Pros: Unparalleled performance from the optional V6; plenty of available technology; exclusive all-wheel-drive option; choice of seven- or eight-passenger capacity

Cons: Sparse standard features on lower trim levels; base inline-4 is no more fuel-efficient than the V6

The bold 2012 Toyota Sienna minivan is a good example of the way historically conservative Toyota has stepped up its game recently. Just consider the previous-generation Sienna, a four-wheeled blob with an equally drab, if high-quality, interior-and now look at the new 2012 Sienna with its crisp lines, aggressive front-end styling (especially in sport-tuned SE trim) and edgy cabin. Some rival designers have been taking more chances lately, and Toyota seems determined to do the same, even in the notoriously dull minivan segment.

But merely jazzing up the looks isn't enough, of course; the Sienna is intended to be a leader in other respects as well. And for the most part, we think the Sienna's recent redesign squarely hits this target. Let's run down the list: the Sienna has the best V6 of any minivan and the only available all-wheel-drive system, and it even offers recliner-style second-row seats and a rear-seat entertainment system with an enormous 16.4-inch split-screen display. It's starting to sound like the minivan version of that annoying kid who does everything well.

Well, not quite everything. The base four-cylinder engine, for example, appears to exist only to keep the price down, since its fuel economy is no better than the V6's. And if you're looking to save money by getting an entry-level Sienna, be forewarned that standard equipment on those models is far from plentiful. But overall, as a happy marriage of flair and functionality, the 2012 Sienna really stands out. If this is what happens when Toyota stops being conservative, we're eager to see more.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Toyota Sienna comes in base, LE, XLE, Limited or SE trim. The base Sienna includes 17-inch alloy wheels, tri-zone manual climate control, cruise control, power accessories, seven-passenger seating and a four-speaker (yes, four) audio system with an auxiliary audio jack. Pretty stingy for a $25,000-plus vehicle, if you ask us.

The four-cylinder LE is similarly equipped for the most part, but it adds eight-passenger seating and easy-clean upholstery, and it's also eligible for options like dual power sliding doors, a six-speaker audio system with iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity, a 3.5-inch information display with a rear-view camera and a power driver's seat. Most of these options are standard on the LE V6.

The XLE model tacks on leather upholstery, a sunroof and heated front seats, as well as options like 10-speaker premium JBL sound and the 16.4-inch split-screen rear entertainment system. The Limited reverts to seven-passenger seating, albeit with fancy lounge-like recliners as second-row seats, and it offers what Toyota says is the first dual-pane sunroof in which both panes fully retract. Options on the Limited include xenon headlamps and adaptive cruise control. Finally, the sporty SE trim sacrifices some of the XLE's and Limited's luxuries, but it boasts an aggressive body kit, a lowered sport-tuned suspension and unique instrumentation and interior trim.

From the driver's seat, the Sienna's dashboard definitely has some verve. Look at the diagonal line that splits the center stack, for example, or the stylized gauge faces. We're not used to seeing such design flourishes in a minivan. Materials quality is just okay, but at least the textures are interesting, and the aforementioned diagonal line gives the optional wood trim a very distinctive shape.

The Sienna's front seats provide satisfactory support on long trips, although they do make us miss the superior chairs in the Honda Odyssey. In the base seven-passenger version, the second row consists of standard captain's chairs that slide fore and aft. Opt for an eight-seat Sienna, and you get a special center seat in the second row that slides forward independently in case you want to keep an extra-close eye on a child sitting there. The top-of-the-line recliner-style captain's chairs feature footrests that flip up, but the front occupants will have to cooperate by sliding their seats up; otherwise, the footrests won't have room to extend.

Cargo space measures 39.1 cubic feet behind the third row, 87.1 cubic feet with the third row folded and an even 150.0 cubic feet if you remove the second-row seats. You can't beat a minivan for fitting stuff in.

Technology

As noted, the base Sienna is thin on features, offering just that four-speaker stereo without a whiff of Bluetooth or iPod connectivity. Your Toyota dealer can install a separate Bluetooth system as an accessory, but we'd like to see more standard technology goodies from the factory. On the bright side, if you're willing to pay more, the Sienna delivers some of the coolest gadgets in the minivan class, including the pièce de résistance-the rear-seat entertainment system with a 16.4-inch flip-down display that splits into two screens so that two kids can do their own thing. Note that Toyota's new smartphone-based Entune mobile app interface is currently not offered in the Sienna, although that may change.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The Sienna starts with front-wheel drive and a 2.7-liter inline-4 engine rated at 187 horsepower and 186 lb-ft of torque. This engine struggles to move the Sienna with authority, but we'd be more forgiving if it got better fuel economy than the optional V6-which it doesn't. To be specific, the inline-4 is EPA rated at 19 mpg city/24 mpg highway, while the 3.5-liter V6 checks in at 18/25 mpg.

So if you need to save the money, we understand, but otherwise we absolutely recommend the V6. It cranks out 266 hp and 245 lb-ft of torque, and there's just not another minivan that can touch it when you put your foot down. The strong fuel economy is icing on the cake. Both engines employ a six-speed automatic transmission, but keep in mind that only the V6 is eligible for all-wheel drive, which knocks efficiency down a bit to 17/23 mpg.

Safety

The Sienna comes standard with stability control, seven airbags (including full-length side curtain airbags), active front headrests and four-wheel ABS.

In government crash tests, the Sienna received an overall score of four stars out of five, including four stars for frontal impact and five stars for side impact. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the Sienna its highest score of Good in all crash test categories.

Driving Impressions

The standard Sienna's suspension is soft and accommodating, successfully filtering out impact harshness even for rear occupants. This is a large minivan, so it's not exactly nimble, but the light steering and good visibility make it more pleasant to drive than most vehicles its size.

The SE model deserves special mention for its sport-tuned suspension, which actually does change the character of the van-for the better, in our opinion. It makes the Sienna feel more hunkered-down and in control without compromising the ride quality much, if at all. We think Toyota could make it the standard suspension without ruffling any feathers.

Other Cars to Consider

Honda Odyssey - The Sienna's perennial nemesis is back with a new design of its own, including a distinctive zigzag beltline. You should drive them both, although we like the Sienna's chances better than ever.

Dodge Grand Caravan - An also-ran just a few years ago, the DGC received a thorough make-over recently, including a freshened interior and a new 3.6-liter V6. We're now comfortable recommending it as a budget-priced alternative to the Japanese vans.

Kia Sedona - Don't be fooled by the Sedona's rental-lot exterior styling. The interior is quite nice, with plenty of features, and there's a very capable 3.5-liter V6 under the hood.

AutoTrader Recommends

We'd go with the V6-powered SE model. It's not the cheapest Sienna you can buy, but we think it's the best-driving minivan on the market. That's big news given the Odyssey's former dominance.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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