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Family Vacation Tests This Minivan's Mettle

2011 Toyota Sienna head-on2011 Toyota Sienna rear-on

Predictably, all that size translates into a significant amount of weight. The all-wheel-drive Sienna tips the scales at around 4,750 pounds – about 100 more than the range-topping competition from Chrysler, Honda and Kia. The upside of the bulk is that the interior feels like an aircraft hangar. Space is not a problem.

This becomes apparent when you set about loading the cargo area. Toyota lists the official luggage capacity behind the Sienna's third-row seats as 39.1 cubic feet. On paper, that seems like a lot of space, and it is.

The pile of stuff we had to pack for the trip included a standard suitcase, two carry-on-sized roller bags, a kiddie-sized roller bag, one large duffel, a standard stroller (not one of those little umbrella deals), a Pack 'n Play (that's a portable playpen/crib for you kidless types), a medium-sized beach bag, two cases of bottled water, a laptop bag, a camera bag, a portable feeding chair for the baby, and at least four of those reusable supermarket shopping bags. (Pro Tip: those "eco-friendly" shopping bags are fantastic for transporting food/snacks, assorted toiletries and other odds-and-ends. Thanks to their flat bottoms and identical sizing, they're easy to arrange in your ride's cargo area as you play luggage Tetris.)

2011 Toyota Sienna headlight2011 Toyota Sienna emblem2011 Toyota Sienna wheel2011 Toyota Sienna taillight

We recall thinking that we'd never get everything in the van without folding part of the third row. Talk about unfounded concern. Thanks to the deep cargo well, a useful alcove on the passenger side of the cargo bay, and the high third-row seatback, not only did everything fit nicely, there was room for a little more if we really decided to go for the gusto. The Sienna scored huge points here, because it meant that the passenger area wouldn't have to be cluttered with overflow baggage. The only bags not behind the third row were the ones you'd expect to see: kids' backpacks (containing books, favorite toys, the all-important Nintendo DS, etc.), the diaper bag and my wife's purse.

What of the passenger compartment? Let's work back to front, since interior space is what the Sienna's really about. The third row is fairly typical. It's technically set up for three people (it would handle that many kids easily), though two adults would be optimally comfortable. Our daughter had it all to herself. If you need the cargo room, the third row folds into the floor easily to create a flat surface.

2011 Toyota Sienna seats folded2011 Toyota Sienna cargo area

The second row in the Sienna Limited is composed of two captain's chairs (all Limiteds are seven-passenger vans) that can slide fore and aft up to 23 inches to create massive legroom or help optimize cargo space if the third row is stowed. The convenience of the long sliding range was demonstrated when we had to pull off the highway for a diaper change. Heavy rain meant we had to keep the car buttoned up, but moving the baby's seat all the way back on its track opened up enough floor space to create a spacious changing area on the floor. Sadly, the passenger compartment does not also contain a magic vacuum-sealed disposal bin for weapons-grade diapers. Those you need to throw out at the nearest gas station, emphasis on 'nearest.'

Simultaneously impressive and disappointing is the lounge feature built into the second row chairs. Not only do they recline, but a footrest deploys from the base for maximum Barcalounger luxury. At least that's how it looks. The problem is that if you're an average-sized adult, it's not comfortable at all. At five-foot, nine-inches, Yours Truly was too tall to get any enjoyment out of the setup. If you have kids who are out of their booster seats (or happen to be chauffeuring former Accept lead singer, Udo Dirkschneider), they'll probably love it. Otherwise, the lounge seats are little more than a curious novelty and a missed opportunity.

2011 Toyota Sienna seats2011 Toyota Sienna reclining seats

The front seats are wide, comfortable captain's chairs, too. And while they don't look particularly special, they're supportive enough to provide excellent long-distance (or long-duration, thanks to the traffic we experienced on our trip's return leg) comfort. Our drive home took a soul-crushing 6.5 hours (basically double what it should have), yet neither I nor my wife had any complaints. No sore backs, no fatigued legs.

Hard, textured plastics cover the Sienna's entire instrument panel, as well as most of the door panels save for the spot on the armrest where your elbow lands. For the most part, everything feels well-assembled, though the door for the lower glove box (there's a second one above it) feels rather cheap. The simulated wood trim looks fine, but no one's going to mistake it for genuine dead tree, either. Overall, the stuff presents well, but when you're spending almost 45 grand, some softer surfaces above the beltline would have been nice to see and touch.

2011 Toyota Sienna dashboard2011 Toyota Sienna front seats2011 Toyota Sienna gauges2011 Toyota Sienna door

From the driver's perch, the primary instruments are large, easy to read and very well illuminated at night. Toyota's use of a small TFT multi-information display high on the dash seems a little odd at first, but the placement is good and the information (HVAC settings, trip computer, etc.) is easy-to-read day or night. That screen is also the backup camera display on non-nav-equipped cars.

Some other controls seem oddly positioned, but nearly all of the switchgear works well. The climate controls the driver is most likely to fiddle with are closest, while the supplementary buttons for the other climate zone controls stretch out toward the passenger side. The buttons for the trip computer features are rather inelegantly plopped right in the middle of the instrument panel, but they're large and easy to reach. Also, the right side of the audio head unit is a bit of a stretch from the driver's seat. Fortunately, the steering wheel controls make it mostly unnecessary to touch the stereo itself for basic adjustments like tuning and volume.

2011 Toyota Sienna display2011 Toyota Sienna HVAC controls2011 Toyota Sienna interior lights2011 Toyota Sienna gear shift

We had navigation as part of the $4,025 LTD Premium Package (we gasped, too – it's not just you), which also adds the mega-wide 16-inch Dual View backseat entertainment system and upgraded backup camera (standard and wide views, plus the image moves to the larger nav screen). The entertainment system is a mixed bag. The backseat screen was predictably a hit with the kids, though we didn't bother hooking up a second source to use the dual-screen feature. Two sets of wireless headphones are included, and if you happen to have more than two people watching a movie, the third row seat has standard headphone jacks available so that those passengers can also tune in.

Toyota needs to get with the program, however, when it comes to its screen-based interface for navigation-equipped audio systems. It's unattractive, slow and clunky compared with Sync system from Ford (the gold standard by a very wide margin) and even General Motors' new units. The most annoying element is that when an iPod is connected via USB and you want to scroll through the pages of artists, albums or whatever, the system changes the song/artist to the first one on the next page. Every. Single. Time. We found it easier to just listen to XM radio or stream music from an iPhone via Bluetooth Audio, which let us just use the phone's vastly superior interface.

2011 Toyota Sienna dvd player2011 Toyota Sienna dual view screen

The nav system works fine as far as giving you basic directions, but so would an aftermarket unit costing a fraction of the price. We used it sparingly, and our hotel and some restaurants we visited were all in the POI database. Annoyingly, nannyware prevents from inputting/updating a destination while you're driving. Apparently, no one ever considered the possibility of a front-seat passenger being available to do this. If the car can determine whether someone's riding shotgun in order to enable or disable the airbag, there has to be a way to leverage that info to open up nav features that would be otherwise locked out.

Consumer Reports recently dinged the new Sienna for not being as quiet as the outgoing model, saying it's difficult to carry on a conversation in the car. For the record, I have very little experience with the old Sienna, but I do know that when you travel with a bunch of kids, there's no such thing as a quiet car anyway. We were pleased with the in-car environment overall. We all heard each other fine, and the occasional barked command of "Cut it out!" to the kids never went unheeded. Our outbound drive was performed in monsoon-like conditions, with heavy rain pelting the van for a solid three hours. We never expected Lexus-like quiet, and what we got was completely within reason.

