by Marcia Ruff
A new player in the minivan market.
Base Price $27,520
As Tested $30,090
Sometimes it pays to come late to the party.
After years of lingering on the sidelines of the minivan market with the innovative but uncompetitive Previa, Toyota is finally stepping onto the main floor with the all-new Sienna.
During these years, Toyota had a chance to study the competition. It took the best minivan ideas out there and executed them well in its handsome new Sienna.
Selecting a Sienna is simple: it comes in one length with one powertrain, a powerful V-6 mated to a smooth four-speed automatic. Beyond that, it comes with all the best features pioneered by the leaders in the minivan market: it offers the two sliding doors, a feature popularized by Chrysler. It has the modular seats and optional power sliding door that General Motors contributed to the formula. And it has the good crashworthiness and car-like ride and handling that distinguish the Ford Windstar.
Put the Toyota name on such an intelligent package and you have a instant member of the minivan A-list. The Sienna hasn't invented any new dance steps, but it handles the old standards smoothly.
Toyota learned its lesson from its struggles with the Previa. It learned that most minivan buyers want conventional looks and uncompromised functionality.
The Previa was rear-wheel drive, anathema to buyers who like the wet-weather security of front-drive. It had an overworked four-cylinder engine hidden under the driver's seat. The rounded shape was too dramatic. To top it off, it was expensive.
Convention is the watchword for the new Sienna. In appearance, the Sienna is clean, 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 vehicle. 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 also conventional in its front-drive layout. It is based on a stretched version of the Camry platform. In fact, it is even 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 three inches narrower than the Chrysler vans and one 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, releasing easily and reconnectly surely.
The Inside Story
The interior of the Sienna is equally conventional. The easy step-in puts the driver in a commanding position with big, bright instrument panel gauges and an excellent view in all directions, thanks to all the glass.
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 -- a nice idea.
Pleasant as it is, the Sienna's interior most 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 all 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.
The Sienna has three trim levels: CE, LE and XLE. The $21,560 CE is pretty bald for the money. Air conditioning, cruise control, cassette player, and power windows, locks and mirrors are all optional. The second sliding door isn't even available. Since Toyota has the capacity to build only 70,000 Siennas a year, it is focusing on the better-equipped models.
Most people will likely opt for the mid-line LE for its superior package of features-for-the-dollar. The $24,395 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 $27,520 XLE. This is the only model that offers leather trim and a gloriously huge power moonroof ($2,390 for both), as well as the premium six-speaker audio system with radio, cassette and single-slot CD.
Ride & Drive
When you start with a Camry, you start well. The Sienna has borrowed heavily from the Camry, using its 3.0-liter V-6 engine, four-speed electronic transmission, steering system, gearbox, and front suspension.
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 V-6 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-liter V-6s.
But it's not the most powerful engine out there. With both Chrysler and Ford, you can order 3.8-liter V-6s 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.
What's not to like? The Sienna is a minivan that meets all the performance and function standards in the marketplace, and it's made by Toyota here in the USA.
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. Probably the only real drawback buyers can expect will be at the dealership where the Sienna's limited availability -- and likely popularity -- will cut down significantly on wheeling and dealing.
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