The ultimate American family vehicle is an American concept--and yet, no American company builds one on U.S. soil. The modern minivan with its front-wheel drive and seven-passenger capacity combines utility and efficiency in a garage-ready package. Nonetheless, America's Big Three manufacturers do not assemble a minivan anywhere in the 50 states.
In its modern Princeton, Indiana plant, Toyota builds the third-generation Sienna minivan. Based on the ubiquitous Camry platform, the Sienna has risen to the top tier of family movers. Each generation brings about new features and more luxurious surroundings, raising the once mundane genre to a near-luxury alternative. Our Sienna Limited fits squarely into that range.
While there is a base model, I recently drove the top-of-the-line Limited up and down the East Coast en route to and from our annual family vacation.
For the current generation, Toyota added an efficient four-cylinder version to compliment the usual V6-engined edition. The 2.7-liter 187-horsepower DOHC four will adequately motivate the two-and-a-quarter-ton Sienna, but most buyers will opt for the go-power of the 3.5-liter DOHC V6 with its 266 ponies under the hood.
Front wheel drive is standard (and mandatory for the four-cylinder), but the upper trim levels can be equipped with a class-exclusive all-wheel drive.
The Limited trim level includes every luxury feature expected in a vehicle such as this.
Back-up cameras are nearly necessary for blind spot awareness and help greatly when backing into a parking space, especially when the kid's sand toys were strewn around the driveway of our rented beach home in the Outer Banks. I can't count how many times I avoided drying chairs, thus saving the cost of replacing them.
Packing the Sienna was easy. With only five of the seven seats needed, we had a number of options.
To take advantage of all the space, I figured folding the two-passenger rear seat down would provide more cargo room. On the other hand, the deep well where the seats are stored is quite handy. Eventually, I decided to place one child in the middle of the third row, strapped into the two-passenger seat with the one-passenger rear seat stowed. The available well could then handle beach chairs and other tall objects, while the clothing bags and pool noodles sat on the floor next to the pint-sized passenger.
Each passenger was given no less than one cup holder. Front passengers were treated to three cup holders each with two in the dashboard, two in the center console, and one in each front door.
Speaking of the center console, it had many uses. Aside from the two front cup holders, two cup holders facing the center passengers could be extended rearward for easier access. Open the console to reveal a new section allowing for additional storage. And still more storage can be found between the front seats, with a security door hiding such precious DVDs as iCarly and All About Sharks.
On our trip south during the early summer heat, the Sienna's three-zone climate control system helped keep everyone happy. The kids in the back were able to have their air conditioning adjusted to keep them from needing blankets, while the driver (yours truly) kept his ever-warm body cozy with 68-degree air breezing over him.
As every parent will attest, keeping the kids content for a seven-hour drive is a job unto itself.
Our 10-year-old twins staked out their claim on the middle row, relegating their younger brother to the rear. Captain's chairs are usually enough to lure the girls, but these seats offered lounge chair-like comforts of adjustable footrests--novelties the girls could not give up. These seats sported "long slide" tracks, too, but to give their brother (and our cargo) enough room, the middle rows of seats were moved only far enough aft to allow the girls to raise their legs.
With the kids comfortable, sanity necessitated we provide a little entertainment for them on the seven-hour drive. After a quick trip to the local library for movies, they saddled up and pulled down the ultra-wide monitor. Stretching wide behind the driver's and front passenger's seats, the "dual view" monitor provided a huge canvas for playing their flicks.
In order to prevent The Cat in the Hat (the Mike Meyer's version, alas, not the Chuck Jones animated one) from bothering Mom and Dad, the kids donned their wireless headphones, of which two are included in the Limited's "Premium Package." (Tri-County Toyota of Limerick, Pennsylvania thoughtfully provided us with a third set of headphones to keep everyone quiet.)
Switching the DVD to headphones opens up the radio for the adults. FM radio is great for driving locally, but keeping distractions to a minimum requires satellite radio... and 1980s alternative from First Wave is the one station that keeps both of us happy.
Control of the DVD player was in the hands of the kids through a wireless remote control but--for better or worse--the actual switching of the movies came down to my wife in the front seat.
Among the few drawbacks of the Sienna was the navigation system. As expected, addresses cannot be typed into the system by the driver or the passenger, while the vehicle is in motion. Our bigger complaint was in the routes chosen.
At different times, they nav system offered up to three different routes, but even the "quickest" was more than 25 percent longer than the actual trip. Yes, the system continually adjusted as we went along, but if we didn't know where we were going it would have been an even more frustrating experience than it already was.
On the positive side, the Sienna came equipped with ample glass area. Sure, you can see well from the driver's seat--that's how minivans work. In this particular minivan, though, roll-down side windows are in the dual power sliding doors in addition to the dual sunroof openings.
Going back to that luxury feeling of modern minivans, the Sienna meets expectations. At highway speeds, the outside sounds are muted, leaving us with the serenity of a luxury sedan. In fact, the last-generation Sienna took such a great leap from the original model I'd have felt comfortable if it had worn the Lexus brand.
The lack of soft materials used on the instrument panel do lessen this luxury feel, but additional features as well as sound and ride improvements more than make up for it.
Many people complain about the praise heaped on Toyota products. When it comes to their minivan, though, the praise is deserved. The feature-laden Sienna transports up to eight people (when properly equipped) in comfort and style.
With a range of trim levels and options, the 2011 Sienna can be loaded to any desired level, from the base model that starts at just over $25k to well over $45k for the loaded Limited model with all-wheel drive. The Sienna is definitely parked among the top tier of minivans.
Curb weight: 4,490 pounds
Engine: V6, 3,456 c.c. DOHC 24-valve naturally aspirated
Horsepower: 266 @ 6,200 r.p.m.
Torque: 245 lb.-ft. @ 4,700 r.p.m.
EPA estimated m.p.g. city/highway: 20/29 (six-speed automatic)
Base price: $39,770
As-tested price: $44,919 including $810 destination
Also consider: Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Grand Caravan, Honda Odyssey