Despite the popularity of crossover SUVs, the minivan remains the king of family vehicles. Let's face it: The minivan's boxy shape is the best for maximizing passenger and cargo space within a given footprint, and its dual sliding rear doors make entry and exit super-easy. And to spark more interest in this function-over-form segment, there's the redesigned 2011 Toyota Sienna.
The newest Sienna is virtually the same size as the outgoing version, and as before it can seat seven or eight passengers and has available all-wheel drive -- a Sienna exclusive. But there are a number of significant changes for 2011. Among them are the debut of a four-cylinder engine, a new six-speed automatic transmission, available recliner-style seating for the second row and a new split-screen video monitor for the rear seat entertainment system.
Those on a tighter budget who are also looking for max fuel economy may want to consider the new four-cylinder base and LE trims. On the other side of the spectrum is the new Sienna SE, which comes with a sport-tuned suspension as well as styling tweaks that include lower skirting and a larger lower grille. What hasn't changed much is the Sienna's basic and likable character, which means a smooth, quiet ride, easy handling, comfortable seating and plenty of family-friendly features. And based on its strong record, we assume the Sienna will likely provide many miles of low-maintenance and trouble-free transportation.
Still, the Sienna has its age-old rival, the Honda Odyssey, vying for minivan supremacy. Previously, the Honda had the advantage in driving enjoyment with its superior steering feel and relatively agile handling, making it the choice for driving enthusiasts in need of practical family wheels. Now, however, Toyota offers the Sienna SE to appeal to that same consumer. The Sienna also has a quieter ride and continues to offer the option of all-wheel drive. The latter is an exclusive option for the 2011 Toyota Sienna, and gives it added appeal to those who live in inclement climates.
Another consideration is the value-packed Kia Sedona, which may not offer quite the same refinement in the cabin, but boasts solid performance and plenty of features for quite a bit less than the two stalwarts. Though the Chrysler-derived minivans (Grand Caravan, Town & Country and VW Routan) offer attractive styling and features, their build-quality problems and an antiquated base engine prevent us from recommending them. This sets the minivan market as a three-horse race. The Toyota is certainly the newest and has a lot going for it, but you'll also want to check out the Honda and Kia to determine which minivan best suits your needs.
Body Styles, Trim Levels and Options:
The 2011 Toyota Sienna minivan comes in five trim levels Â? base, LE, SE, XLE and Limited. The LE and XLE come in seven- and eight-passenger configurations; the base and Limited are seven-passenger only and the SE is eight-passenger only. All trims come with front-wheel drive while the LE, XLE and Limited can also be had with all-wheel drive.
The base Sienna includes 17-inch alloy wheels, dual sliding rear doors with power-down windows, triple-zone air-conditioning, full power accessories, a telescoping steering wheel, cruise control and a four-speaker CD/MP3 stereo with an auxiliary audio jack. The four-cylinder LE adds privacy glass, heated side mirrors, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, a 3.5-inch display (includes a back-up monitor), floor and overhead consoles and an 8-way (manual) driver seat. The LE V6 adds a roof rack, power-sliding side doors, auto-dimming rearview mirror, power lumbar supports (front seats), second- and third-row sunshades, Bluetooth and a six-speaker audio system (with satellite radio, a USB jack, iPod connectivity and Bluetooth audio).
The sport-themed SE is equipped similarly to the LE V6 but adds more aggressive styling via 19-inch alloy wheels, a unique front fascia (with foglights, mesh inserts and a larger air intake), lower body skirting and tinted head- and taillights. Inside the SE are leatherette/cloth upholstery, unique instruments and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The audio system, however, is essentially the base unit with six speakers.
The Sienna XLE features a unique metallic gray grille insert, a power liftgate, a sunroof, a tow prep package, triple-zone automatic climate control, leather upholstery, wood grain interior trim, a power driver seat, heated front seats and auto-up/down power windows. The AWD version of the XLE also comes with second-row lounge seats that feature pop-up footrests.
