed, the Sienna has been recorded by a major magazine from 0-to-60 in 7 seconds, an outstanding number for a people mover, and about a half second faster than the 2016 edition. While our test vehicle was front-wheel drive the Sienna is the only minivan currently available with all-wheel drive. If you need all-wheel drive, it's a $1,140 option.

We drove the "sporty" SE version which came with a sport tuned suspension and 19-inch alloy wheels as well as a mesh grille and lower-body skirting. We had no problem with the ride quality, handling, performance or interior usefulness, but there was one area that — perhaps because of Sienna's aging platform — was noticeable. While hurtling down an interstate at about 70 mph our front-seat passenger's cellphone rang. When that happens, out of courtesy, we always turn the radio off. Like always, this time we reached for the radio knob only to find the audio was not turned on. The excessive cacophony was coming from wind noise, something you normally don't find in a Toyota product.

The Sienna's interior, which was redesigned for the 2015 model year, with higher-quality fabric upholstery on the lower trim levels and leather seating surfaces and good-looking simulated wood on the upper trims. We found the switchgear user friendly. We like the shifter up by the steering wheel and the abundant storage spaces. Climate controls are operated by large knobs, but you have to go into the navigation screen to get to the audio pre-sets. We particularly like the wide screen that flips out of the ceiling for rear-seat passengers. It can serve as a split-screen monitor that allows for two different media — a movie on one side and a video game on the other, for instance.

Our SE test vehicle had an eight-passenger configuration with a 40/20/40 split second-row bench, although we prefer the very friendly captain's chairs that slide fore and aft and can be ordered with extendable foot rests. The rear-most seats can be stored flat into a well. But the second row has to be muscled out of the minivan to get the optimum storage space of 150 cubic feet. There are a very useable 39.1 cubic feet behind the third row seats and 117.8 cubic feet behind the second row.

The usual safety features including a full complement of airbags, antilock disc brakes and stability and traction control are standard together with a rearview camera. Blind spot monitoring with cross traffic alert is only available on the higher trim levels.

The Sienna comes in five main trim levels — L, LE, SE, XLE and Limited. The Sienna starts at $28,585 for the base model. That cash outlay brings most of the things we rely on today for our daily transportation including automatic climate control, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, a rearview camera, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, and a four-speaker sound system with 6.1-inch touchscreen.

Our SE front-wheel drive Sienna with the Premium package — including a sunroof, keyless entry and ignition, rear-seat entertainment system with large screen display, and a Driver Easy Speak system, which amplifies the driver's voice through the rear speakers — carried a bottom line of $41,770.

Base price: $28,585; as driven, $41,770
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Horsepower: 296 @ 6,600 rpm
Torque: 263 foot-pounds @ 4,700 rpm
Transmission: 8=speed automatic
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3/3
Wheelbase: 119.3 inches
Length: 200.2 inches
Curb weight: 4,480 pounds
Turning circle: 36.9 feet
Luggage capacity: 39.1 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 150 cubic feet
Towing capacity: 3,500 pounds
Fuel capacity: 20 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 19 city, 27 highway, 22 combined
0-60: 7.0 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Honda Odyssey, Kia Sedona, Chrysler Pacifica

The Good
• All-wheel drive available
• Powerful V-6 engine
• Well-done cabin

The Bad
• Second-row seats must be removed by hand

The Ugly
• Excessive wind noise at higher speeds