2011 Toyota Sienna XLE 3.5L AWD Review
...with the 2011 Sienna, Toyota goes from mid-pack to head of the minivan field.
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DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS
2011 Toyota Sienna XLE 3.5L AWD
If you regularly need to transport up to eight people -- in comfort -- and/or carry outsized or unwieldy cargo that won't fit in a sedan's trunk, there is really only one solution: A minivan.
True, minivans are not high-status vehicles. Teenage boys do not have posters of minivans on their bedroom walls. People generally don't aspire to minivan ownership, they buy minivans because they need a vehicle that can transport things and people. And a minivan can do that better than any other type of vehicle. SUV? Less space-efficient, less fuel-efficient, harder to load and unload, and unless you live where pavement really is scarce or snow is deep and un-plowed, a compromise of fashion over function.
Toyota has been making minivans since the mid-1980s, but its first two offerings were decidedly out of the mainstream. The original "Van" was a strange mid-engined, rear-wheel drive affair that looked like the shuttlecraft from Star Trek's USS Enterprise. It was followed by the egg-shaped Previa, still a mid-engine, rear (or all) wheel drive design. The minivan market is transverse front engine, front (or all) wheel drive, and so for model year 1998 Toyota went mainstream and introduced its first conventional minivan, the Sienna.
Based on Camry underpinnings, the Sienna was the success that Toyota had wanted. It had all of the expected minivan features and more, and was positioned a little more upscale than most competitors, with V6 power only, no four-cylinder models. 2004 saw the debut of the second-generation Sienna, a larger and roomier vehicle than the original.
And now we have the third-generation Sienna. If visible changes from the second generation are not as dramatic as between the first and second, changes in its demeanor are. It is meant to feel, and drive, less like a minivan and more like a car - and a sporty one at that. Additionally, although the 266-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 found in last year's Sienna is expected to be the most popular engine, a more economical 2.7-liter, 187-hp inline four-cylinder is available in lower trim levels.
Trim levels are base, LE, SE, XLE, and Limited. Standard and optional equipment levels rise from base to Limited. Base and LE models can be had with either engine; others are V6-only. All V6 models except the SE are offered with front- or all-wheel drive. The FWD SE is the Sport Edition, with a firmer, lowered suspension, upgraded wheels and tires, and sportier-looking bodywork.
Sport minivan? It could work, given the road manners of the XLE AWD with which I spent the past week. Its "standard" suspension was firmer than the minivan norm, more like that of a standard European sedan in calibration, so comfort was not compromised. No power shortage, yet with minimal highway driving and even some spirited backroad activity I still saw a 19 mpg average. A larger interior in a same-size exterior, with an excellent range of adjustability for the first and second rows, will make the new Sienna popular with all passengers. And the accessibility for both passengers and cargo due to dual sliding doors, deep tailgate, and a low floor is hard to beat. Minivans, including the Toyota Sienna, may not be so mini any more, but they still are space-efficient and versatile.
APPEARANCE: You can be excused for confusing the new Sienna with Toyota's Venza crossover - it happened to me while at a stoplight, gazing at the front of the Toyota in the opposing left-turn lane. Only when it turned and I saw the side view did I realize it was a Venza -- the angular front views are that similar. Details differ, of course, and the Sienna is larger in every dimension. But replacement of the old Toyota bulbous hood with sharp angles around the badge works wonders, giving a very European look. Bulging headlight covers, a deep front bumper fascia, pronounced fender flares, a high beltline, strong shoulder line, and sculpting on the lower sides to hint at lower sills visually lower the Sienna. Looking for sliding door tracks? Cleverly hidden below the rear quarter windows. The rear is more conventional than the front, but still distinctive.
