SEE ALSO: Toyota Buyer's Guide
Toyota is a major player in nearly every segment of the automotive marketplace in which it competes. A notable exception until now has been minivans. Notice the past tense of the previous sentence. The new Sienna minivan may just give Toyota the presence in the minivan world that the Camry gives it in midsized sedans.
In a class that celebrates conformity, Toyota minivans previous to the Sienna were more than a little out of the ordinary. The original Toyota minivan was a brick-shaped vehicle imaginatively named the Van. Minivan orthodoxy was already front-engine, front-wheel drive, but the Van was a mid-engined, rear-drive, and later, 4-wheel drive machine much closer to a downsized commercial van in concept. The second-generation Previa was even more unusual, with bubble-shaped futuristic styling. Both the Van and Previa had relatively small 4- cylinder engines, with no room for anything larger. Neither shared much with other Toyota vehicles, and so were expensive to build and sell. They gained loyal, but small, followings.
Third time's charmed. This time around, Toyota is making a very mainstream minivan. The Sienna has contemporary minivan styling, a front-engine, front-wheel drive chassis, and shares many parts with the Camry. In fact, it is built on the same assembly line as Camrys, in Georgetown, Kentucky. Calling the Sienna "the Camry of minivans" is no misnomer, as it is built on a stretched Camry platform. The Camry's 3.0-liter V6 is the only engine. It is a premium- level minivan, but not an expensive luxury vehicle like the final Previa.
The Sienna is offered in three trim levels, CE, LE, and XLE. LE models are offered with or without a driver's-side sliding passenger door, which is standard on the XLE. The Sienna LE is projected to be Toyota's best-seller, so that is the model that I arranged to have for a recent week. I found it to be a very functional vehicle with good access because of the dual sliding doors, and plenty of interior flexibility with its folding and/or removable seats. Not too big outside, not too small within, it had plenty of power and was a quiet and comfortable as a family sedan. The Sienna is right on target in the heart of the minivan marketplace.
APPEARANCE: The Sienna is no brick, nor is it a bubble. Stylistically, it's a modern, mainstream minivan. A two box design, it has the generic long, passenger cabin with rounded windows and short, sloping hood. Crisp angles in the hood, interestingly-shaped headlights, and a well-defined grille give it identity. There's not much Camry in the styling, and the only Toyota cue is the corporate logo in the middle of the grille. Even with full-surround lower protective cladding, the Sienna makes no attempt to be anything but a minivan.
COMFORT: The current Camry lineup lacks a wagon. So? Meet the real 1998 Camry wagon. In appointment, the Sienna LE is a midlevel Camry, with cloth upholstery, functional but stylish design, and excellent fit and finish. However, it has room and versatility far beyond what is possible in a midsized wagon. Sliding passenger doors on both sides are standard equipment on the 5-door model, and can be opened and closed easily. The Sienna has the usual minivan interior adaptability, with front buckets or captain's chairs, a third-row split bench, and a second-row bench or captain's chairs. My test van had the captain's chairs, which provided a clear aisle to the rear seat. They were adjustable fore and aft for comfort and third-row access, and reclined. They could be folded or removed easily. Each half of the rear bench could be folded, tumbled forward, or removed separately. Up to seven people or 143 cubic feet of cargo will fit. Cupholders, bottle holders, and small storage spaces abound - check all carefully when exiting lest you leave something inside. All occupants are also treated to good, useful lighting and a fast, efficient climate control system with vents for second and third rows. The liftgate swings up easily on hydraulic struts and has an inside grab strap for easy closing and low liftover.
SAFETY: The 1998 Toyota Sienna meets or exceeds all current and foreseeable future crash standards in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. It has front and rear crumple zones, side-impact protection, dual depowered airbags, antilock brakes, and a low tire-pressure warning system as standard equipment.
ROADABILITY: The Sienna is higher, longer, and heavier than a Camry. In driving position, it is definitely not a car -- which is not necessarily bad considering the increase in visibility. In ride and handling, though, its as close as any minivan has ever gotten to a car. It is, not surprisingly, much like a current Camry, with a comfortable ride, and nimble handling considering that it is a minivan. The Sienna is stable in crosswinds and has low noise levels. It should be a fine vehicle for short-distance errands or long family vacations.
PERFORMANCE: Minivans have the reputation as life in the slow lane. Previous Toyota offerings certainly were. The Sienna is a ways from being a Supra Turbo, but it's one of the quicker minivans made. The 194-horsepower 3.0-liter V6 is one of the more powerful engines in a minivan, so hill climbing, passing, merging into traffic, or any other daily activities pose absolutely no problem. The electronically- controlled 4-speed automatic transmission shifts very smoothly, and standard antilock brakes ensure safe stopping.
CONCLUSIONS: The new 1998 Sienna will make Toyota a major player in the minivan field.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 23,975 Price As Tested $ 26,715 Engine Type dual overhead cam, 24 valve, aluminum alloy V6 Engine Size 3.0 liters / 182 cu. in. Horsepower 194 @ 5200 Torque (lb-ft) 209 @ 4400 Transmission 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 114.2 in. / 193.5 in. Curb Weight 3891 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 20 Fuel Capacity 21.0 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded premium, 91 octane Tires P215/65 R15 Dunlop SP 40 Brakes, front/rear vented disc / finned drum, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent Mac Pherson strut / torsion beam Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 18 / 24 / 20 0 to 60 mph 9.0 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES Security Package: keyless entry and security system $ 440 Heated outside mirrors $ 30 Option Package #2: alloy wheels, 6-speaker AM/FM/ cassette sound system, diversity antenna, roof rack, captain's chairs $ 1,690 Carpet Floor Mats $ 160 Destination Charge $ 420