Toyota's sterling quality and resale reputation could never quite overcome the Japanese automaker's emphasis on "mini" with its family conveyances. The original, tiny-wheelbase Toyota minivan, the Previa and even the last-generation Sienna were always smaller than the segment leaders.
Lessons learned by admittedly scrutinizing the Dodge Caravan and Honda Odyssey have resulted in an all-new Sienna that is larger in every significant measurement than the model it replaces. And, the Sienna incorporates most of the segment's popular features and clever concepts. Designed, engineered, and built in America, the 2004 Sienna rolled out of the Indiana factory swinging.
Measuring 200 inches from nose to liftgate, the new Sienna stretches six inches longer than the model it replaces, with a 5.1-inch-longer wheelbase and four-inch-wider stance. Now, Toyota has a product sized like segment leaders, Grand Caravan and Odyssey, being within an inch of most exterior dimensions. The Sienna interior reflects the increased dimensions by claiming 45 more cubic feet of volume than its predecessor, offering noticeably more people and cargo toting space.
Looking like the overgrown progeny from a Previa and RAV4 mating, the large Sienna attempts to set the benchmark for minivan design. All the basics are represented, including standard V-6, powered dual sliding doors, seven- and eight-passenger configurations, available side-sliding second row, fold-away third row, parking assist, power liftgate, optional all-wheel drive, and enough cupholders to accommodate all riders and fistfuls of Legos.
Closer inspection reveals a well-thought-out minivan, resplendent with Toyota hallmarks of quality, low NVH, and operational smoothness. Our XLE Limited tester was dressed in faux wood trim, leather upholstery, satin-finish metal accents, and chrome highlights, granting the interior an upscale, daresay Lexus, feel. The strong, clear 360-watt JBL Synthesis audio system with 10 speakers, including a center channel and subwoofer, added to the premium experience. However, the LCD audio display is hard to read in broad daylight. Other upscale features include tri-zone automatic climate control, HomeLink, rear audio controls, heated seats, trip computer, anti-theft system, automatic cruise control, high-intensity discharge headlamps, and stability control.
The front bucket seats are wide and soft, like most Americans, shaped with gentle contours. Among the finest minivan seats, these perches offer generous arm and legroom. Likewise, the second row offers abundant space in all dimensions. Move back to the third row to discover adequate room for an average-sized adult on limited excursions -- high praise for what are often considered the penalty seats. Access is aided by a second-row, passenger-side bucket seat that can slide inboard, though a traditional bench is also available.
Storage space is abundant, with a change holder, large console, and sizable map pockets to swallow road trip sundries, still leaving seven cupholders accessible from the front row for beverages or small items. The length of the rear cargo space (behind third row) is limited, but Toyota overcompensates with deep wells that could accommodate very tall items, keep groceries in place, or house the rear 60/40 seats when folded back.
The conversion to flat-floored cargo hauler allows for the requisite 4x8-foot sheet to fit within the vehicle. The process is straightforward, with second-row removal and rear folding back, though the Honda "magic" rear seat is slightly easier to operate.
Motivation for the 4300-pound minivan comes from a new corporate 3.3-liter V-6 producing 230 horsepower and 242 lb-ft of torque. Matched to a five-speed automatic transmission, the Sienna fuel mileage is rated at 19 city/27 highway while earning the distinction of being an ultra-low-emissions vehicle.
Initial response is gentle, allowing for a smooth launch and easy modulation for parking lot patrols -- both important for a family vehicle likely to be regularly at school or the mall. Step into it like you're late for a PTA meeting and the silken V-6 delivers satisfying thrust, proving the strength of this powerplant in every application. Heavy acceleration has the tranny holding the gear for maximum power, but modest driving is met with near-imperceptible shifts.
Steering effort is higher than most Toyotas, which for us is a good thing. It is relatively responsive yet remains isolated from harsh feedback. Likewise, the suspension is Camry compliant and the vehicle is quite controlled for its weight, height, and damping.
No minivan would be complete these days without a few "surprise and delight" features, such as retractable sun shades for side glass, power up/down windows in sliding doors, and a center section on the second-row bench that slides forward 13 inches to help parents monitor their wee one. Clearly Toyota adapted the best elements from Dodge and Honda, then added a few new items to the mix, ensuring their minivan goes well beyond the competency that defined previous generations.
The all-new Sienna is a minivan for the discriminating buyer looking for comfort, convenience, power, refinement, and luxury more often associated with premium vehicles than family haulers. Offered in CE, LE, XLE, and XLE Limited trim levels, with prices ranging from $22,955 to $34,480, the Sienna covers a broad range of the minivan market with a compelling vehicle that should be on consumers' short list.