These days, it seems, the minivan is an endangered species. How many of us want to fess up to loving the family haulers? That has helped fuel a boom in crossovers and thin the herd of mediocre vans. Now comes the 2011 Sienna — the "Swagger Wagon" of TV ads and viral videos — which proves there's life yet in the sliding-door set.
Appearance: The third-generation Sienna gets an updated look, with more muscular fender flares. The trapezoidal grille is more Lexus-like. The headlights are elongated and follow the lines to the side of the van. Alas, the side profile is still a minivan. The windshield angle flows into the hood lines, but the front seems to just suddenly fall.
Performance: Our tester had the 3.5-liter 6-cylinder with front-wheel drive. (The Sienna is the only minivan on the market to offer AWD as an option.) Our tester, with its smooth-shifting six-speed automatic transmission, had plenty of power to pull the big 4,310-pounder. Other Sienna trims offer a 4-cylinder, but we'd stick with the 6. We were pleasantly surprised that the van had a more carlike ride — not the floaty ride common in vans — and cornered well for a top-heavy vehicle. The steering is now electronic, not hydraulic, but still offers feedback.
Interior: The Sienna seats up to eight and is loaded with features, especially the XLE trim we drove. Toyota worked hard to make the cockpit attractive, with well-placed and easy-to-read gauges and controls. Toyota has a way of making plastic look more upscale with different textures, and its asymmetrical dash layout makes it feel more upscale. There's a love-it-or-hate it wood trim that accents the dash, doors and thick, comfortable steering wheel. In addition to the navigation system, there is a small, secondary color display mounted atop the dash. In the second row, the center seat is a removable jump seat. We found it narrow, hard and uncomfortable. However, it is wide enough for a booster seat. Lyra's son enjoyed sitting there because it provides a good view forward, plus it's front and center for watching DVDs. Peter's girls especially liked the large, 16.4-inch split dual video screen, which allows passengers to watch two different shows. (A pair of wireless headsets comes with the entertainment center.) Here's a nice touch for the kids, especially when smaller ones fall asleep: The side windows have a retractable mesh sun screen. The second-row seats tip and slide for easy access to the third row, but they don't fold into the floor like some of the competition. The third row does, however.
Our 3 favorites
Large windows: There's lots of side visibility.
Video screen: It's big enough to satisfy two kids with different tastes.
Front end: I like the bolder look and its louvered, razor-blade grille.
Heat deflectors: Retractable mesh sunscreens for rear side windows.
Power doors: Easy in, easy out with a push of a button.
Reclining seats: Kick back, relax and watch a DVD on the video screen.
The bottom line
Moms and dads, minivans need not be spartan or boring. If you've been attracted by Toyota's fun ad campaign, know that there's a lot of steak to the sizzle. An entry price point in the mid-$20Ks makes it even better.