2011 Toyota Sienna
Base price: $24,460 – $38,700
As tested: $33,518
MPG: 18 city/24 highway
- Available with all-wheel drive
- Powerful V-6
- Sportier ride (SE)
- It’s still a minivan
- Options can get expensive
By Rebecca Antioco
The minivan has an image problem. Many members of their target market, 30-something parents (especially moms), see buying a minivan as an abdication of their coolness. Driving one says, “Throw out those party clothes and break out the mom jeans. You have officially become a cliché – the soccer mom.”
Anyone looking to attract attention with his or her vehicle automatically dismisses it. Because, let’s face it, no one’s ever slowed down to check out the person behind the wheel of a minivan as they would with, say, a sports car or luxury vehicle. I’ll admit it: I feel a slight pang of disappointment when I see a minivan parked in my driveway for a test drive.
My kids, on the other hand, are a more practical duo. They love minivans for all the reasons a parent should. They’re easy to climb in and out of, they have plenty of spaceto store all kinds of stuff, they’re spacious and offer lots of seating options, and if the vehicle has an entertainment system, the kids are about ready to move in and use it as a clubhouse.
Toyota has taken note of this image problem and created a marketing campaign for the new 2011 Sienna that tackles it head on. Rather than extolling the obvious virtues of the vehicle by showing happy soccer-uniform-clad children piling out with all their gear as a smiling mom presses a button to make the sliding doors close, Toyota shows us average, think-they’re-hip-but-they-kinda-aren’t, 30-something parents rapping about their “Swagger Wagon.” In other spots, they use humorous vignettes to demonstrate the van’s best features (the 180-degree panorama back-up camera is also good for surreptitiously checking out who’s headed into the yoga studio; the reclining seats are a comfortable place for dad to sleep after he’s kicked out of bed).
Do the spots make people buy minivans? Well, in the course of a month, Sienna launched from number 43 to number five on the list of most-viewed new vehicles at AutoTrader.com. So, it’s at least getting consumers’ attention. The ads caught my eye, most notably the one where the mom character says (and I’m paraphrasing), “Before, the thought of owning a minivan made my head hurt.” And then, she goes on to explain how the Sienna has changed her mind.
After a week driving the sport-tuned SE (yes, I said sport-tuned — don’t laugh), I’ve come to grudgingly accept that minivans, and the Sienna in particular, do have a certain appeal. The Sienna is available in five models: base ($24,460), LE ($25,545), SE ($30,750), XLE ($32,375) and Limited ($38,700). LE, XLE and Limited models are offered with all-wheel drive; Sienna is the only minivan to offer this option. A 187-horsepower four-cylinder is standard on the base and LE models; a 265-horesepower V-6 is standard on all other models, optional on the base and LE.
The SE, my tester for the week is considered to be the sportier of the models. It has a unique front mesh grille, lower side rails and sport-tuned steering. It is an attractive vehicle, a huge departure from the traditional loaf-of-bread-on-wheels look of minivans of old. Its looks are chiseled and modern, although you still won’t get gawkers looking to see what you’re driving; that’s the nature of the beast.
On the road, Sienna does feel powerful and gets up to highway speeds with no complaint. We expect that the four-cylinder will have more anemic performance when loaded down with passengers and gear and attempting a quick highway merge. But even the smaller engine should be fine around town. I’ve always found the steering quality on Toyota vehicles to be rather numb, giving the driver very little feel for the road. The SE’s sport-tuned steering does remedy that quirk somewhat, and the sport-tuned suspension results in a comfortable, yet firm, ride. I wouldn’t read “sports car” into “sport tuned,” but the drive experience is a lot more satisfying than the typical soft ride offered by most minivans.
The Sienna is available as either a seven- or eight-passenger van, and even the base model comes well equipped with power features, remote keyless entry, split and stow seats and plenty of storage compartments. The LE adds tilt/telescoping steering, a more robust overhead console control panel, easy-clean fabric and sunshades. Moving up in the line gets more amenities and upgraded trims and fabrics. Navigation and rear-seat entertainment packages are available only on XLE and Limited models.
I found the interior to be very functional, but was happy for the optional steering-wheel mounted audio controls (which come standard on the XLE and up); I either have really short arms or the controls are just a tad too far away from the driver for easy access. That option was part of the recommended preferred package ($1545), which also gets you a USB port with iPod connectivity (a must on my car-buying list), power rear door, Bluetooth wireless technology and individual temperature settings for driver, passenger and rear seat.
In terms of safety, the Sienna earned the “Top Safety Pick” award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, becoming the first minivan to earn that distinction since the rollover test was added to the criteria.
After a week, I was sold on the Sienna. It was easy to fit the kids, loot from a run to Costco, extra kids coming over for play dates and anything else I could think of. It is a multi-purpose, multi-functional vehicle that is enjoyable to drive and available with all kinds of amenities. At just over $33,000, the SE was well worth it. Upgrading to Limited models and adding option packages could escalate the price to the high forties, so just be mindful when checking those boxes.
Would I buy a Sienna, even if it means being labeled a “soccer mom?” Sure, as long as I don’t have to give up my dancing shoes.