Family Vacation Tests This Minivan's Mettle

2011 Toyota Sienna front view
2011 Toyota Sienna - Click above for high-res image gallery

My wife and I? Not minivan people. It isn't for lack of appreciation. After all, we have three kids, so we're acutely aware of the advantages gained from lots of interior space. We get our three rows in a different form factor; one that's admittedly less practical but doesn't make us feel like we're flying the white flag of suburban surrender in the garage.

For our annual summer vacation, we decided to see how more sensible people roll. Our ride for the week was the latest monument to family-friendly practicality: the 2011 Toyota Sienna Limited (stickering at a significant $44,919 as tested). Its mission: schlep the author, his wife, our seven-year-old daughter, four-year-old son, 11-month-old son and the rather daunting pile of related detritus up to Cape Cod for a five-day getaway. Would everything fit easily? Would it actually be pleasant to drive? Would we be beset with secret minivan jealousy forever after? All those answers and more after the jump.


Related GalleryReview: 2011 Toyota Sienna
2011 Toyota Sienna

Photos copyright ©2010 Drew Phillips / AOL


Unlike the last-gen Sienna, which had unbelievably boring styling even by Toyota standards, the 2011 van is actually quite pleasing to look at in its own understated way. The front fascia is more assertive, with a bit of the Japanese domestic market Alphard's vibe working in its favor, while the uncomplicated rear incorporates taillamps that echo the look established on the Venza crossover. From the side, the new Sienna cuts an appropriately vannish profile. There's really not a whole lot more to say. Just have a look at the photos. Visually, Toyota keeps things simple overall. It works.

One thing is abundantly obvious – the 2011 Toyota Sienna is a big sucker. Pull out the measuring tape, and you'll find that it's 200.2 inches long and 78.2 inches wide. Numbers like those with no frame of reference are about as useful as snowshoes in Miami, so let's put them into practical perspective. The Sienna is nearly as long and wide as a Chevrolet Tahoe. In fact, every entry into the segment not named Mazda5 can say the same thing. It's reached a point where the terminology "minivan" is an ironic inside joke.

2011 Toyota Sienna profile2011 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.)


Related GalleryReview: 2011 Toyota Sienna
2011 Toyota Sienna

Photos copyright ©2010 Drew Phillips / AOL