2011 Toyota Sienna Expert Review:Autoblog
The Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan minivans revolutionized family transportation when they were introduced back in 1983. Nevermind that Volkswagon had been selling people-friendly vans for decades, it was Chrysler's "magic wagons" that came to define the minivan for Americans. With decent car-based road manners, easy-access sliding doors and clever packaging, minivans quickly replaced the station wagon as our favored Wally World-bound chariots. Minivan sales peaked at more than 1 million sales in 2002, but the following year, customers discovered something else: The SUV.
Overnight, minivans and their drivers turned into punchlines – an emblem for those who'd given up on driving excitement. Despite the traditional minivan's utility, drivability and fuel efficiency, the masses flocked to Hummers and GMC Denalis, but the SUV's reign was short-lived. Skyrocketing fuel prices have made family-friendly crossovers the new hot commodity, but Toyota – even with its line of competent CUVs – hadn't given up on the minivan just yet. In fact, Toyota predicts that the minivan market will grow by 30 percent over the next few years (to about 600,000 units), as young families and empty-nesters once again discover the inherent merits of a car-based box with sliders. But while minivans are no doubt practical, they're far from cool.
The 2011 Toyota Sienna was designed to challenge that assumption.
Patterned after the F3R concept, the new Sienna apes the Honda Odyssey's square shoulders but grafts on a Venza-like nose and tail. There's something for everyone with five different trim levels, two different engines, front- or all-wheel drive, and even a sport-tuned SE edition. Yep, Toyota thinks the world is ready for a sporty minivan. They recently invited us down to sample their new range of people movers, and we spent a day driving them up and down the coast, along freeways and around neighborhoods, and even down one of Southern California's famed canyon roads, all in an effort to prove that the minivan is ready to be thrust back to the top.
Photos by Frank Filipponio / Copyright ©2009 Weblogs, Inc.
However, the second row seats in this newest Sienna are probably going to get the lion's share of oohs and aahs. Whether in seven- or eight-seat variety, they have a long slide range of nearly 26 inches for great third row access or to allow parents room to stand in front of the seats as they buckle their kids in. The optional eighth seat is a foldable unit that easily pops out and fits into a clever storage cove on the driver's side of the rear cargo area. That brings up the one issue some people might have with the second row seats: They don't fold flat into the floor like the Chrysler Stow 'n Go system. When asked abut this seeming oversight, the Toyota reps were quick to explain their choice.
When first approaching the 2011 Sienna, you're immediately taken with its width. The Toyota family face is spread wide across the low snout, the body is more muscular with high shoulders and hidden slider rails, and the tail is cleaned up with its large roof spoiler covering the relocated rear wiper. It's a clean, contemporary look that boasts an un-box-like drag coefficient of just .306. The van was designed at Calty, and all of the engineering and development work was done in Ann Arbor. Production will continue at the Princeton, Indiana plant that builds the current Sienna, making this an All-American effort. Toyota thinks it can sell 100,000 of them per year. On looks alone, ToMoCo probably has a good shot.
There will be five different trim levels when the Sienna goes on sale next February: Sienna (base), LE, XLE, Limited and SE. There are several detail differences to tell them apart. The grilles on the Sienna, LE and XLE have black bars with a lower chrome surround, while the Limited grille is all chrome. XLE and Limited get extra chrome bits and XLE, Limited and SE come standard with foglamps. The SE really stands out (below, middle) with a blacked out mesh grille, a front airdam, recontoured rear apron, rocker sill extensions, darkened chrome all around and clear taillight lenses. Although it's only been lowered a bit due to its stiffened coils and dampers, the SE's aero tweaks really emphasize its low, wide stance.
The other major trim-level tell will be the wheels. They're all alloys, ranging in size from 17 to 19 inches, and even the smallest fill those rounded wheel wells nicely. The base Sienna and LE get budget-looking five-spokes, XLE models wear shiny seven-spoke designs, Limited and AWD models sport sharp-looking polished ten-spokers and the SE gets a darkened six-spoke pattern. The AWD models really caught our attention because they were wearing the latest Bridgestone Turanza run-flats. During our driving, those run-flats were a bit of a revelation, riding and handling just like conventional tires. They promise much better performance when air levels drop, thanks in large part to their scalloped sidewalls that keep them cool.
