Toyota has sold small vans in the U.S. since 1984. But, before the introduction of the Sienna minivan in the 1998 model year, Toyota's "minivans" were decidedly different from the norm, and found relatively few buyers. That was a most unfamiliar and uncomfortable situation for a company that is used to having its vehicles considered benchmarks in their class. The Sienna has remedied that problem, and has given Toyota a solid presence in the minivan class. It is a vehicle designed for the North American marketplace, built only at the Toyota plant in Georgetown, Kentucky. Calling the Sienna "the Camry of minivans" is no misnomer. It is based on the Camry platform, with the wheelbase stretched nine inches, and built on the same assembly line as Camrys. The only engine offered is the 194-horsepower 3.0-liter V6 also used in the Camry.
Although 1999 is only the second year for the Sienna, there are some interesting new features. As before, value-oriented CE, popularly-equipped LE, and luxuriously-appointed XLE trim levels are offered. But the CE may now be had with a left-side sliding passenger door, and LE and XLE models have an optional power passenger-side sliding door in addition to their standard left-side sliding passenger doors. Dual integrated child restraint seats are available in CE and LE models.
A 1999 Sienna LE with the power door has been my transportation for the past week. A conveniently-sized vehicle, with easy access and plenty of room, it's as quiet and comfortable as a Camry - a Camry with room for seven people. The ultimate Camry wagon?
APPEARANCE: The first Toyota minivan was a bricklike vehicle resembling a shuttlecraft from the U.S.S. Enterprise of "Star Trek" fame. It was followed by the futuristically bubble-shaped Previa. The only space related to the Sienna is inside. Outside, it is solidly in the mainstream of minivan styling with a short, steeply-sloped hood, well- raked windshield, and long passenger cabin giving it a functional two- box shape. As with other contemporary minivans, there are no flat body panels, but it's not overly rounded. A character line on the side is one of the few straight lines on the Sienna. Crisp angles in the hood, interestingly-shaped headlights, and a well-defined grille give it identity. There is no indication of any relation to a Camry, and little besides the corporate logo in the center bar of the body-colored grille to indicate that the Sienna is a Toyota. Functional gray plastic cladding on the bumpers and lower side offsets the body color and adds protection.
COMFORT: Open the pod bay door, HAL.... The power right-side sliding door is more than a gimmick, at least for those of us who are limited to two arms that can be full of groceries or boxes. The door can be opened or closed by buttons on the remote fob, the right-side B- pillar, and the dashboard. A slight tug on the door handle starts the electric opening process. Inside, the Sienna LE has the versatility expected in an minivan, the unostentatious but handsomely functional materials of a mid-level Camry, and Toyota high-quality fit and finish. Floor height is greater than that of a sedan, but far less than found in an SUV. This week's test van has the optional second-row captain's chairs, which recline fully and are adjustable fore and aft. They are near clones of the comfy front seats, and allow a center aisle for easy access to the rear bench seat. The rear seat is split 50/50, and either side may separately be folded, tumbled forward, or removed. Ditto for the second-row seats. Cupholders, storage spaces, and vents abound throughout the cabin. Up front, a single wide, hooded pod in the dashboard contains the instruments and climate controls. A steering- column-mounted shift lever leaves flat floor space. Radio controls mounted on the steering wheel are new this year.
SAFETY: The 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 may not look much like a Camry inside or out, but it feels like one on the road. Its MacPherson strut front / torsion beam rear suspension gives a smooth ride and very good handling qualities for a minivan. There is some wind noise in gusty weather, but the Sienna tracks true with no tendency to wander from its path. Lexus-tech soundproofing keeps mechanical and road noise to a minimum. The high seating position gives a good view of the road.
PERFORMANCE: Previous Toyota minivans were considered underpowered. Not the Sienna. Relatively light weight and a 194- horsepower 3.0-liter V6 engine give it plenty of power for all daily driving activities. Good low-rpm and midrange torque makes city traffic or highway merging a snap, and hills pose no problem. The electronically-controlled 4-speed automatic transmission shifts very smoothly, and standard antilock brakes ensure safe stopping.
CONCLUSIONS: The 1999 Toyota Sienna is a solid entry in the mainstream of the minivan world.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 24,358 Price As Tested $ 27,501 Engine Type dual overhead cam 24-valve aluminum alloy V6 Engine Size 3.0 liters / 183 cu. in. Horsepower 194 @ 5200 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 209 @ 4400 rpm Transmission 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 114.2 in. / 193.5 in. Curb Weight 3890 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 20.0 Fuel Capacity 21.0 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded premium (91 octane) recommended Tires P215/65 R15 Firestone Affinity Brakes, front/rear vented disc / finned drum, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / torsion beam axle Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 18 / 24 / 20 0 to 60 mph 9.3 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) 17.0 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES 15-inch alloy wheels with full-sized steel spare wheel and 15-inch tires $ 475 Option package #7 - includes: 6-speaker AM/FM/cassette audio system with diversity antenna, roof rack, cloth-upholstered captain's chairs, keyless entry and security system with engine immobilizer, right-side power sliding door $ 2,045 Carpet and cargo mat set $ 161 Cargo net $ 42 Destination charge $ 420