Minivans have always been superior as people movers. They're easier to park and drive than SUVs, have a low step-in height for easy access, plus comfortable seating and cushy ride characteristics.
The Toyota Sienna has been designed since the beginning to optimize those advantages. But times change, and so has the Sienna. Toyota rolled out an all-new, fifth-generation Sienna for 2011. The 2012 Sienna is nearly identical, with only minor changes regarding standard equipment and options.
This latest-generation Sienna is very much a transportation solution for moving up to eight people, but it is also versatile as a cargo mover, with more flexible interior configurations.
Visually, the 2012 Sienna looks less like a minivan than previous generations, with lower, longer lines, and a wider stance. For 2011, Toyota designers altered the profile and stance to make the Sienna more appealing. Although the current model is based on the same mechanical platform as the previous generation, with the same wheelbase, it has more interior room. Interior seating arrangements were completely redesigned and can be rearranged more easily to carry passengers, haul cargo, or any mix of both.
Sienna excels in second-row passenger comfort and cargo flexibility. The second-row seats are mounted on very long sliders, so they can be moved far forward or far back, depending on the way the interior needs to be configured for people or cargo. With the second-row seats adjusted to the rearward limit, a walk-in isle is created, big enough for an adult to walk through to help a child or an older passenger. With the second-row seats adjusted all the way forward, walk-in access to the third row becomes possible. With the second and third rows removed, Sienna offers a cavernous 150 cubic feet of cargo space, more than most SUVs offer.
The 2012 Toyota Sienna is available in five grades, with seating configurations for seven or eight. There are models aimed at practical transportation, models driven by luxury tastes, and even a sport model, the Sienna SE, which drives and handles more like a sports sedan. The Sienna SE sits lower than the other models, on a sport-tuned suspension, with its electric power steering tuned for quicker response and better feedback.
At the opposite extreme is the luxurious Sienna Limited, which has the nicest interior, and low-effort steering tuned for ease of operation, with very high levels of power assist. That makes the Sienna Limited easy to park and maneuver at low speeds, but it also requires more attention to keep in the center of the lane when driving quickly. Sienna LE and Sienna XLE models are somewhere in between, with steering and chassis priorities balanced 50/50 between comfort and handling.
Sienna is available with a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine; higher grades are all V6-powered. Front-wheel drive is standard. All-wheel drive is available with the V6. We found little difference between the four-cylinder and the V6 in daily driving, but then there isn't much difference in fuel consumption, either, so the V6 may be the better choice. The V6 runs a little smoother at highway speed, with more reserve power for passing.
The Toyota Sienna is made in America, designed in California, developed at Toyota's technical center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and assembled in Indiana. It will be sold only in North America and Puerto Rico.
Toyota Sienna ($25,060), Sienna V6 ($26,300); LE ($26,145), LE V6 ($29,700), LE AWD V6 ($31,930); SE V6 ($33,440); XLE V6 ($33,205), XLE AWD V6 ($35,545); Limited V6 ($39,300); Limited AWD V6 ($40,570)
The Toyota Sienna doesn't look exactly like a minivan, because a number of classic minivan visual cues have been eliminated. It has a wider stance, with broader flared shoulders, and a more compelling, contemporary front face with sophisticated, highly angular headlamps. The lights have projector lamps and halogen high beams combined in a compact, slender design.
From the side, the current Sienna looks much sleeker overall, and less boxy in appearance than pre-2011 models. The track for the sliding rear doors is completely concealed, so the rear doors look like they belong on a sedan or crossover SUV. The rear windows are shaped in a tapered trapezoid and inclined inward like a sedan, again contradicting the standard boxy minivan look.
The rear has been designed with a low, wide bumper and a roof spoiler that hides the rear wiper, for a stronger, cleaner appearance. LED tail and stop lamps are used, which illuminate more quickly and consume less power.
Overall, the exterior looks cleaner and sleeker, and it is. Aerodynamic work, including underbody covers to help manage airflow, has reduced the coefficient of drag to 0.306.
There are quite a few exterior differences from model to model. Each has a distinctive grille, ranging from the sporty mesh grille on the Sienna SE to the chrome four-slot arrangement on the Sienna Limited. Wheels may be 17, 18, or 19 inches depending on the model and options. Sienna XLE, SE, and Limited models have integrated front fog lamps, and Limited has HID headlamps as an option. The SE has dark chrome accents around the lights and smoked headlight covers.
The Sienna SE gets special styling cues. The front has a more aggressive appearance. Side skirting visually lowers the vehicle and smoked headlights and taillights make a distinctive statement. Aerodynamic sculpting hugs the standard 19-inch alloy wheels. The SE sits lower, on a sport-tuned suspension.
