Coolness is effectively the art of doing it wrong. The best music isn’t always the most pleasing to the ear and great paintings are rarely pretty. Fashionably good looking clothes are rarely well suited to any task and conversely, going about your business in combat boots, cargo pants and a tactical vest would make you look like a tool. The coolest kids at school take a lax view of their studies and tend to misbehave. The goody goody overachievers are dorks.
With that in mind, we bring you the Toyota Sienna.
There’s no beating a Van, particularly a front-wheel drive van, for usable interior volume. The engine and transmission are crammed up front, with only the fuel tank, spare tire and rear suspension to be fit under the body. While not glamorous by any measure, it’s got to be a designer’s dream come true to have near free reign to wring the most utility out of a given volume. Toyota’s designers did just that: whether it’s people, gear or both, the Sienna can be rapidly configured to swallow whatever you’re trying to feed it.
As a not-so-mini minivan, the Sienna wasn’t exactly hurting for rear storage, but maybe by the time you accumulate eight people’s worth of gear a standard “way-back” starts to get full. The solution? Toyota’s carved an extra 18″ out of the floor where one might expect the spare or the fuel tank to go. The resulting storage pit rivals my compact wagon’s whole rearend for volume. Just be careful when dropping something over the backs of the rear seats. It’s a long way down.
Gone are the days of heaving a 70lb rear seat into the garage should you need to carry more furniture and fewer people. With a one-handed tug on a strap, the Sienna’s third row disappears into the way-back’s storage pit. A (hearty) one-handed pull brings it back up. The seat is split, so you can go halfsies between people and gear in you need to. Way-back passengers also benefit from reclining seat backs.
Moving forward in the cabin, the middle row sports captain’s chairs that slide with the flick of a lever. This isn’t just for third row access, both seats slide far enough fore and aft to open up huge areas of floorspace. With the third row down and the second row all the way forward, you could practically park an original Mini in the back. Sliding them back would leave enough room to set of a genuinely entertaining slot car track behind mom and dad. The seats are comfortably grownup sized, provided you’re a grownup and not a “grown-out“. Typically, captain’s chairs come at the cost of an extra seat, capping seating at seven, rather than eight. The Sienna includes a removable jump seat that attaches to the driver’s side captain’s chair. It’s a nifty feature for the rare occasion when all three kids bring a friend, but not a seat that anyone would want for a cross-country journey. When not in use, it stores in a pocket in the side of the rear storage area.
Buying a minivan represents a choice to put your kids’ needs ahead of your own. Such is the case up front in the Sienna. The seats are acceptable, but honestly a bit disappointing for a top of the line trim spec like our Limited. The dashboard has a nice visual design to it, despite the swath of wood looking like it’s co-branded with Puma. Unfortunately, when we go from looking to touching (stop laughing) things get a bit disappointing. The plastics are hard and respond to a tap with a thin-feeling “tink” rather than a “thunk”. The wood is entirely unconvincing. I’d also be remiss as an auto reviewer if I didn’t point out the ill-fitting panels on the passenger side of the dash. That said, functionally speaking, it’s great. Controls are well laid out, and the ceiling mounted console features controls for all three power doors and a fisheye mirror for keeping an eye on your brood (or drunk friends).
Our Sienna Limited came with Toyota’s slick rear seat entertainment system which features a drop-down widescreen monitor that can be hooked up to the onboard DVD player or auxiliary inputs and runs audio either through the car’s speakers or to wireless headsets. The video screen has a “dual view” feature where it’ll display a split-screen between two inputs. As my son’s still pre-TV, so The Missus and I decided to grab a bottle of wine and watch (the original) TRON on DVD. In the driveway. We are not cool people. For the most part, the system worked great, but did reveal two main weaknesses. First, there’s no way to control volume from the rear of the car if the audio’s playing over the main speakers. Secondly, a couple of power-door openings and a two hour movie drain the battery enough to put the Sienna into a battery protection shutdown mode. Basically, don’t plan on using it as a mobile theater during a soccer tournament without occasionally running the engine.
Speaking of the running the engine, we need to at least mention the driving dynamics. There are none to speak of. The 266hp 3.5L V6 and six speed auto have enough power to get moving in in-town traffic and cruise in the 80s on the freeway. The chassis is smooth but not wallow-y, but not particularly graceful when it comes to cornering or weight transfer. None of this is meant as a knock against the Sienna, as no one’s buying a 200 inch long, 4500lb box on wheels to carve the canyons.
At the end of the day, what do we make of our blue whale?
It’s odd that SUVs and CUVs have replaced minivans, given that the Sienna offers more actual utility within its ponderous hull than any SUV. The Sienna can also be ordered with all wheel drive (unfortunately starting at $38k), eliminating yet another excuse for buying an SUV. The seating, the storage, the reconfigurability, they’re all better than any vehicle we’ve ever tested (hint, hint, Honda and Chrysler). That said, Toyota’s attempts to impart any feeling of luxury fail. As with the 4Runner Limited, Toyota’s leather feels public-transit grade. The “wood” and plastics aren’t bad to look at, but have a lousy feel to them. Despite the excellent utility, our tester’s $39,606 price is a tough swallow, as the finish and trim just aren’t on par with we’d like to see in a nearly $40,000 van. Luckily, it’s not hard to ease back on the options and end up at an acceptable price point in the low $30s, in which case the Sienna succeeds at almost everything it sets out to do.
In short, it’s as uncool as can be.