Toyota Sienna’s versatility is sublimely cool

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For 2011, Toyota brought out an Sienna SE that is tuned for sharper handling.


Who the heck at Toyota decreed that the 2011 Sienna had to swagger?

Dubbing a minivan a “Swagger Wagon” doesn’t impart cool, it reeks of over-compensating.

Unless you’re an insecure parent, a branding slave, or a pushover for the “aspirational marketing” drivel, you should know that the Sienna is a major player in a class of vehicles that’s been understated and cool in its own way — think Steve McQueen — for years.

Anyone who’s ever owned, rented or borrowed one knows that personal-sized vans empowerment vehicles when you need to haul people, critters, cargo and/or toys. Years ago, an amazing machinist schooled me on the joys of vans. He campaigned a top alcohol dragster — and his van served as a tow vehicle and rolling locker for tools and expensive spare aluminum engine blocks.

Sierra Limited models have two-tone "lounge seats" with long slides in the second row.

But do your tastes run to slower, more tranquil pastimes?  Take a minivan out to a lake or forest, yank the back two rows of seats and voila! Enjoy a sleeping compartment that’s impervious to rain, mud and creepy crawlers.

The third-generation 2011 Sienna XLE shows the benefits of evolution and competition.  Toyota’s mid-sized van handles as well or better than many cars did in the ’60s, manages decent fuel economy (18/24 miles per gallon city/highway EPA with the 266-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 in front-wheel-drive models) and is packed with comfort and convenience features.

New for 2011 is a 2.7-liter four-cylinder inline engine that’s standard in base Siennas.  Rated at 187 horses, the four provides an EPA-estimated 19 mpg in city driving. That’s just one more than the 3.5, so most folks have been springing for the six and its 245 lb.-ft. of torque (at 4,700 rpm). The V6 also sports a 3,500-pound maximum towing capacity.

While the revamped Sienna’s sheet metal has a more muscular, edgier look than the vanilla form of the previous generation, it retains the same 119.3 wheelbase. The 2011 is, however, 0.8 inch wider and 0.8 inch shorter than the 2010 Sienna.

It’s also a tad more versatile and comfortable, with long seat tracks (Toyota claims 23 inches of travel in seven-seat configurations) for the second-row seats.  That means occupants in that row have plenty of room to stretch out. The seats also can slide forward, close to the front seats, to ease access to the third row. Stowing the second- and third-row seats creates a cargo hold that’s roughly eight feet long and four feet wide.

The basic box delivers an optimal cargo configuration.

The basic box delivers an optimal cargo configuration.

Here’s the down-and-dirty on choosing an affordable, yet useful, Sienna. First off, don’t get too excited about the Sienna’s $26,745 starting price. (Prices cited here include destination and handling charges.)  Remember that for 2011, the Sienna gets the 2.7-liter inline four-cylinder engine – but only in the base seven-passenger base or eight-passenger LE model. Like all Siennas for 2011, the entry-level Sienna comes with a six-speed automatic transmission, air conditioning, power windows and remote keyless entry.

Moving up to the LE ($31,385 for the eight-passenger) gets you power sliding doors.

But what about that useful remote-controlled power rear door? It’s not available with the LE. You’ll need at least the SE, which throws in the remote-controlled hatch as part of a $1,500 “preferred package.”  The SE comes to $34,800 when the preferred package and tow preparation are thrown in.  (And note, the SE only comes in the eight-passenger configuration.)

Here’s the thing: unless the lower stance, snazzier wheels and sport suspension of the SE are big deals for you, the XLE eight-passenger Sienna is a better buy because its $33,785 price tag includes the power rear door, the tow preparation and power tilt/slide moonroof — at less than the SE without a moonroof.

Retractable monitor shows ultra wide display, or splits into two with dual inputs.

And note that with the SE, you’ll be forking over more money when it’s time to replace its P235/50R19 tires. The standard rubber on the XLE is 235/60R17. I drove an SE and while it is a little more responsive, it’s no AE86/Corolla GT-S.  The top dog in the lineup is the Limited. The major features that your $39,675 gets you are dual moonroofs and 18-inch wheel and tires.

If you have a family member who needs a wheelchair or otherwise has a tough time getting in and out of vehicles, Toyota offers a “mobility” version of its seven-passenger LE or XLE. The centerpiece here is the “auto access seat” which articulates via remote control to make exiting and entering the vehicle much easier. The seat, which matches the rest of the interior, can handle up to 330 pounds.  The LE mobility model starts at $36,745. The XLE mobility is $41,055.

Starting at $32,740, Toyota offers all-wheel-drive (AWD) with the LE, XLE and Limited models. None of the leading competitors – Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Caravan or the Honda Odyssey – are available with AWD.

In March, J.D Power and Associates released the results of its latest Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS) and the Sienna sparkled. The JD Power project examines 12 months of problems experienced by the original owners of three-year-old vehicles (so these were 2008 models). If you’re shopping for a van, it’s worth noting that the 2008 Sienna earned the top score – 150 — in the mid-size van category.

J.D. Power quantifies vehicle reliability in terms of how many problems turn up per 100 vehicles (PP100).

Instrument panel is handsome, but hard plastic dash material and pattern are letdowns.

The good news: This year’s study showed that overall vehicles are the most trouble-free they’ve been since the study was started in 1990. The problem rate for all vehicle segments averaged 151 PP100.  So while the Sienna got top marks, it is just a hair better than average. Two other 2008 Toyota products did much better than average – the Prius (97) and the 4Runner (103).

If there’s one thing to watch on the robustness front, it’s a trend that might be called the “high-tech effect.” For 2011, the JD Power study’s historical 8 percent reliability improvement rate has dropped off a bit. The Westlake Village, Calif.-based market research company said 2008 vehicles only improved 6 percent, overall.  A significant factor, JD Power said, were increasing reports of glitches with electronic features such as including audio, entertainment and navigation systems, as well as relatively new safety features such as tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS).

One area of consumer concern that is safe, is safety. The 2011 Sienna earned  “Top Safety Pick” status from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an insurance-industry highway safety research organization based in Arlington, Va.

Stowing the third-row seats is easy, thanks to well-placed switches


About the Author

Look under the hood and you'd discover that Jeff’s lifelong interest and passion in all things automotive was practically genetically encoded. An award-winning journalist, he served on the staff of the San Jose Mercury News and the Los Angeles Times. Today he contributes to many news outlets. Jeff is a graduate of Cal State Long Beach and earned his master's degree at Ohio State University, where he was a Kiplinger fellow.