As big as the exterior changes are, the interior is this van's main attraction. Although the third-generation Sienna has the same wheelbase and sits on the same platform as the outgoing model, it's actually a bit shorter overall, yet still manages to cram an extra two inches of interior length into the cabin. Cargo volume has gone up, with space behind the third, second and first rows measuring in at 39.1/87.1/150 cubic-feet respectively. It feels even bigger than that inside thanks to a new tri-tone color scheme that keeps everything above the beltline light and airy.
Despite the addition of a four-cylinder option for the first time, Toyota says it's reduced total Sienna vehicle combinations by a whopping 80 percent. Options lists will shrink as Toyota is going the Honda route of making the customer move up a trim level to get extra equipment. Despite that, there are even more combinations of trim levels, drivetrains and seating configurations than before.
Lowering the third row is now a one-motion affair, with a single handle pull bringing either portion of the 60/40 split bench up and over into the floor. A power option makes it even easier to make the seats disappear and reappear. We positioned ourselves back there for a spell and have to say, this is where minivans shine. Compared to a third row in an SUV, we wouldn't have nearly as many reservations about riding back there on long trips. Heck, the seats even recline now and getting to that comfy bench is a whole lot easier thanks to the new second row Tip-Up and Long-Slide feature.
Anyone who has sat in the Chrysler's second row seats can tell you that they aren't the most comfortable place to be on long trips. The sacrifice in padding needed to get them to fold flat into the floor is noticeable even on short jaunts. Toyota thought long and hard about it and decided that people are in those seats more often than large objects occupying the cargo area. In short, Toyota's engineers say they chose passenger comfort over cargo loading ease. As if to put an exclamation point on that decision, Toyota now offers a Lounge Seating package on Limited models that features two ottoman equipped recliners -- similar to the rear thrones in the $408,000 Maybach 62.
Second- and third-row passengers can also enjoy an optional 16.4-inch dual-view LCD screen that unfolds from the headliner while dropping jaws. It can display two separate signals side-by-side or one single standard or widescreen program. Despite its large size, it doesn't block the driver's view out the back – we checked. That screen also adds A/V jacks to the back of the center console, a DVD player in the lower portion of the center stack and a remote control. There are optional wireless headsets too, that, with the addition of the Lounge Seating, turns the Sienna into a private theater on wheels.
The front seats are enlarged, multi-adjustable, supportive and comfortable. The Limited model adds a two-position memory function for the first time and between the seats you'll find a handy floor (purse) tray at the base of the center stack. Not all models include a center console, but those that do get a huge central compartment, cupholders and an optional rearward slider feature. All trim levels get a tri-zone AC system that's been painstakingly engineered to reduce sound from the fan and through the vents. The reps went on about a sophisticated system of phase-shifting noise cancellation, "Air Cap" ducts, and additional sound deadening material. We tried it out and have to admit it wasn't any louder (or quieter) than any other system we've used. The system is manual except on XLE and Limited, which get automatic climate control, and the HVAC controls are right where you'd expect them to be – well laid out along that signature dash swoop and easy to use.
Stylish as it might be, the swoop is there to give front seat occupants a "60/60" split of the space. By bisecting the area, it makes it feel like you are getting 60 percent of the space, whether you're in the driver or passenger seat. It actually works well in practice, especially on models with the floor console. The swoop is solid colored on most models, carbon fiber-esque on the SE and wood on the XLE and Limited, with the Limited variant getting a smart-looking leather and wood steering wheel as well. And to keep everyone safe, there are seven airbags and active headrests as part of the Sienna's pre-collision system, ABS, traction control, stability control, brake assist and electronic brake distribution.
Stereo systems are all AM/FM/MP3/CD and with XM-readiness, Bluetooth, auxilary audio jacks and USB ports standard on most models. The Limited gets an upgraded ten-speaker JBL system to itself, while XLE and Limited buyers can also add a voice-activated touch-screen DVD navigation system that takes the spot normally occupied by the stereo. That sat-nav system is a sixth-generation Denso unit that's incredibly intuitive and capable of understanding English, Spanish and French voice commands. You can even search by company or chain name, making it almost too easy to find the closest In-N-Out Burger. And that's not even the best part of the system.
