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2008 Toyota Sienna Minivan Review

2008 Toyota Sienna Minivan Review(select to view enlarged photo)
2008 Toyota Sienna Minivan

By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

GM and Ford are out of the minivan business. Chrysler is still the leader and VW is just coming into that segment with their new Chrysler-based entry. The Japanese auto companies are still strong contenders in that market and one of the best in that class was our tester last week – the Toyota Sienna. We had the Sienna a couple years ago for a road trip to the Smoky Mountains and we were favorably impressed. It just seemed such a waste of space using that capacious vehicle for just the two of us.

Of course, that’s the minivan’s reason for being - to haul as many people and as much stuff in as efficient a package as possible – hence the soccer-mom appeal. How many kids and how much equipment can be comfortably packed in the van is the first measure of its worth. There is not a lot of difference between the leaders in this volume category. How efficiently and conveniently all that space is used makes the difference.

This front-wheel drive, Indiana-built, Sienna XLE 7-Passenger Limited shows a base price of $35,465, very nicely appointed with leather and wood trim, good quality materials and excellent fit and finish. Sienna’s price point is on the high side of its competitors, but not by much. Our test vehicle has a $3,380 package that includes DVD based navigation system, rear seat entertainment system, back-up camera and premium JBL sound system. The power rear folding seats are extra as well at $750. A couple other minor options plus the $685 delivery fee all add up to just over $40,000.

The Sienna is powered by a 3.5-liter, V-6 with variable valve timing mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission. Rated at 17-mpg city and 23-mpg highway this whole package is about average in this category. Acceleration is good and the transmission is smooth and quick shifting. There is nothing to complain about with this powertrain. After all, this is a large vehicle but it moves effortlessly. In spite of the category name there is really nothing “mini” about it, other than being smaller and more efficient than a rear-wheel drive cargo van.

Sienna is designed from a Camry platform, though the two vehicles have little in common beyond the platform. This is a good example of how very different vehicles can come off the same basic structure. If you were to drive a Camry back-to-back with the Sienna you would find them quite distinct from one another, as you would with a Highlander, another derivative.

Inside we find the expected space and convenience. Sienna’s expansive dash, with controls up high, are easily reached and understood. Add that to the comfortable, convenient and roomy ambiance and you have a good place to spend quality road time. Plenty of storage front and rear make for creative use of the space available.

Front seats are generous and firm enough for this broad-in-the-beam reporter. The second row seats are leather captains chairs and the third row is a 64/40 split arrangement that folds into the floor with the push of a couple of buttons. I found the captains chairs a bit awkward to fold out of the way for our third seat passenger access. Usually the Toyota engineers can be counted on to design the most ergonomically slick systems possible but not so on these seats. I expect that procedure would be fine, though, once we were used to it.

Behind the wheel my initial impression of the Sienna was of a large, slothful vehicle. But, in all fairness, I was just coming off a week with a VW Jetta. Steering is just a bit slower than most sedans or CUVs making for a driving experience that reminds me of a small bus. But it takes very little getting used to. Anyone who drives a minivan regularly will be unlikely to notice any cumbersomeness at all. In fact, after a week behind the wheel it felt perfectly at home behind the wheel and it was beginning to feel even modestly agile considering its length and girth.

I had a four-hour freeway run in the Sienna midweek and found it very pleasant indeed in that environment. I could feel a bit of buffeting in a sturdy cross wind but after all it is a fairly high profile vehicle. That buffeting at no time felt excessive or disconcerting. The upright seating position provides a sense of control enhanced by excellent visibility all around.

The feds have rated Sienna with 5 stars (best rating) in side crash safety and for front passengers, with 4 stars granted for rollover and front driver protection. Toyota’s respected Star Safety System is standard which includes traction control, ABS, vehicle stability system, electronic brake force distribution and brake assist. Airbags all around protecting passengers in all seating positions.

Toyota’s standard warranty covers the entire vehicle for 3 years or 35,000 miles and the drivetrain for 5 years or 50,000 miles.

Sienna is a pleasant and convenient vehicle to live with. The minivan concept makes a lot of sense for many types of drivers, and Sienna is an excellent choice in that class.

It’s not just for soccer moms anymore.

Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved