Toyota Sienna keeps competitive and offers all-wheel drive too

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The shrinking minivan segment has been boiled down to three major players and a handful of minor participants.

The market is now dominated by Chrysler/Dodge, Honda and Toyota. More than 700,000 minivans were sold by those three companies in 2006 representing about 72 percent of a market that has shrunk from 1.37 million sales in 2000 to about 970,000 last year.
Six other companies shared the remaining 270,000 sales.

Experts expect minivan sales to level out at about a million annually in the coming years, but Ford and General Motors among a litany of near 10 have ended minivan production. Officials of the two U.S. companies felt it would be more profitable to put their development money into other projects.

Although the Dodge Caravan continues to lead in sales (110,507 YTD thru June), a position it has held since its introduction in 1983, the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna have earned the most critical praise in recent years.

The Sienna was last restyled in 2004 and received minor upgrades in each succeeding year. The redesign was aimed squarely at the Odyssey, and the Sienna has earned significant plaudits from both the press and owners. However, the Odyssey added a number of refinements for 2007 and the Chrysler Group is about to launch all-new minivans for 2008.

With the Sienna's redesign in 2004 it gained a sales edge on the Odyssey, but it fell slightly behind again after the Honda was made over for the 2005 model year and again in 2007. Today the Sienna trails both the Caravan and the second place Odyssey. Sales YTD through June for Sienna total 84,948, off 10.2% from the same period last year.

To keep the Sienna competitive and perhaps to find that elusive edge, Toyota upgraded the engine for 2007 and now brags that it has the most horsepower in the segment. Added to the upgraded V-6 is an all-wheel drive option and a towing capacity of 3,500 pounds.
For $29,940, families can purchase a Sienna LE with a 3.5-liter V-6 generating 266 horsepower mated to a five-speed automatic with all-wheel drive and stability and traction control. Included are numerous standard passive and active safety features, the type of equipment expected these days on a modern family hauler.

The new engine offers a 36-horsepower increase from the 2006 Sienna and a 56-horsepower hike from the 2004 model. And the 266 ponies are 22 more than in the current Odyssey.

But the one big difference in the two stellar minivans — all-wheel drive is not available at any price in the Honda. And we feel all-wheel drive is a key safety feature, particularly in areas of the country with frozen winter weather.

To Toyota's credit it has put its 2007 all-wheel drive version in range of more buyers, offering it in the lower LE trim level. It's actually about $2,300 cheaper than in 2005 when it had to be purchased in the up-level XLE.

The only downside to all-wheel drive, other than a slight price increase over two-wheel drive, is gas mileage. Our all-wheel drive test vehicle was rated at 18 mpg city and 23-highway. The two-wheel drive edition is rated at 19/26, the same as the Odyssey.

Passenger convenience and comfort along with standard safety are the hallmarks of any good minivan. And the Sienna has the goods.

Some of the innovations that came with the redesigned 2004 model that were commandeered from the competition and are carried over for 2007 include: A fold-into-the-floor third-row seat, a feature pioneered by Odyssey and now also found in most other minivans. Toyota has made the disappearing seat even more useable, 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 several 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 fold-down mirror that allows the driver to keep an eye on rowdy rear-seat passengers, a neat little feature first used in the late Ford Windstar.

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.

Standard safety features in the base CE hauler starting at $24,800 include four-wheel antilock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist and seat-mounted side airbags for front occupants and side-curtain airbags for all three rows. Bargain-hunting customers will have to fork over an extra $1,345 for stability control which comes bundled with rear disc brakes and cruise control.

While the CE or LE provide a well-outfitted family hauler at a reasonable price, you will have to move up to the XLE starting at $30,770 or an all-wheel drive model to get such goodies as standard stability and traction control. Front and rear parking sensors and a backup camera bundled with navigation are also relegated to the top trim level.

All trim levels have received top ratings in front and side-impact crashes. That means peace of mind comes as standard equipment.

We were pleasantly surprised at the Sienna's new-found performance in our LE all-wheel drive test vehicle. There's plenty of urgency off the line and passing or merging can be done with ease, even with several passengers on board. We like the fact that the extra performance comes with no penalty at the gas pump.

While sporty handling has never been part of the minivan modus operandi, the Sienna offers a confident feel that was not evident in earlier people movers. It does very well what it was designed to do — haul people and their things.

While our test vehicle had few options — the major one being power sliding doors — the Sienna can be outfitted with the latest equipment including rear DVD entertainment, an outstanding 300-watt JBL audio system, dynamic cruise control, navigation with backup camera and rear window shades.

Our test vehicle impressed us with the fact that a well-made all-weather minivan with all the modern standard comfort and convenience features and strong performance can be purchased at an affordable price. But be careful of loading it up unless you can handle a price tag that can easily exceed $40,000.

The limited options on our Sienna totaled just over a $1,000 bringing the bottom line to $31,183.

While the Odyssey offers strong competition and the new Chrysler products coming out later this year will deliver interesting innovations, the Toyota remains a solid alternative.


Base price: $24,880; as driven, $31,183
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Horsepower: 266 @ 6,200 rpm
Torque: 245 foot-pounds @ 4,700 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Drive: all-wheel
Seating: 2/3/3
Turning circle: 36.8 feet
Wheelbase: 119.3 inches
Length: 201 inches
Curb weight: 4,515 pounds
Towing capacity: 3,500 pounds
Luggage capacity: 43.6 cubic feet
Maximum cargo capacity: 149 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 20 gallons (regular)
EPA mileage: 23 mpg highway, 18 city
0-60: 8.5 seconds (estimated)
Also consider: Honda Odyssey, Dodge Caravan, Hyundai Entourage, Chrysler T&C, Kia Sedona

The Good:
• Most horsepower in the minivan segment
• Available all-wheel drive
• Convenience features abound

The Bad:
• Still handles like a minivan of yore

The Ugly:
• Option packages can send price soaring over 40 grand