No matter how much minivans suffer from a negative family car stigma, people often come to a time in their lives when they realize that this type of vehicle is the best option for hauling kids, groceries, pets, and other accouterments of a settled life. With the updated 2011 Sienna, Toyota has foreseen and used technology to address a few of the challenges facing the modern, overburdened parent.
Practicality often dictates design, and such is the case with the new Sienna. Although the front incorporates some of the latest Toyota styling language with its angular grille opening and curved hood, the sides are dominated by large, power-operated sliding doors. A beltline shoots straight back from the fenders, adding a little more style, but ultimately the Sienna is a large box on wheels. It looks modern and will fit unassumingly into grocery store parking lots.
Our Limited trim model Sienna made a good case for the harried parent with its smart key system. Keeping the key fob in a pocket, we merely needed to touch the front door handle to unlock it, or give the sliding door handles a light pull for them to power open. We imagined a mother, arms loaded with grocery bags and two young scamps underfoot, benefiting greatly from this effortless entry.
Similarly, it just took a push of a button to start the car, with no need to rummage through pockets or bags for the key. Toyota's reliable 3.5-liter V-6 sat under the hood, an engine that is more than adequate for moving the Sienna. Its 265 horsepower and 245 pound-feet of torque, working through a six-speed automatic transmission, got us quickly off the line at traffic lights, let us merge on freeways, and powered up hills without losing steam.
During passing maneuvers, flooring the gas got the transmission to kick down and stirred up an awful racket from the engine, as if it were complaining about the effort we asked of it. But it still provided the push we needed to pass trucks and other slow traffic.
Toyota also offers a 2.7-liter four-cylinder, which makes 187 horsepower, but we can't see the point of this engine. The EPA rating for the V-6 is 18 mpg city and 24 mpg highway (16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway for the all-wheel-drive version), while the four-cylinder gets 19 mpg city and 24 mpg highway; not much of a gain, and a big loss of power. In our V-6 version, we turned in a final fuel economy of 19.7 mpg.
Maneuvering around parking lots, we found another feature of the Sienna that should please parents: the overpowered steering makes low-speed turns very easy. We could turn the wheel with a single finger. Combined with its good turning radius, we drove through the most treacherous parking garages incident-free.
Further enhancing our parking lot prowess, our car came with a backup camera showing distance and trajectory lines. The camera is invaluable for reversing the Sienna, as a rear cabin filled with rough-housing children can destroy rear visibility. Given the bulk of the vehicle, it could also benefit from the type of around-view camera system we saw in the Infiniti EX35.
At speed, the steering lacks much road feel due to its tuning, but that is to be expected. The few times we put the Sienna through some fast corners, it showed a lot of body movement, the suspension designed more to handle speed bumps than apexes. But the ride could also have been a little smoother; it seemed to jounce around a little too much over some harsher road surfaces.
A more stable platform would have been nice, as the middle-row seats proved very inviting. In our car's seven-passenger configuration, two captain's chairs made up the second row, and each had an integrated ottoman and reclining back that put us in La-Z-Boy heaven. A massage feature would have completed the picture.