2011 Toyota Sienna navigation menu2011 Toyota Sienna navigation map

As conveniences go, there are 10 cupholders: two in a drawer that pops out of the instrument panel; two more for the front passengers right in the center console; two for the second-row passengers at the rear of the center console (in the Sienna Limited, the aft portion of said console slides back to get closer to the second row, too); and four for the third row. On top of that, the four doors each contain a bottle holder. The power sliders and tailgate are super convenient, and yours truly can verify that they back off immediately if you stick your hand in the sill as they're closing. Another nice (and unexpected) feature that's standard on the Sienna Limited is its dual-pane power sunroof. Both glass panels open, and the second roof is simply huge.

From behind the wheel, the Sienna behaves as expected. Steering effort is light, and while it'd be a stretch to call it nimble, the Sienna's turning circle is tighter than you'd expect, and it's just easy to drive. Well, most of the time. The van's length and girth can make tight parking lots tricky in terms of maneuverability, and while visibility is mostly very good (you're sitting up high, and you're surrounded by expansive swaths of glass), you'll be very thankful for the backup camera. Credit goes to Toyota as well for installing excellent, properly-sized external rearview mirrors. They're big and squared off, and it's easy to adjust them for a wide and usable field of view.

2011 Toyota Sienna 3.5-liter V6 engine

The standard 3.5-liter V6 is a healthy motivator for the Sienna. Rated at 266 horsepower and 245 pound-feet of torque, it delivers plenty of power on demand, whether you're driving locally or out on the highway. It's got plenty of jump from a dead stop, and you can merge or pass without any worries; there's always some juice on tap when you need it.
Our observed fuel economy came largely in-line with EPA estimates. The feds peg the AWD Sienna at 16 miles per gallon in the city, 22 mpg highway and 18 mpg combined. We put a little over 650 miles on the big van and averaged a hair under 18 mpg.

Ride quality is comfortable, and road noise was never a serious issue, even with the 18-inch run-flats (required with the AWD system). Furthermore, the Sienna never wavered as we drove through extremely heavy rains with plenty of water on the highway.

2011 Toyota Sienna rear view

Here's the bottom line: The 2011 Toyota Sienna is one of the greatest family vehicles available today. Period. It's far more practical than most three-row SUVs and crossovers, and even the best of the CUV bunch cannot match up in terms of standard cargo space. The Sienna is really a withering opening salvo from Toyota in what will soon be an all-out war for the car shopper's minivan dollar. Honda's next on deck with its new Odyssey (First Drive report coming soon), Nissan's waiting in the wings with what looks to be a very impressive new Quest, and Chrysler is getting ready to move its current minivans back into the A-List with some sorely needed interior and powertrain upgrades, plus exterior facelifts to boot. If you're looking to buy a minivan right now, however, the '11 Sienna is supremely attractive. And as for this writer, well, he feels van envy when he passes the new Sienna on the roads now. So much for not being a minivan guy.

(Editor's Note: A quick bit of housekeeping. As you may have noticed, the minivan depicted in these photos is not the 2011 Sienna Limited AWD we took on vacation. It's a highly-optioned 2011 Sienna XLE AWD photographed by Drew Philips in California. It is, for all intents, basically identical to the vehicle we took to the Cape, minus the extra sunroof over the second-row seats.)

2011 Toyota Sienna
  • 2011 Toyota Sienna
  • front 3/4 view

Photos copyright ©2010 Drew Phillips / AOL

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 4 Years Ago
      PHil L has a point, a nice compact v6 diesel (turbo, common rail DI of course) would be perfect for a minivan application except all of the particulate filter , and SCR hardware and certification costs would add at least 5000-7000$ to the price, in the volumes it would sell here.
      european companies have somewhat smaller vans and most are diesel but the engines are common to also cars the maker also produces , so the cost of all of the extra emission hardware is spread over hundreds of thousands of vehicles.
      Those engines are almost all 4 cylinder however.
      But they make remarkable power and torque output for thier displacements.