The plush Limited features 18-inch alloy wheels, a satin chrome grille, power-folding side mirrors (with auto-dimming, signal repeaters and puddle lamps), dual sunroofs, keyless ignition/entry, two-tone leather seating, driver memory settings, a leather-and-wood steering wheel, an upgraded 10-speaker JBL surround-sound audio system, second-row lounge seats and a power-folding/split third-row seat.
Options on the Toyota Sienna are grouped into packages that vary based on trim level and buying region. Notable highlights include xenon headlights, rain-sensing wipers, adaptive cruise control, a rear-seat DVD entertainment system (with a large screen that can be split to display two different sources) and a navigation system (with a back-up camera).
Powertrains and Performance:
Base and LE models come with a 2.7-liter inline-4 that makes 187 horsepower. Available on those two trims and standard on all others is a 265-hp 3.5-liter V6. Both engines come matched to a six-speed automatic transmission. The Sienna LE, XLE and Limited V6 models can also be had with all-wheel drive.
We timed the V6 (in front-drive Limited trim) from zero to 60 mph in a swift 7.9 seconds. The EPA fuel economy estimates come in at 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway and 22 mpg combined for the four-cylinder/front-wheel-drive models, with the V6/front-wheel-drive versions earning estimates of 18/24/20 and V6/AWD rating 16/22/18.
Antilock disc brakes, stability control, traction control, a windshield de-icer and a full complement of airbags (including driver knee, front-seat side and full-length side curtain) are standard on all 2011 Toyota Sienna models. The LE adds a rearview camera (with the monitor integrated into the rearview mirror).
The Limited also comes with front and rear park assist; it's optional on the XLE. If you opt for the navigation system, you'll also get a wider-range (180-degree) rearview camera that uses the large screen of the nav system as the monitor. At the test track, a Sienna Limited stopped from 60 mph in 127 feet -- about average for the minivan segment -- with a solid, confident brake pedal feel.
Interior Design and Special Features:
The Sienna's cabin is handsomely fitted with high-quality fabric on the lower trim levels and leather and somewhat unconvincing faux wood on the higher-end models. Some of the plastics, however, strike us as odd and downmarket, such as the purposely rough-textured plastic on the dash. The various controls are simple to use, storage space is plentiful and the seats are plush. The available rear seat entertainment system has a new split-screen monitor that can allow two different media (e.g. a movie on one side and a video game on the other) to be shown simultaneously.
Seven-passenger Siennas feature second-row captain's chairs that tip up to allow easier access to the third row. They also have a long-slide feature to maximize legroom for taller passengers. However, those seats do require a fair amount of effort to slide, and removing them is a job best left to two people, as they are rather heavy and awkward. The eight-passenger version uses a 40/20/40-split second-row bench whose center section slides close to the front seats for easier access to the little one seated there.
Models fitted with the lounge seats offer La-Z-Boy-style comfort to those in the second row, provided those seats are slid back far enough (and the front seats are up far enough) to allow the footrests to come up all the way. With the second-row seats out and the third row stowed, the Sienna provides a massive 150 cubic feet of maximum cargo capacity.
Equipped with the V6, the 2011 Toyota Sienna offers truly spirited performance, just as we've come to expect from this jewel of a power plant. This year's new alternative, the 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine, is a smooth and fairly quiet operator, and it has enough punch to deal with traffic and freeway cruising with two people aboard. But when faced with steeper inclines, quick merging or a full load of passengers, it has to work harder and the thrust quickly tapers off. The smart six-speed automatic does a great job at keeping the four-cylinder lively, but the downside of this powertrain is that the fuel economy isn't that much different from the V6's.
The Sienna's ride quality is plush, and handling is competent in all versions. The SE, due to its recalibrated suspension, provides more agile handling with a somewhat firmer (though still comfortable) ride quality. The steering is typical Toyota, meaning precise if somewhat numb, though the SE offers a meatier feel in the wheel.