With its brand new third-generation 2011 Sienna, Toyota introduces a raft of improvements and changes. As before, practicality rules, but the new model offers more style and carlike driving characteristics.
Look at the carefully rendered face and unusual sculpted rear corners. Although minivans must, by necessity, be boxes, they don't need to resemble shipping containers. This new Sienna is quite American, designed by Toyota's Calty Design Research in California, developed at the Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan and built in Indiana. It's definitely prettier, but still holds seven or eight people.
And that's good, because, particularly with the V6, fuel economy is 16 City, 22 Highway (I averaged 17.8 mpg). That number isn't that impressive, but when you divide it by 7 or 8, the people-per-miles-per-gallon number is excellent.
The interior borrows inspiration from the fresh new Prius in its overall design motifs and its wavy dashboard texture. The nonreflective dash plastic is hard in all locations, no padding at all. The light gray in my tester kept the feeling bright, although the plastic itself feels a little cheap.
The new vehicle comes if five grades, from a "basic" Sienna though familiar alphabetic monikers, LE, SE, XLE and Limited. The sporty SE is new this year. How fancy do you want to go? I tested a Mystic Teal Metallic XLE that was loaded to the gunwales with the kind of things that used to distinguish luxury sedans. That means leather seats, heated in front, and a range of options, including upscale audio and the rear-seat Dual View Entertainment system.
The Dual View system places two displays together side-by-side so you can have widescreen entertainment, large enough for third row passengers, or have two different programs running simultaneously. You wouldn't want anyone back there to get bored on the way to grandma and grandpa's house in the next state. A drop-down "conversation mirror" helps you keep tabs on the kids.
The Sienna now comes with a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine for the first time, but my tester had the larger 3.5-liter V6. Both offer high tech features such as variable valve timing and an acoustically controlled induction system, but the four works harder to move the 4,750-pound people carrier along. Its 187 horsepower is dwarfed by the V6's 266 hp.
All Siennas get a six-speed sequential-shift automatic, and in my tester it did just what it was supposed to do. I wouldn't have expected less. Nobody wants to shift for themselves in a minivan.
You can order all-wheel drive in an SE, XLE or Limited, the Sienna is the only minivan that offers it. It adds about 200 pounds. Of course, there's nothing you need to do to activate it.
The EPA's Green Vehicle Guide rates the Sienna about midpack, but that's not surprising considering the amount of weight it's moving. Both the 2.7 and 3.5 front-wheel-drive models earn a respectable six for Air Pollution but a below-average 4 in Greenhouse Gas. The all-wheel-drive 3.5 model gets only 3 for Greenhouse Gas.
Driving the Sienna is pretty effortless. The electric steering is light and at first, before I got used to it, seemed weak on center, but that feeling faded over the test week. You sit up high, but there is no SUV stylized ruggedness.
The center console features two screens. The smaller top one shows temperature, time and trip computer information while the lower one handles the audio and navigation chores. The audio display provides nice long fields for artist and song titles yet mysteriously cuts them off at 16 characters. I was also surprised that my car had dual cupholders in the floor console between the front seats and two MORE that pulled put from the dash nearby. Great if you're really thirsty.
The rear portion of the floor console slides back nearly two feet, creating a shallow storage area while extending cupholders to second row folks who slide their seats back. Standard on the Limited but optional on my XLE, lounge seating gives these lucky people pop-up leg support with a pull of a handle. The seats are a little short of legroom when you stretch out but kids will love them.
Every Sienna includes standard cruise control, tri-zone air conditioning, six-or-eight-way adjustable driver's seat, power windows, power mirrors and locks and a four-speaker audio system. Each level adds more. Nice: You can operate both side sliding doors and the power rear door from the key fob.
Prices begin at $25,270 for the base car, including an $810 destination charge. The Limited starts at $39,510. That's a wide range, but with this car you can get almost anything you want.