The unit also displays Toyota's new Panorama backup camera feed, which offers an industry-first 180-degree view of what's behind the vehicle. It makes backing up and parking both easier and safer, with handy guidelines and steering-based projections projected on the screen to help you slot in perfectly. We did, however, find one parking lot with weathered lines and the system decided to basically create its own space for us diagonally across three spaces. It's not infallible, but the wide-view feed of what's behind you is terrific in most all conditions.
On vehicles with backup cams but no navigation, the image is displayed on the 3.5-inch multi-information display at the top center of the dash. That unit also displays clock, outside temp, HVAC info, open door indicators, cruise info and Eco Driving mode graphs. That Eco graph shows fuel consumption in a simple black and white bar graph that struck us as somewhat counterintuitive, with the white bar getting longer the harder you pressed on the accelerator. A minor quibble, but kind of odd given the high quality displays elsewhere. A front radar parking assist system is standard on Limited and optional on XLE, and the Limited also offers an optional Dynamic Radar Cruise Control that keeps a safe distance between you and traffic ahead.
The overhead console has an eyeglass holder, conversation mirror, the Safety Connect controls, power slider controls (standard on all but the base Sienna) and sunroof controls on vehicles so equipped. Limited models can actually be ordered with dual sunroofs. The dash features an upper and lower glove compartment, both of which should be big enough for most needs. Although these were preproduction cars, the materials felt good and featured graining that should keep them free of fingerprints a little better. The fit of some of the dash pieces was a little off, but we expect that to be fixed by the time the vans go into production early next year. The cloth material on the Sienna and LE models left a bit to be desired, but the cloth, leather and leatherette fitted to other trim levels felt good overall.
The gauges look essentially similar on all trim levels, with an overlapping combination meter design. The SE gets sporty-looking black on white units with red needles and there's a "Start/Stop" button on Limited models (and some XLEs) with Toyota's Smart Key System, allowing keyless entry at any port. Overall the interior is clever, versatile, functional and comfortable. Visibility is good and the color scheme really makes it feel even roomier inside. Controls and switches are intuitively placed and feel high quality for the most part. We even got used to that dash-mounted gearshifter in no time flat.
Behind that shifter is Toyota's new six-speed automatic transmission, which handled the tasks we asked of it well. Front- and all-wheel-drive Siennas are available with the carryover 266-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6. The bigger news is that Sienna and LE models can now be ordered with the Venza's four-cylinder engine. We thought the 187-hp, 2.7-liter unit might struggle to move the new Sienna (which has gained almost 100 pounds over the current generation), but it handled most duties just fine. Compared to the V6 mill, however, fuel economy of the four-pot isn't stellar. It still leads the class, though, clocking in at 19/26/22 mpg for city, highway and combined cycles respectively. But with the V6 models' similar ratings (18/24/20 for FWD models and 16/22/18 on AWD variants), the four-pot seems to be there just so Toyota can keep the entry-level 2011 Sienna below the current van's $24,600 starting price. A hybrid might eventually work its way into the mix, but for now the Toyota folks are tight-lipped.
The brakes felt strong and had good feedback, giving us a confidence that somehow made the whole vehicle feel lighter on its feet. We can't really say the same for the steering, however. Toyota is using an all-electric power steering system on the Sienna and although we like the fact that it reduces weight, complexity and cost, the brain behind it seems to get tripped up too often. It tries to predict conditions based on driver and sensor inputs, then constantly adjusts the ratio, with the net effect of creating an artificial feel that doesn't inspire much confidence when pushed – even a little bit. We know that most people won't be chucking their minivans through the twisties, but with the marketing emphasis on this being a sporty, cool minivan, we'd like a bit more from this system. Too bad they all can't have the SE setup.
The SE takes the same basic components and stiffens everything up with a quick software update that makes the vehicle much more driver-oriented. Coupled with the suspension changes that make up the SE package, we can honestly say that the SE was an eye-opener. All of the new Sienna models handled and rode reasonably well with very little body roll, squat or dive. The SE, on the other hand, felt almost tossable, although bumps were less dampened. How'd Toyota pull it off? Chief Engineer Kazuo Mori is an autocrosser.