The Sienna interior is distinctly modernistic. From the driver and passenger perspective, the cockpit uses flowing lines and round controls to achieve a sense of unified, integrated design. Prominently visible at the base of the center stack is a shape, something like a tadpole, that tapers laterally toward the passenger, to create the feeling that there is more room to share. To our eye, it's modern and effective, preventing the center stack from looking like a pile of squared-off rectangular boxes. Instead, the design suggests shared space and control areas, in a freshly contemporary atmosphere.
Design aside, the center stack contains the usual controls, with the message center at the top, the audio system just below, the climate control system below that, and storage and convenience features, such as cupholders and 12-volt plugs, at the lowest level. The shifter is located on the dash, closest to the driver, freeing center console space for storage.
There are three instrument designs. The standard analog system uses bright blue numbering with red needles. In all three designs, a large speedometer and tach are combined with fuel and temperature gauges. The automatic transmission range and odometer are displayed on the LCD in the center of the meter, and an ECO-drive light has been added to indicate economical driving. The dash materials and cloth upholstery look and feel nice enough, although the upper pieces of the dashboard, while attractively textured, turn out to be hard plastic.
The steering wheel, padded and contoured, has buttons for the audio system and Bluetooth. The wheel tilts and telescopes.
The front seats are passenger-car comfortable. Driver's seats are six-way adjustable on the base Sienna model, and eight-way adjustable on all other models, with power on all but LE memory available on Limited models. The front passenger seats are four-way, with power adjustability available on the XLE and Limited. The Sienna seats now travel about an inch farther, forward and back, compared to the previous generation, and have longer, wider cushions and adjustable armrests. Leather-trimmed and heated seats are standard on the XLE and Limited.
Second-row comfort was obviously a design priority. The second-row seats are mounted on very long sliders, 25.6 inches in length, so they can be moved very far forward or very far back, depending on the way the interior needs to be configured for people or cargo. With the seats at adjusted to the limit, a walk-in isle is created, big enough for an adult to walk through to help a child or an older passenger. With the second row seats adjusted all the way forward, walk-in access to the third row becomes possible.
Eight-passenger models use an arrangement that splits seating in a 40/20/40 proportion. That makes the second-row center seat small relative to the two outside seats, useful only for smaller people. When not in use, the center seat can be removed and stowed in a specially designed compartment in the back, converting the second row to captain's chairs with room in between. The standard chairs are quite comfortable. An optional Lounge Seating feature available with seven-passenger Limited equips the second-row captain's chairs with extended footrests.
On certain models, the back half of the center console can be extended rearward about a foot into the second-row passenger area. With the console moved rearward, second-row passengers have more easily reached cupholders and another handy storage option.
Third-row seats are split 60/40, and fold flat with one touch. The third-row hip point is now two inches further back, relative to the previous generation, which translates into leg room for the third row occupants, and the seats recline a bit as well.
Versatility was another design priority, along with the ability to reconfigure the interior for different mixes of people and cargo. To convert from carrying people to carrying cargo, the Sienna's third-row seats easily fold flat and, when the second-row seats are folded far forward, 117 cubic feet of cargo area becomes available. With the second-row seats removed altogether, cargo area expands to 150 cubic feet. Even with just the third-row seats folded flat, there is 87 cubic feet of stowage behind the second row.
An oversized screen for the entertainment system is available for the Limited models that's large enough to split into two screens in case rear-seat occupants want entertainment from two different sources. That allows for playing a video game on half of the screen, and showing a movie on the other. Wireless headphones are available. The screen is unusually large, big enough for third-row passengers to see.
Tri-zone automatic climate control is standard on Sienna LE and SE models, as is a cabin air filter that prevents pollen and dust from entering the vehicle.
The navigation system, a voice-activated, touch-screen system, is available on SE, XLE, and Limited models. It supports an integrated rearview camera with two views, and on XLE it can be packaged with the 10-speaker JBL audio system form the Limited. The system supports Bluetooth-capable audio devices, allowing the user to control the source device using the car's steering wheel controls to play, pause and seek.
Toyota Safety Connect includes automatic collision notification, an emergency assistance button with 24-hour roadside assistance and the ability to locate a stolen vehicle by GPS. It comes standard on all models, with a one-year trial subscription.
A sonar parking assist system, with four ultrasonic sensors, is available on Sienna XLE models. The system sounds progressively as an object becomes closer to the vehicle. A similar system, with six sensors, is standard on Limited.
We spent a day in Laguna Nigel, California, testing the new Sienna. Our driving routes varied, taking us along the scenic Pacific Coast highway, through Dana Point harbor, and up the notoriously winding Ortega Highway. We started with a four-cylinder LE, moved into a LE V6, then an SE V6, and finally, a Limited with everything on it. Each model has a slightly different character, with the SE and Limited being the most distinctive.
The Sienna has electric power steering, which allowed engineers to tune the steering response for the different models. The Sienna SE has the tightest, most accurate and responsive steering of the models, along with the best handling and the best chassis control. The Limited model has the most power assist in the steering, and the chassis is tuned for comfort. Sienna LE and XLE models are somewhere in between, with steering and chassis priorities balanced between comfort and handling.
Of the models we drove, the Sienna SE is by far the most appealing from a driving dynamics point of view. It steers exceptionally well for a minivan, more like a sports sedan. It corners without much body roll, with a nice crisp turn-in and a clean, stable track through the bends. This responsive personality is achieved with not too much ride tradeoff in the process. The 19-inch wheels and lower profile tires do allow a bit more road feel into the cabin, but it's not annoying, and the extra confidence allowed us to drive mountain roads at higher speeds in a relaxed manner. Frankly, we wish all minivans handled this well. We're not sure if a good-handling minivan is likely to become a major player in the marketplace, but if it is, the SE is a home run. We noticed the brakes become a little touchy when we hustled the SE down the Ortega Highway, but they don't lack for stopping power. All in all, we'd say the SE is a fun and responsive car to operate, in an attractive package. Drivers who drive aggressively will like the SE.
We also drove a four-cylinder LE and a V6 LE to get a sense of the difference between the two engines. The verdict: driven around town, and without a full load, there is not much difference. The four-cylinder is definitely peppy and powers the Sienna well around town and through traffic. It has slightly lower final-drive gearing, but shows 2000 rpm at 60 mph, which is not appreciably different from the V6. There is a little more vibration coming from the four-cylinder when you ask it to work hard, but other than that, the Sienna drives well with either engine. We sense the V6 to be the smoother engine at highway speeds, with better passing power, but we think the two would be reasonably comparable the rest of the time.
The 2.7-liter four-cylinder makes 187 horsepower, but delivers its torque peak at 4100 rpm, about 600 rpm earlier than the V6, so it's quite driveable. Fuel economy is a toss-up, with EPA ratings of 19/24 mpg City/Highway for the four-cylinder and 18/25 mpg for the V6. The four-cylinder gets slightly better fuel economy than the V6 around town, the V6 gets slightly better mileage than the four-cylinder cruising on the open highway.
We did not have a chance to drive a Sienna AWD, but it has the same all-wheel-drive system used by the Toyota Highlander SUV, which biases torque between the front and rear wheels based on information from wheel sensors. When wheel slip is detected, torque distribution is adjusted accordingly, providing better grip on icy or snowy roads. A key difference is that AWD models have run-flat tires and no spare. The run-flat tires, specially developed by Bridgestone, offer improved safety and performance in the event of a puncture through unique cooling ribs on the sidewall. They are designed to provide the capability to safely drive to a repair location instead of stopping to change a tire, which can expose driver and passenger to traffic hazards and bad people. We would expect the run-flat tires would ride a little harder than regular tires, and wear a little differently because of their unique construction and rubber compound. Our conclusion is that the AWD would be worth the investment in areas where weather conditions demand superior traction, but less attractive to buyers who don't experience wintry weather.
We also drove a Sienna Limited, which is the top of the line. It has the nicest interior, undeniably comfortable and well equipped. We immediately noticed the steering was tuned for ease of operation, with very high levels of power assist. That made the Limited easy to park and maneuver at low speeds, but it also required more attention to keep in the center of the lane driving quickly down a mountain road. The Limited is the kind of luxury wagon we would drive at a relaxed pace for almost any distance, just taking it nice and easy.
All Sienna models have huge rear doors for easy entry. Access to the second and third row is easier than any minivan we can recall, because the door is so large, and headroom is good. Also, because the second row seats are on long tracks, it's possible to move them all the way forward to access the third row, or all the way back to walk into the passenger area. We think it would be possible for an average-size person to step in with a car seat, fasten it down and walk out, without having to kneel or crawl around.
Pretty much, all the Sienna models we drove were well insulated against wind, engine, and road noise. Toyota engineers used every trick in the book, padding, phase-shifting techniques, noise cancellation, sound absorbing materials and better engineered seals in the doors, among others, to keep noise to an absolute minimum.
This latest Toyota Sienna sets a new standard for its competitors to reach. Sienna benefits from sharp, handsome styling that borrows design cues from SUVs and sedans. The Sienna SE is the most carlike in its handling, but all Sienna models are appealing in their own way, and versatility may in fact be the Sienna's greatest virtue. Whether hauling the soccer team or materials from the home-improvement store or driving cross-country, there's a Sienna for every purpose.
John Stewart filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com. Additional material by John F. Katz.