      Ford has several diesel versions of thier new Fiesta subcompact in europe and they are remarkably efficient, but they're only 5spd manuals, and it would cost 5000$ a car for compliance with california emissions and the federal teir II bin 5 emissions.
      • 4 Years Ago
      What's so impressive about a boring looking van for that kind of money - and like all the other crap today you get to choose a nauseatingly boring exterior and interior color in any shade of funeral gray. When are COLORS coming back?
      • 4 Years Ago
      Never thought I'd see a reference to Udo Dirkschneider. Holy s**t.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Yeah I saw that too. Props to the reviewer for the Accept reference.
      • 4 Years Ago
      We traded the wifes 2006 Honda Odyssey EX-L for a 2011 Sienna XLE.

      We love it, much quieter than the Honda. The dash looks great, but it is not great to touch. Then again the only time I would touch it is when I clean it.

      A few nice touches that Toyota does nicer than the Honda. I like the styling better, the sliding door tracks are in the rear window area so it gives it a clean look on the side. I love how they have hidden the rear wiper under the spoiler, and the spoiler looks much better than it did on previous Siennas, I always thought they looked added on, where this one flows with the look.

      With Honda you have to to with a top of the line with navigation to get bluetooth for handsfree calling. Not so on the Sienna, most vans from LE and up with have that and Bluetooth Audio streaming, great for Ipod, Podcasts, Slacker and Pandora listeners.

      Another nice touch is the button on the inside of the B-pillar to close the sliding doors. When I first saw them I thought they were not needed, boy was I wrong. Kids and people of all ages (me too) use them all the time, much easier than reaching behind you for the inside handle. We also love the keyless start, this is so convenient I love not having to mess with remotes and keys. If you have the remote in your pocket or purse you can open / start / and lock your van without keys or touching the remote. While it sounds like an ok feature, I won't buy another car without it.

      The rear seats fold into the floor with one pull, and the 8th seat storage works great. With the Honda I took that out and had to store it in the garage.

      Kids love the extra wide video screen.

      On a trip we got over 26 MPG, good for a car with less than 2000 miles on it.

      Overall very happy, one thing that I don't understand is why no auto on/off headlamps?
        • 4 Years Ago
        Texasswj the sienna does do auto headlamp off. You just have to press the lock button twice to turn them off. At least this is how it works on my 08.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Some weeks ago I had friends visiting from out of town and being they had so many kids I drove their Sienna around a bit. Noticed all the dings around the car, a few of the interior plastics falling off or not holding up well. A power door not working half of the time, one power window out, a button falling off, and other quirks and in conversation I happen to say "Well its a shame your out of warranty, it'll be expensive to fix those items and adds up" they responded with "oh its just 2 years old going into it's 3rd, we still have warranty", So I say "hm this isn't a 04-05?" they told me it was a '09...I'm like "And this is how it holds up after a year? WOW'.... Yeah they are shocked too, but they record has been 3 previous Camrys, 2 blown with the engine sludge issue, and one current Corolla with more recalls than GM, so something tells me they have NOT learned their lesson. So suffer...
      • 4 Years Ago
      Looks cheap!
      • 4 Years Ago
      I am 70 years old and on my 4th Sennia. I had spent many years driving Mercedes and BMW's when I found myself behind the wheel of a Sennia. I was amazed and couldn't believe how well the car handled and rode. Each one I have had has been a pleasure. I find them to be a refined example of motoring. I have tested every minivan on the market and Sennia has them all beat, hands down. I just took delivery of my new 2011 Sienna. Both my wife and I are again impressed with the van's roadability, it's lines, and the interior is beautiful. I'm sold on the car but I hate Toyota's dealers and service depts. Mostly stocked with "disorganized idiots"! Thank God they build a great product as I'd hate to have to depend on their to keep their word or the vehicle running. I don't miss my last BMW, a bit.
      • 4 Years Ago
      "...doesn't make us feel like we're flying the white flag of suburban surrender in the garage"

      Guess what: you're not fooling anyone with an SUV or crossover, except possibly yourself.
        • 4 Years Ago
        I think that, and its sad, the mindset of the majority of married people with children (in N. America at least) is one of discontent. SO MANY people loath their situations, publicly or secretly, that the automobile they ride around in reflects that to an extent. Hell just look at the divorce rate here.