After 17 years stuck designing commercial vehicles and minivans instead of his favored sports cars, Mori-san says he finally decided to hide a sports car under a minivan to slip it past the guys at corporate. He says he had to fight to get the SE into the lineup as the higher ups didn't think it made sense. Of course, it doesn't make sense. It's a minivan with carbon fiber bits inside, a lowered stiff suspension and a body kit. And that's exactly why we like it. Even if it doesn't sell in any significant quantity, the mere fact that it exists automatically elevates the entire range. While we'd probably choose a Sienna Limited for its lounge seats, widescreen monitor, dual sunroofs and all the bells and whistles, we would still want the SE's stiffer suspension and firmer steering as an option.
When Toyota told us it was hoping to be a major player in a revitalized minivan market, we didn't really know what to think. While we understand the inherent goodness of the minivan as a family hauler, we weren't privy to Toyota's research about younger families. They don't necessarily see "minivan" as a bad word. They want functionality above all else, but wouldn't mind a bit more style. When Toyota told us they hoped to make the minivan cool, we thought they may have dipped too deeply into the holiday eggnog.
Then we saw the 2011 Sienna at its LA Auto Show unveiling in November and decided they had a chance. After driving the whole lineup, including the sport tuned SE, we were impressed with the Sienna's composed road manners and surprising performance, even with the new four-cylinder base engine. Prices haven't been announced, but if they start at less than $25,000 as anticipated, Toyota has a good chance of selling the 100,000 Siennas it's predicting. And having the SE in the lineup might just be the ace up its sleeve, proving that the minivan has a chance at a comeback... cool or not.
Photos by Frank Filipponio / Copyright ©2009 Weblogs, Inc.
New Car Test Drive
All-new, models range from sporty to luxurious.
Minivans have always been superior as people movers. They're easier to park and drive than SUVs, have a low step-in height for easy access, plus comfortable seating and cushy ride characteristics.
The 2011 Toyota Sienna, now in its fifth generation, has been designed for those reasons since the beginning. But for 2011, as transportation needs change, so does the Sienna.
The all-new 2011 Sienna is still very much a transportation solution for moving up to eight people. But it is now more versatile, with more flexible interior configurations, and available in a broader range of models. There are models aimed at practical transportation, models driven by luxury tastes, and even a sport model, the SE, that drives and handles more like a sports sedan.
Interior seating arrangements have been completely redesigned and can now be re-arranged more easily to carry passengers, haul cargo, or any mix of both.
Visually, the 2011 Sienna looks less like a minivan than previous generations, with lower, longer lines, and a wider stance. Toyota designers have altered the profile and stance to make the Sienna more appealing. The 2011 Sienna is based on the same platform as the prior generation, with the same wheelbase, but it has more interior room.
The 2011 Sienna is available in five grades, with seating configurations for seven or eight. Sienna is available with the 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine; higher grades are all V6-powered. Front-wheel drive is standard. All-wheel drive is available with the V6.
We found the four-cylinder a good choice. It gets a couple miles to the gallon better fuel economy and works nearly as well for everyday driving. The Sienna SE handles quite well and will be appreciated by more aggressive drivers. The SE sits lower, on a sport-tuned suspension and steering system for quicker feedback and better handling. At the other end of the spectrum is the Limited model, which glides along nice and easy, and it has steering assist that makes it easier to park.
The Toyota Sienna is made in America, designed in California, developed at Toyota's technical center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and assembled in Indiana. It will be sold only in North America and Puerto Rico.
The 2011 Toyota Sienna ($24,260) comes standard with cloth upholstery, tri-zone manual air conditioning with air filter and rear-seat control panel, seven-passenger seating, power windows with auto up/down and jam protection in all positions, 60/40 split and stow third-row seat with one motion stow, removable second row seats with tip-up and long-slide feature, cruise control, windshield de-icer, integrated color-keyed rear spoiler, AM/FM/CD with four speakers, 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels with 235/60R17 tires. Sienna is also available with a V6 ($25,500).
Sienna LE ($25,345) upgrades with eight-way adjustable driver's seat with lumbar support, third-row sunshade, six-speaker audio, XM Satellite Radio, steering wheel controls for audio and telephone, Bluetooth for hands-free cell phone operation, compass and outside temperature displays, dual power sliding doors, HomeLink garage door opener. Sienna LE V6 ($28,900) is similarly equipped. LE AWD V6 ($30,550) adds all-wheel drive, 18-inch wheels with 235/55R18 tires.
