When Toyota invited me to come to their media event for the 2011 Toyota Sienna, I knew it was an event designed for me. Although the word “minivan” plays a dominant role in the title of my blog, I’ve never revealed exactly which minivan I drive…Until now: Toyota Sienna. I have to admit, when I heard they were launching a 3rd generation Toyota Sienna, I had minivan envy in advance. So, off I went in my Sienna to the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel for the event. Upon arrival, I met with Kazuo Mori, Sienna Chief Engineer who was really great to speak with. I found out that he took a 7,000 mile road trip zig-zagging around the country in a large Toyota Minivan called the Alphard that is only available in Japan. He went out looking for average Americans to get their impressions about minivans and what is important to them. He came away with three words: comfort, cool and convenience. With those words echoing in the background, he engineered the five new grades of Toyota Sienna: Sienna, LE, SE, XLE and Limited. These five grades include two engine choices, 7 or 8 passenger seating, front or all-wheel drive and a mix of standard and optional features. After hearing all this, I couldn’t wait to get behind the wheel. I paired up with fellow blogger Eunice and hit the roads of Orange County to test these babies out. First up we took an XLE for a spin. New for 2011 is the option to have a removable “8th seat” that also stores in a rear compartment in the interior wall of the car. This is a really nifty option that allows you to keep an aisle when you need it and to easily add the 8th seat when you need it. I wish I had this option in my current Sienna. Another new feature is the footrests on the captain’s chairs in the second row. I was able to sit behind Eunice while she drove and have my feet totally up (I’m 5’ 7”). I especially see this as useful when you are waiting in the car, say at your kid’s soccer practice. Why not put your feet up and take a load off? Next we took a Sienna grade 4-cylinder for a spin. This is the first time the Sienna has been offered with a 4-cylinder engine. I was interested to get it up to highway speed and was able to do so via an uphill onramp. Although the acceleration was acceptable to me, I was watching the tachometer push 5,000 RPM. We whizzed down the freeway and worked our way back to the Ritz via some back roads. We did not have the benefit of a full passenger load or cargo to test how taxing that would be to the 4-cylinder. If the lower price point offered for the Sienna grade 4-cylinder or better fuel economy allows you to purchase one, I support that, otherwise I wouldn’t dip below the 6 cylinder.
The highlight of our driving was the new SE or “sport” model. First off, I noticed it sits lower to the ground. I wasn’t thrilled with that because I started thinking it was a bit of a low-rider-Scion vibe, but from the outside it wasn’t particularly noticeable. I only really could tell when I was getting in and while driving. Then again, I’m used to sitting higher in my minivan. I really liked the steering. It was much more reminiscent of my BMW and even made me think of my experience driving the Lexus RX 450h a few months ago. The tighter response just is more comfortable to me. I don’t feel as in control when there is a lot of play in the steering. The exterior features an SE-only sporty-mesh grill that gives it a more aggressive look. It also has low, wide rocker molding and the rear has distinctive clear tail lamps and a sculpted lower fascia. I’m not a fan of the clear tail lamps as I feel they are a bit cheesy-after-market-esque, but I can live with them. Overall, I’m a fan of the SE and would recommend anyone who is a bit unsure of taking the minivan leap to look at it as a possible point of entry.
The interior of all the grades feels roomy. In fact, they have added to the width and length of the Sienna without making it feel more cumbersome to drive. Some of the new features for 2011 that were giving me minivan envy: The industry’s first dual-view, dual-source rear entertainment system. It’s a wide screen for the backseat that allows the kids to watch two different programs on one screen. With Chip and Lulu so close in age, sometimes I really, really wish I had this! The optional navigation system comes with up to the minute traffic—another option I wish had been available for mine. The all-wheel drive minivans come with run flat tires. Finally, there is a new panorama back up camera that gives the driver more perspective on the sides. I really had a blast speaking with all the Toyota executives and engineers and designers. One fun note was when I stopped by the test drive area with Lulu. Kazuo Mori came over to speak to me and we found out that his daughter has the exact same birthday as Lulu! They will both be two in a couple of weeks. When you know the Chief Engineer of the new generation of Toyota Sienna is a minivan dad, you also know you are in good hands. Toyota has streamlined the options for the 2011 Sienna, a move that I applaud. When I was researching my minivan purchase last year, I especially found the various package options very difficult to get a handle on. In his speech opening the event, Bob Carter, Group Vice President and General Manager of Toyota said, “Even though the new Sienna has a wide array of choices…it’s packaging and model complexity have been reduced by 80% from the previous generation.” Yay, I say! The new Siennas will be available beginning in February 2011 with a base MSRP of $24,260 for the Sienna grade 4-cylinder to $39,770 for the Sienna Limited all-wheel-drive 6-cylinder with all five grades available by April. The main reasons I went with the Sienna when I was looking at minivans last year were: Toyota reputation, interior options and exterior looks. I really think the Sienna is the least minivan looking minivan on the market. As I said in my first post on this blog…You gotta love those sliding doors…
UPDATE: to read my June 21, 2010 Toyota Sienna post click here