The Camry of minivans.
by Mitch McCullough
Base Price $21,968
As Tested $30,281
Toyota's Sienna offers strong power, a silky smooth transmission, and a nice ride quality. Comfortable and practical, the Sienna has been called the Toyota Camry of minivans. That's not surprising because the Toyota Sienna shares the popular Camry's chassis and smooth V6 engine. The Sienna is available with all the best features available in the minivan market: a power sliding door, modular seats, V6 engine, car-like ride and handling. Its just-right size fits in between the Chrysler Town & Country and Voyager. And the Sienna is a top performer in terms of crashworthiness.
Three trim levels are available: CE, LE and XLE. Retail prices: CE 4-Door ($21,968); CE 5-Door ($22,858); LE ($24,898); XLE ($26,934). All Siennas use Toyota's V6 to power the front wheels through a four-speed automatic transmission. All are the same length. An optional power sliding door on the right is available for LE and XLE models ($395).
Of the three trim levels, the CE is basic: Air conditioning, cruise control, cassette player, and power windows, locks and mirrors are all optional. The CE is available as a four-door model - there's just one sliding door, on the right side. (The rear hatch counts as a door.)
Mid-line LE comes with all the popular features. It comes standard with dual-temperature air conditioning with separate controls for the rear, power windows, locks and mirrors, cruise control, privacy glass and better quality cloth. It also offers most of the available options, including the captain's chairs, six-speaker audio system and power sliding door.
XLE adds body-colored trim, remote keyless entry, heated mirrors, upgraded stereo, anti-theft alarm, multi-adjustable driver's seat, second-row captain's chairs, wider tires, alloy wheels and a roof rack. The XLE Upgrade Package #1 ($1,610) provides leather trim and a premium six-speaker audio system with radio, cassette and CD changer. Also available for Sienna is a huge power moonroof and a towing package.
With its clean, conventional looks, the Sienna is a classic minivan with subtle touches of sport-utility styling. The long, sloping nose is unmistakably minivan, but 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 characteristic.
Sienna uses a stretched version of the Camry platform. It is built on the same Georgetown, Kentucky, assembly line as the Camry. Basing the Sienna on the Camry results in 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. Its length (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 seats can be removed with the seat backs folded flat, which makes them easier to handle. The seat latches are superbly executed; they release easily and are simple to re-install.
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. Child-safety door locks defeat the inside door handles on all sliding doors. At the full-open position, an interlock stopper prevents sliding doors from sliding closed when parked on a downhill grade. A half-door stopper prevents the left-side sliding door from fully opening when the fuel lid is opened to prevent the door from making contact with the fueling area.
The optional right-side power sliding door can be opened by pressing buttons on the dash, keyless remote or B-pillar, or by pulling on the inside or outside latches. 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. A switch next to the steering wheel allows the driver to override these buttons so that the power sliding door cannot be opened. The power sliding door feature works without having the key in the ignition. The power sliding door can be opened like a normal door when the power switch is turned off. The power sliding door senses when an obstacle is in its path and automatically retracts.
Step-in height is much lower than that of an SUV, making getting in and out much easier for shorter people, older people and everyone else. Once in, the driver enjoys an expansive view of the road, though the seating position is not as high as in many sport-utility vehicles. Visibility is excellent in all directions, thanks to all the glass. Big mirrors (power on LE and XLE models) offer a good view to the rear. Instruments are big, bright and easy to read.
All seating positions are very comfortable. Our Sienna was outfitted in the optional leather upholstery, which is attractive, luxurious and easy to clean. Low side bolstering on the seats makes slipping in and out of them easier, but they lack support to keep you comfortably anchored in aggressive side-to-side maneuvers. Though the rear two rows of seats don't offer as much room as the bigger Honda Odyssey, Dodge Grand Caravan or Chrysler Town & Country, they provide enough room to comfortably seat six people. With a little cooperation among the passengers, fore and aft adjustments for the second row (and, of course, the front row) permit optimum space for people of varying heights.
Storage is close at hand without impeding the generous pass-through between the front seats that makes it easy to move from the front to the rear without getting out. Little nets attached to the sides of the front seats are great for storing toll tickets, sunglasses or wallets. Fold-down cupholders next to the storage net secure drinks but flip up out of the way when not in use; they don't look like they'd hold tall drinks well, but securely held my Venti-sized paper cappuccino cup.
The second row can be equipped with either captain's chairs or a two-place bench 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. Cupholders, up to 14 of them, are everywhere. Either captain's chairs or a three-place bench can be ordered for the third row; the captain's chairs are preferable if you only require seating for six people.
Climate controls are mounted high on the center dashboard for good access. Radio controls are mounted relatively low, but access to them is reasonably good. Available audio control switches mounted on the steering wheel allow the driver to easily adjust the volume, mute the sound, select stations and change CD tracks without looking away from the road. An available in-dash six-disc changer means no searching for CDs on long trips and no fussy CD magazines to mess with; just press the Load button and start sliding them in. The column-mounted shifter works well, slipping cleanly into the desired gear. The shift lever feels spindly, however, and a ragged-looking shift boot detracts from the handsome interior.
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 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 good. The steering isn't as sharp, the transient response isn't as crisp as some of the other minivans. It leans in the corners, and seems a bit mushy in transient maneuvers. But overall, it handles well and its soft suspension makes up for any handling deficiencies with its smooth ride quality and solid stability on the highway.
Toyota's V6 is easy to live with. It's smooth, reliable, and economical. It generates 194 horsepower, significantly more than either the Chrysler or Ford 3.0-liter V6s. Toyota's V6 is efficient with EPA fuel economy ratings of 18/24 mpg city/highway. Chrysler and Ford each offer 3.8-liter V6 engines with a lot more torque, but the Toyota V6 provided plenty of power. Passing other vehicles on hills is easy: Punch it and the Sienna takes off, quickly putting the slower vehicle away. On turnpikes and Interstates in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland, the Sienna offered excellent high-speed stability. Power was never an issue. Toyota recommends premium fuel.
The four-speed automatic transmission is excellent. It always chooses the right gear, forming a team with the V6. Shifts are so smooth when cruising that they are nearly seamless; under hard acceleration the transmission provides positive shifts at the redline. Anti-lock brakes come standard on the Sienna, which offers smooth stopping performance.
The Sienna may lack a few features that can be found on some of its competitors, such as the rear audio jacks on the Ford and GM models that let the kids enjoy separate music. But overall, the Sienna offers a high-quality minivan experience: comfortable, smooth travel, convenience when loading and unloading. Also in the Sienna's favor is Toyota's reputation for quality, durability and reliability, along with high resale value.
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