Sienna XLE V6 ($32,175) and XLE AWD V6 ($34,515) upgrade with leather upholstery, automatic air conditioning, power liftgate, power moonroof, heated front seats, anti-theft system, leather-wrapped steering wheel, wood trim, towing package, power rear quarter windows.
Sienna Limited V6 ($38,500) and Limited AWD V6 ($39,770) get upgraded 6CD JBL audio with 10-speakers, overhead consoles, integrated antenna, chrome door handles, push-button start, smart key, deluxe mirrors, dual panel moonroof, sonar parking system, second-row captain's chairs, third-row power seats stow in floor, memory for driver's seat, four-way power front-passenger seat, leather with wood steering wheel, 18-inch wheels with 235/55R18 tires.
Sienna SE ($30,550) features special body trim, 19-inch alloy wheels, and it comes with exclusive instrumentation and unique interior colors and trim.
Options include navigation and a rear-seat entertainment system.
Safety features include Toyota's Star Safety System with anti-lock brakes (ABS), Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), Brake Assist, Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), and Traction Control; the mandated tire pressure monitor system; three-point seatbelts in all seating positions with adjustable seatbelt anchors on front and second row seats, driver's seatbelt Emergency Locking Retractor (ELR), and Automatic Locking Retractors (ALR) on all other seatbelts; front seatbelts with pretensioners and force limiters; driver and front passenger Active Headrests; driver and front passenger airbags with Advanced Airbag System; driver and front passenger seat-mounted side airbags; driver knee airbag; three-row side curtain airbags; side impact beams in front and sliding side doors; LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children); child protector sliding door locks; jam protection for power windows. Optional all-wheel drive enhances safety in adverse conditions. The Pre-Collision System is optional with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control. Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management System (VDIM), Hill Assist Control (HAC), Safety Connect, and front and rear sonar are optional or included on premium models. All of this stuff is a very good idea.
All prices are Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Prices (MSRP), which may change without notice at any time. Prices do not include destination charges.
The new 2011 Toyota Sienna doesn't look exactly like a minivan, because a number of classic minivan visual cues have been eliminated. It has a wider stance, with broader flared shoulders, and a more compelling, contemporary front face with sophisticated, highly angular headlamps. The lights have projector lamps and halogen high beams combined in a compact, slender design.
From the side, the 2011 Sienna looks much sleeker overall, and less boxy in appearance than previously. The track for the sliding rear doors is completely concealed, so the rear doors look like they belong on a sedan or crossover SUV. The rear windows are shaped in a tapered trapezoid and inclined inward like a sedan, again contradicting the standard boxy minivan look.
The rear has been designed with a low, wide bumper and a roof spoiler that hides the rear wiper, for a stronger, cleaner appearance. LED tail and stop lamps are used, which illuminate more quickly and consume less power.
Overall, the exterior looks cleaner and sleeker, and it is. Aerodynamic work, including underbody covers to help manage airflow, has reduced the coefficient of drag to 0.306.
There are quite a few differences from model to model. Each has a distinctive grille, ranging from the sporty mesh grille on the SE to the chrome four-slot arrangement on the Limited. Unite 17-, 18-, and 19-inch wheels are used depending on the model and options. SE, XLE and Limited models have integrated front fog lamps, and Limited has HID headlamps as an option. The SE has dark chrome accents around the lights and smoked headlight covers.
The Sienna SE gets special styling cues. The front has a more aggressive appearance. Side skirting visually lowers the vehicle and smoked headlights and taillights make a distinctive statement. Aerodynamic sculpting hugs the standard 19-inch alloy wheels. The SE sits lower, on a sport-tuned suspension.
The 2011 Sienna interior is distinctly modernistic. From the driver and passenger perspective, the cockpit uses flowing lines and round controls to achieve a sense of unified, integrated design. Prominently visible at the base of the center stack is a shape, something like a tadpole, that tapers laterally toward the passenger, to create the feeling that there is more room to share. To our eye, it's modern and effective, preventing the center stack from looking like a pile of squared-off rectangular boxes. Instead, the design suggests shared space and control areas, in a freshly contemporary atmosphere.
Design aside, the center stack contains the usual controls, with the message center at the top, the audio system just below, the climate control system below that, and storage and convenience features, such as cupholders and 12-volt plugs, at the lowest level. The shifter is located on the dash, closest to the driver, freeing center console space for storage.
There are three instrument designs, but the standard analog system uses bright blue numbering with red needles. In all three designs, a large speedometer and tach are combined with fuel and temperature gauges. The automatic transmission range and odometer are displayed on the LCD in the center of the meter, and an ECO-drive light has been added to indicate economical driving. The dash materials and cloth upholstery look and feel nice enough, although the upper pieces of the dashboard, while attractively textured, turn out to be hard plastic.
The steering wheel, padded and contoured, has buttons for audio system control on the left and Bluetooth phone control on the left. The wheel tilts and telescopes.
The front seats are passenger-car comfortable. They are six-way adjustable on the base Sienna model, and power eight-way adjustable on all other models, with memory available for the driver on Limited models. The front passenger seats are four-way, with power adjustability available on the Limited. The Sienna seats now travel about an inch farther, forward and back, compared to the previous generation, and have longer, wider cushions and adjustable armrests. Leather-trimmed and heated seats are standard on the XLE and Limited.
Second-row comfort was obviously a design priority. The second-row seats are mounted on very long sliders, 25.6 inches in length, so they can be moved very far forward or very far back, depending on the way the interior needs to be configured for people or cargo. With the seats at adjusted to the limit, a walk-in isle is created, big enough for an adult to walk through to help a child or an older passenger. With the second row seats adjusted all the way forward, walk-in access to the third row becomes possible.
Eight-passenger models use an arrangement that splits seating in a 40/20/40 proportion. That makes the second-row center seat small relative to the two outside seats, probably only actually useful for smaller people. When not in use, the center seat can be removed and stowed in a specially-designed compartment in the back, converting the second row to captain's chairs with room in between. The standard chairs are quite comfortable, but there is also an optional Lounge Seating feature available with Limited that equips the second-row captain's chairs with extended footrests.
On certain models, the back half of the center console can be extended rearward about a foot into the passenger area. With the console moved rearward, second-row passengers have more easily reached cupholders and another handy storage option.
Third-row seats are split 60/40, and fold flat with one touch. The third-row hip point is now two inches further back, which translates into leg-room for the third row occupants, and the seats recline a bit as well.
Versatility was another design priority, along with the ability to reconfigure the interior for different mixes of people and cargo. To convert from carrying people to carrying cargo, the Sienna's third-row seats easily fold flat and, when the second-row seats are folded far forward, 117 cubic feet of cargo area becomes available. With the second-row seats removed altogether, cargo area expands to 150 cubic feet. Even with just the third-row seats folded flat, there is 87 cubic feet of stowage behind the second row.
An oversized screen for the entertainment system is available for the Limited models that's large enough to split into two screens in case rear-seat occupants want entertainment from two different sources. That allows for playing a video game on half of the screen, and showing a movie on the other. Wireless headphones are available. The screen is unusually large, big enough for third-row passengers to see.
Tri-zone automatic climate control is standard on Sienna, LE and SE models, as is a cabin air filter that prevents pollen and dust from entering the vehicle.
The navigation system, a voice-activated, touch-screen system, is available on LE and Limited models. It supports an integrated backup camera with two views, and the 10-speaker JBL audio system, plus Bluetooth-capable audio devices. The system allows the user to control the source device using the car's steering wheel controls to play, pause and seek.
Toyota Safety Connect includes automatic collision notification, an emergency assistance button with 24-hour roadside assistance and the ability to locate a stolen vehicle by GPS. It comes standard on all models, with a one-year trial subscription.
A sonar parking assist system, with four ultrasonic sensors, is available on Sienna XLE models. The system sounds progressively as an object becomes closer to the vehicle. A similar system, with six sensors, is standard on Limited.
We spent a day in Laguna Nigel, California, testing the new Sienna. Our driving routes varied, taking us along the scenic Pacific Coast highway, through Dana Point harbor, and up the notoriously winding Ortega Highway. We started with a four-cylinder LE, moved into a LE V6, then an SE V6, and finally, a Limited with everything on it. Each model has a slightly different character, with the SE and Limited being the most distinctive.
The Sienna has electric power steering, which allowed engineers to tune the steering response for the different models. The Sienna SE has the tightest, most accurate and responsive steering of the models, along with the best handling and the best chassis control. The Limited model had the most power assist in the steering, and the chassis was tuned for comfort. Sienna LE and XLE models are somewhere in between, with steering and chassis priorities balanced 50/50 between comfort and handling.