COMFORT: "Inside" is what minivans are all about. No disappointment here - there's plenty of it in the new Sienna, and it's comfortable, convenient, and versatile. Two more inches of interior length may not seem like much, but Toyota has made the most of that, especially for first- and second-row passengers. Front seat travel has been increased slightly, and in the XLE AWD the driver's seat is power adjustable. With seven-passenger seating, as in my test car, the "captain's chairs" are fully equal to the front seats in comfort -- and feature 23 inches of fore-and-aft adjustment, to accommodate passengers of nearly any height, and to make access to the third row easy. The 60/40 third row has enough leg and hip room to comfortably hold three medium-sized people, and each section tumbles flat into the load floor if desired. With the third row up, a deep cargo well prevents groceries from hiding in mysterious places in the cabin. Being as the Sienna is a minivan, there is no shortage of cupholders, bottle holders, or storage spaces throughout the cabin. Most notable are double glove boxes, with the bottom locking, and, in the XLE AWD and Limited, a sliding rear center console section that can be used by second-row passengers. The driver gets a comfortable and supportive seat, good visibility (aided to the all-important front quarters by small triangular windows below the A-pillars), and easily visible, glare-free instruments and a good control layout. The shift lever protrudes from the instrument panel next to the steering wheel, as in the hybrid Prius. The navigation system, if fitted, has Toyota's simple semi-touch-screen interface.
SAFETY: Toyota's "Star Safety System", including antilock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, Brake Assist, an enhanced version of the Vehicle Stability Control system, and traction control is standard in all 2011 Sienna models. So are dual-stage front, front seat-mounted side, full-length side-curtain, and driver's knee air bags.
RIDE AND HANDLING: If you think of a minivan as a soft, mushy, boring vehicular appliance, you're in for a surprise. While the 2011 Sienna has the same basic platform as the previous generation, it's MacPherson strut / torsion beam axle suspension has been comprehensively retuned. Very, very well. Firmer, but correctly-matched, springs and shocks mean that body roll is significantly reduced, for both better handling characteristics and a more comfortable ride. The electric power steering system is not over-assisted, again improving the driving experience. Large four-wheel antilock disc brakes ensure good stopping, and the VSC stability control system helps if things get too enthusiastic. This is a minivan that can be enjoyably driven on a mountain road, although third-row passengers may complain a bit if things get too enthusiastic.
PERFORMANCE: The 3.5-liter V6, with 265 horsepower (at 6200 rpm) and 245 lb-ft of torque (at 4700 rpm) carries over from last year, and to no complaint. It's unobtrusive and has very good low-end torque for all daily driving requirements. Last year's five-speed automatic is replaced by a six-speed, improving both acceleration and fuel economy. EPA estimates are 16mpg city, 22 highway, and 18 overall. With minimal highway driving, and some attention to the green "eco" light on the dash (low-throttle driving) I managed 19 for the week, not bad for a near-5,000-lb all-wheel drive vehicle. Earlier in the year, I had an opportunity to drive a four-cylinder LE on the streets and hills of San Francisco, CA. The four worked surprisingly well, with little real penalty in acceleration or drivability at city speeds, and with no difficulty climbing steep hills. If you value an improvement in fuel economy over power, it's a good choice.
CONCLUSIONS: With the 2011 Sienna, Toyota goes from mid-pack to head of the minivan field.
2011 Toyota Sienna XLE 3.5L AWD
Base Price $ 34,515 Price As Tested $ 38,610 Engine Type dohc 24-valve aluminum alloy V6 Engine Size 3.5 liters / 211 cu. in. Horsepower 265 @ 6200 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 245 @ 4700 rpm Transmission 6-speed automatic Wheelbase / Length 119.3 in. / 200.2 in. Curb Weight 4750 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 17.9 Fuel Capacity 20 gal. Fuel Requirement 87 octane unleaded regular gasoline Tires P235/55 RF18 99T Bridgestone Turanza EL400 runflat Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, ABS, BA, EBD, VSC standard Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / torsion beam axle Drivetrain transverse front engine, all-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 16 / 22 / 19 0 to 60 mph est 8 sec Towing capacity 3,500 lbs. OPTIONS AND CHARGES XLE Navigation Package - includes: Voice-activated touch-screen DVD navigation system with dual-mode integrated back-up camera, JBL AM/FM/XM/4-disc CD/MP3 audio, XM Nav Traffic, auxiliary audio jack and USB port with iPod connectivity, hands-free phone capability and music streaming via Bluetooth wireless technology, Smart Key system on all doors with push-button start and remote illuminated entry, chrome outside door handles, rear parking sonar $ 3,295 Delivery, processing, and handling fee $ 800