Growing up, I basically had three categories of friends: those I met in grammar school, those I met in high school, and those I met in college. Each phase would end, another began with no overlap, and then I began my professional and married life, and with few exceptions, most of those people fell by the wayside. But there was one common thread each group new about me: I was car crazy. With the explosion of social media, in almost no time at all these people whom I’d lost track of were back. After catching up with each other, it was no surprise I would finally ask what they were driving these days. No big deal, right? Well no, but when it came to friends who bought minivans, I was given a litany of reasons why they own one. I wondered why they were so defensive. I never asked any of them to justify their purchase to me, but each felt a natural response to defend their purchase to their old car nut buddy.
In 1983, the Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager shocked North America with their pair of minivans-car based, tall wagons offering a high driving position with excellent outward visibility, sliding rear door, and three rows of removable seats. The concept was a raging success, and families came out in droves as manufacturers scrambled to duplicate the recipe. Yet for all that practicality, it was very difficult to make a ‘cool’ minivan. The 1990’s came and families made the switch to large, gas guzzling SUV’s, and then finally on to the current craze, and a return to car based crossovers.
So, the heyday of the minivan in terms of sales numbers may be behind us. Ford and GM quit years ago. Yet there are still companies out there who remain in the game, and continue to improve and refine their minivans to the loyal followers. Which brings us to our test car, the Toyota Sienna. Currently in its third generation, the Sienna as we know it has been in service since 2011, so you are correct in thinking the is no spring chicken. Although hardly new, Toyota has been steadily updating the Sienna, to remain competitive.
Given the minivan’s mission-haul as many people and/or cargo as possible, that leaves little room for styling creativity. And that’s one area where the minivan gets its reputation for being, well, boring. With the Sienna, Toyota took a different path than everyone else. With the SE model we tested, some sportiness was injected. Smoke chromed headlights, unique taillights, front fascia, 19″ wheels and side skirts are subtle yet effective improvements.
Let’s face it. When it comes to minivans, any buyer will tell you its what’s inside that counts. Climbing and looking rearward, the Sienna goes on forever. Depending on what you want from a minivan, you can choose seating for seven or eight-except on the SE, which seats eight. The removable tip up and long slide second row has captain’s chairs with a stowable center seat and a split and stow third row seat. Up front, there is plenty of room. With all that room for kids in the back, you’re not going to want distractions, so all controls fall readily to hand. It should come as no surprise build quality and materials are very good.
It’s no surprise the Sienna is front wheel drive, but on certain trims all-wheel drive is available (not the SE), something no other minivan offers. The Sienna are powered by a 3.5L V-6. For 2017, power increased to 296hp-that’s 30hp more than last year’s car. Also new for 2017 is an eight-speed automatic. So, I think we can all agree more power and improved fuel economy (19/27 MPG city/highway) is a win-win. Now, no one gets a minivan for a rewarding driving experience. But back to our SE, which is actually more than just a few sporty exterior design touches. As the story goes, chief engineer Kazuo Mori, an avid autocrosser, fought hard for a slightly sharper handling Sienna, and the SE is the result. With a stiffer suspension and improved steering, the SE is no sport sedan, but delivers handling that is closer to a car than a large minivan.
The Sienna is available in five trim levels. The SE is in the middle of the range, standing out more for its sportier appearance and handling than content. Standard equipment includes power sliding doors and liftgate, LED daytime running lights, blind spot monitor, rear cross traffic alert, power moonroof, leather seats, power drivers seat, three-zone auto climate control, single/dual view Blu-Ray DVD rear seat, navigation, SiriusXM and HD radio. Including destination, our Sienna SE retails at $41,770USD.
For what the Sienna was designed to do-haul people and their cargo in comfort and as little fuss as possible-there is really nothing to fault here. The age of the overall design it almost irrelevant. A good recipe does not need constant overhauling. Toyota has keep the Sienna up to date with what consumers want for safety features and in car tech. With the SE, Toyota offers a little sportiness the competition has balked at. So, if you have three kids who all play sports, we get it. That BMW 3-series just isn’t going to work out for. We understand.