Of the Sienna models we drove, the SE is by far the most appealing from a driving dynamics point of view. It steers exceptionally well for a minivan, more like a sports sedan. It corners without much body roll, with a nice crisp turn-in and a clean, stable track through the bends. This responsive personality is achieved with not too much ride tradeoff in the process. The 19-inch wheels and lower profile tires do allow a bit more road feel into the cabin, but it's not annoying, and the extra confidence allowed us to drive mountain roads at higher speeds in a relaxed manner. Frankly, we wish all minivans handled this well. We're not sure if a good-handling minivan is likely to become a major player in the marketplace, but if it is, the SE is a home run. We noticed the brakes become a little touchy when we hustled the SE down the Ortega Highway, but they don't lack for stopping power. All in all, we'd say the SE is a fun and responsive car to operate, in an attractive package. Drivers who drive aggressively will like the SE.
We also drove a four-cylinder LE and a V6 LE to get a sense of the difference between the two engines. The verdict: driven around town, and without a full load, there is not much difference. The four-cylinder is definitely peppy and powers the Sienna well around town and through traffic. It has slightly lower final drive gearing, but shows 2000 rpm at 60 mph, which is not appreciably different from the V6. There is a little more vibration coming from the four-cylinder when you ask it to work hard, but other than that, the Sienna drives well with either engine. We would expect the V6 to be the smoother engine at highway speeds, with better passing power, but we think the two would be reasonably comparable the rest of the time.
The 2.7-liter four-cylinder makes 187 horsepower, but delivers its torque peak at 4100 rpm, about 600 rpm earlier than the V6, so it's quite driveable. In terms of fuel economy, with EPA ratings of 19/26/22 City/Highway/Combined, the four-cylinder is about two mpg better than the V6 overall, and one mpg better around town.
We did not have a chance to drive an all-wheel-drive Sienna AWD, but it has the same system as in the Toyota Highlander SUV, which biases torque based on information from wheel sensors. When wheel slip is detected, torque distribution is adjusted accordingly, providing better grip on icy or snowy roads. A key difference is that AWD models have run-flat tires and no spare. The tires, specially developed by Bridgestone, offer improved safety and performance in the event of a puncture through unique cooling ribs on the sidewall. They are designed to provide the capability to safely drive to a repair location. We would expect that they would ride a little harder than regular tires, and wear a little differently because of their unique construction and rubber compound. Our conclusion is that the AWD would be worth the investment in areas where weather conditions demand superior traction, but perhaps not attractive for owners who don't live in four-season climates.
Our last test loop of the day was in a Sienna Limited, which is the top of the line. It has the nicest interior; undeniably comfortable and well equipped. We immediately noticed the steering was tuned for ease of operation, with very high levels of power assist. That made the Limited easy to park and maneuver at low speeds, but it also required more attention to keep in the center of the lane driving quickly down a mountain road. The Limited is the kind of luxury wagon we would drive with hands in our lap, steering with the wrist, just taking it nice and easy.
All Sienna models have huge rear doors for easy entry. Access to the second and third row is easier than any minivan we can recall, because the door is so large, and headroom is good. Also, because the second row seats are on long tracks, it's possible to move them all the way forward to access the third row, or all the way back to walk into the passenger area. We think it would be possible for an average-size person to step in with a car seat, fasten it down and walk out, without having to kneel or crawl around.
Pretty much, all the Sienna models we drove were well insulated against wind, engine, and road noise. Toyota engineers used every trick in the book, padding, phase-shifting techniques, noise cancellation, sound absorbing materials and better engineered seals in the doors, among others, to keep noise to an absolute minimum.
The current Sienna was designed as a 2004 model, with minor changes in 2007. Since then, there have been momentous changes in the way cars are equipped, the way they look and handle, and the safety equipment that has evolved. With the 2011 Sienna, Toyota has designed all the latest advances into the car, and introduces new features never offered on any Toyota.
John Stewart filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com.
Toyota Sienna ($24,260), Sienna V6 ($25,500); LE ($25,345), LE V6 ($28,900), LE AWD V6 ($31,130); SE V6 ($30,550); XLE V6 ($32,175), XLE AWD V6 ($34,515); Limited V6 ($38,500); Limited AWD V6 ($39,770).
Options As Tested
Toyota Sienna Limited ($38,500).
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