1999 Toyota Sienna
MSRP
$26,574
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1999 Toyota Sienna Expert Review:New Car Test Drive

The Camry of minivans.

Introduction

The Toyota Sienna is the Camry of minivans. It does everything well. It rides nice. It's comfortable. It's practical. And it's V6 engine provides smooth, reliable performance. A big reason for that is that the Sienna is based on the Camry chassis and uses the Camry engine. And the designers of this minivan wanted the Sienna to be as solidly mainstream as possible. 

The Sienna is available with all the best features available in the minivan market: dual power sliding doors, modular seats, V6 engine, and car-like ride and handling. It's also a top performer in terms of crashworthiness. 

Put the Toyota name on such an intelligent package and you have an instant member of the minivan A-team. The Sienna doesn't hit any new home runs, but it does an excellent job of covering all the bases. 

Lineup

Walkaround

All Siennas use Toyota's V6 to power the front wheels through a smooth four-speed automatic transmission. All are the same length. Three trim levels are available: CE, LE and XLE. 

Unlike the old Previa, the Toyota Sienna comes with conventional looks and uncompromised functionality. The Sienna looks clean, a classic minivan with subtle touches of sport-utility styling. The long, sloping nose is unmistakably minivan, but the square lines elsewhere--particularly when viewed from the rear--recall a sport-utility. Where many minivans display vast sweeps of metal, the Sienna has a relatively even proportion of glass to metal, another SUV allusion. 

The Sienna is based on a stretched version of the Camry platform. In fact, it is built on the same Georgetown, Ky., assembly line as the Camry. Basing the Sienna on the Camry gives it nice road manners. It also makes it less expensive to design and build--a win-win situation for carmaker and buyer. These savings allow Toyota to bring the price of the Sienna closer to the norm for the class. 

Sitting in the driveway, the Sienna looks neat and compact. The length of the Sienna, 193 inches, puts it about halfway between the short and long Chrysler minivans. It's 3 inches narrower than the Chrysler minivans and 1 inch lower in height. 

Despite its moderate length, the inside of the Sienna is roomy. Three-row seating is standard, and the rear cargo area is an accommodating 18 inches deep from hatch opening to seatback. The flip-and-fold seats make it simple to expand the cargo area as needed. 

If you need to remove the seats entirely, they can be lifted out individually. The process is a little awkward because the seatback must remain upright during removal. On the General Motors minivans, the seatback is flat, making the package a more manageable cube shape. On the other hand, the Sienna seat latches are superbly executed; they release easily and are simple to re-install. 

Interior

Getting in and out of the Sienna is easy. 

Dual sliding doors ensure passengers get in and out in a hurry and minimize running around to the far side of the vehicle to grab a kid. Either door can be opened by pressing a button; the switches are located on both the instrument panel and on the center pillar. The power doors can also be opened with the keyless remote transmitter. During the summer, it's nice to be able to start the airing out process while you're approaching the Sienna with a load of groceries. 

Once in, the driver enjoys a commanding view of the road. Visibility is excellent in all directions, thanks to all the glass. The instruments are big, bright and easy to read. 

Storage is close at hand without impeding the generous pass-through to the rear. A handy little net attached to the sides of the front seats is great for storing toll tickets, sunglasses and other small objects. Fold-down cupholders next to the storage net secure drinks but get out of the way when not in use. 

The second row can be equipped with either captain's chairs or bench (the latter is required with the integrated child seat). The seatbacks fold down to provide a flat surface for food and games and cupholders. Molded into the doors are round holders suitable for one-liter bottles. 

Pleasant as it is, the interior betrays the attention to cost required to make this vehicle profitable for Toyota: The designers borrowed switches, gauges, and parts from the Camry, Corolla and Avalon. They are perfectly functional and no doubt utterly reliable, but they don't display Chrysler's ergonomic excellence in this area. 

Audio and climate controls are mounted high on the center dashboard for good access, but the ashtray and second power plug are down low and angled out of the way. 

The column-mounted shifter works well, slipping cleanly into the desired gear, but I kept bumping the windshield wiper stalk and activating the wipers when I shifted into Park. And the seats, even in the top-of-the-line XLE we tested, lacked side-to-side support to keep you comfortably anchored. The optional leather made the slipping and sliding even more noticeable. 

Audio control switches are mounted on the steering wheel, allowing the driver to easily adjust the volume, mute the sound completely or select another station. 

Of the three trim levels, the $21,848 CE is pretty basic. Air conditioning, cruise control, cassette player, and power windows, locks and mirrors are all optional. The CE comes as a four-door model, so there's just one sliding door. (They count the rear door as a door.) The five-door CE with two sliding doors retails for $22,738. 

Most people will likely opt for the mid-line $24,778 LE for its superior package of features for the dollar. The five-door LE comes standard with the second sliding door, air conditioning, power windows, locks and mirrors, cruise control, radio/cassette player, privacy glass (important for cutting down on heat gain), and access to most of the options list, including the captain's chairs, six-speaker audio system, integrated child seat, and power sliding door. 

If you want all the frills, you need the $28,099 XLE. This is the only model that offers leather trim ($1,410) and a gloriously huge power moonroof ($830). A premium six-speaker audio system with radio, cassette and single-slot CD is also available as an option. (All prices include $420 destination charge.). 

Driving Impression

The fact that the Sienna is based on the Camry is a good thing. The Camry's 3.0-liter V6 engine, four-speed electronic transmission, steering system, gearbox, and front suspension are industry standouts for refinement in the ultra-competitive mid-size sedan market. So the Sienna benefits from a lot of proven technology. 

The result is a minivan with a ride as good as is out there. A big, tall box will never ride and handle as well as a low, sleek sedan, but the Sienna is pretty darn good. It would be better, though, with a stiffer suspension. It soaks up bumps well, but leans a bit too much in corners for our tastes. 

As the sole engine choice, the Toyota V6 is easy to live with. It doesn't feel as zippy as it does in the much lighter Camry, but it's smooth, reliable, and economical. At 194 horsepower, it's efficient, too, making 44 more horsepower than either the Chrysler or Ford 3.0 V6s. Fuel economy rates an EPA-estimated 19/23 mpg city/highway. 

But the Sienna does not come with the most powerful engine out there. With both Chrysler and Ford, you can order 3.8-liter V6s with a lot more torque for easier cruising with a heavy load. The Toyota V6 also requires premium fuel, which is unfortunate in a run-around-town family vehicle. 

Summary

The Sienna lacks a few gee-whiz features that can be found on some of its competitors, notably the rear audio jacks on the Ford and GM models that let you and your kids enjoy separate music, and the OnStar navigation and emergency service package that can be ordered with GM minivans. 

In the Sienna's favor, though, is Toyota's reputation for superior quality and reliability, high resale value, and excellent crashworthiness. 

Model Lineup

Assembled In

Georgetown, Kentucky. 

Options As Tested

leather seats ($1,410), power moonroof ($830). 

Model Tested

Sienna XLE. 

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