        In their minds, at that point in their lives its: marriage => kids => lack of romance and spontaneous activity => mundane day to day => all work no play makes Jack a... well you get it.

        Sure theres perfectly content married people with kids. They are the exception. For everyone else, there are funky cars for them to purchase as to not give off the married with kids "stigma".
        • 4 Years Ago
        Hey, crash pads take up a lot of space
        • 4 Years Ago
        Yes, it's odd to me that parents will tell you (heartfelt) that they love their kids and are blessed to have them. And I agree.

        But then when it comes to buying a vehicle they don't want to be perceived as having a family and kids, so they won't but something that is good at hauling them around, they want it to appear they bought their vehicle because they might do some bouldering at a moment's notice.
        • 4 Years Ago
        This came across harsher than I meant, so I'll expand a little:

        One, I don't think people see SUVs or crossovers as being appreciably more "hip" than a minivan. Any vehicle with a few car seats in it, unloading several kids in some parking lot or driveway is giving the same impression whether it's got a big nose on the front or not.

        Two, there's something really wrong with society when the trappings of parenthood become a social liability. If you feel that way---that your** kids, or the fact that you have kids---makes you "un-cool" or less valuable as a person, that attitude will rub off on your kids. They'll feel it, even if they don't know it.

        I drive a minivan. It works, it makes life with children easier and, personally, I'm a little proud of that, them, and the family truckster.

        ** And by "you" here I mean the collective, social "you", not you, Alex Nunez.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I would also point out that the comment about 4750lbs and 100lbs more than the competition is a little disingenuous: none of the competition has all-wheel drive. Factor that in and the Sienna comes in at a lighter weight, though admittedly more than the 2006-2010 model did.

      The other point that's not made is that it's not a lot more or less than most three-row crossovers, while still being much more spacious inside.
        • 4 Years Ago
        I'm curious how this thing drives. My family recently came into a 2004ish Sienna AWD, and in comparison to our old 2002 Odyssey (Which I'm now rocking as a 20 year old college guy) the Sienna felt like a Tahoe. Maybe that was the AWD, but that van doesn't feel very minivany to me.

        Sounds like this new one feels pretty similar.
        • 4 Years Ago
        And has sliding doors, which are awesome for loading up the back. Especially if you plan on using the back row.

        To reference your above comment a bit, people buy AWD crossovers to try to tell themselves they aren't driving a family hauler even though they never use it. And they give up sliding doors which they would find useful several times a week.
      • 4 Years Ago
      When I was at the NY Auto Show I got to see one of these... I felt that the dash though was a huge disappointment... it was like hollow cheep plastic. It was nice texture but it felt and sounded real cheep... The reset was alright.. I liked the reclining seats, its about time they are offered in a minivan
      • 4 Years Ago
      OMG, it's like the reinvention of the minivan, according to Toyota. Uh, no, and it's not attractive either. But there is the sport model...

      Toyota has said all models will have a hybrid version. So it is just a matter of time.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Why don't they make a Hybrid Sienna? I think Hybrids will make a lot of practical sense in a Minivan.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Hard to say, but you are not alone. I worked at a dealership from 2005-07 and I heard that question constantly.

        It must have to do either with where they are manufactured or where to put the batteries. It does seem to make a lot of sense for what hybrids are good at. Also, these vans have been cresting $40k for some time now so it is a good place to hide the expense.
        • 4 Years Ago
        True: I never understood why OEM's didn't make hybrid minvans a bigger priority.

        Similarly: Why no diesel minivan (I know, the Sprinter exists - but is rarely found in family-friendly form)? Great mileage and even some towing power in a platform whose users don't really care what fuel it uses...
        • 4 Years Ago
        We have a hybrid minivan in Japan, and it works great. It gets the same gas mileage as my little compact (which is half the size, and half the weight). The only drawback is that they jammed all the batteries in an odd console / armrest right between the two front seats, so there's not as much space in the front. And, it costs about 45,000 dollars here. Not cheap.
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