Review: 2011 Toyota Sienna Limited AWD
By Chris Haak
I just finished a week with Toyota’s all-new 2011 Sienna, and put it through one of the toughest tests that I knew how to put a vehicle through. (Don’t worry, folks, no minivans were harmed during this testing). The test I’m speaking of is the family road trip with two preschoolers in the back seat. Did I mention also that those preschoolers don’t care to entertain themselves in the car on long trips?
Honda was onto something a few years ago with its “Respect the Van” ad campaign for its Odyssey. I don’t know that there is another vehicle on the road more suitable for families with young children than the modern minivan. Available in prices that range from the low-$20,000s to the upper-$40,000s, there’s a minivan to match every budget, and nearly every one is available with the kid-friendly essentials: easy-to-clean leather seats, power sliding doors, and a DVD player. If you step up to the CadillacLexus of minivans, you can get such features as adaptive cruise control, xenon HID headlamps, Bluetooth streaming audio, navigation, power rear hatch door, dual sunroofs, 18 inch wheels.
I should also mention that my family owns a 2008 version of the same van covered in the review. While that gives me significant familiarity with the old Sienna, it’s not necessarily relevant information in the 2011 model’s review, so I will try to keep comparisons between the generations to a minimum.
Toyota did some things really well with the 2011 Sienna, and cut a few corners that are obvious to an owner of the previous-generation model. Combine the best of both versions, and you might well have the perfect minivan. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. You get the good with the bad.
The van looks much better now. Although it’s a little bigger than before, by trimming overhangs slightly while maintaining the same wheelbase, it looks more trim and a bit less awkward than before. The wheelbase is 119.3 inches, but overall length drops from 201.0 to 200.2 inches. Track, however, has increased by about two inches on the front axle and an inch on the rear axle. Overall width is up from 77.4 inches to 78.2 inches.
The Sienna’s new face is very Venza/Avalon-like, which may or may not be a good thing, depending upon your perspective. I think it works for the van, and better integrates the Sienna with the rest of the lineup. In profile, the new Sienna reminds one of its arch-rival, the Honda Odyssey, thanks to the more prominent body scuplting there. The Limited model loses its chrome body-side moulding for 2011 (actually, it loses the moulding, period, which used to be included even on lesser models), but gains chrome trim on the door handles and larger 18 inch aluminum wheels (up from 17s on the 2010 Limited).
Inside, keeping the wheelbase the same harmed legroom in all three rows, but the additional width improved already-good hip and shoulder room. Cargo capacity behind the second and third rows is down slightly, but overall passenger volume is up somewhat. Some aspects of the new interior get my seal of approval – the dash-mounted shifter has been moved higher and now has a +/- gate to the side for easier gear selection than the meandering path that the old shifter forced you to take for downshifts. (Mercifully, the Sienna does not include wheel-mounted paddle shifters). The faux woodgrain trim included with the Limited is now less fake-looking, and has a dark, satin finish. The old Sienna’s shiny plasti-wood was easy to make fun of; this stuff isn’t. The Sienna, however, loses its padded upper dash and upper door panels in this new generation, which erases any positive impression that the new faux wood may leave. Newer technology such as Bluetooth streaming audio, XM Satellite Radio, iPod connectivity, the widescreen DVD player, and dual power sliding moonroofs are, however, clear improvements over the old van’s limited technology.
I’m not sold on the much-hyped lounge-type second-row seating that the Sienna Limited now boasts. From personal experience, most minivan buyers seem to be parents of small children, or parents with three or more older children. A smaller sub-set of minivan buyers that I’ve seen are empty-nesters who appreciate the people-moving efficiency of minivans and like to haul their friends to dinner or on couples’ vacations. These folks are more likely to buy the fully kitted-out version with lounge seats and all of the comfort-enhancing amenities. The lounge seats are useless for a family with children in booster seats or child seats attached to the second row seats. The lounge seats also are easier for people with shorter legs to use; when I tried them, my feet were against the front seatbacks, unless I moved the front seats forward past their normal location and slid the lounge seat to its most-rearward position.
One new feature that is somewhat useful is extremely-long second-row seat travel. It helps to make the leg rests work in the second row for tall people, but perhaps even more practically, allows parents to balance among third-row legroom, second-row lounge seating for taller people, or easy access to kids in the second row. My sons have a tendency to put their feet on the backs of the front seats in most vehicles, but it’s possible to adjust the second row in the 2011 Sienna so far rearward that they weren’t able to do so. The tradeoff, however, is that it’s harder to hand them things like drinks and snacks from the front seat when they’re so far rearward. The third row loses practical legroom when the second row is too far rearward as well.
Sienna Limiteds have built-in sunshades in the sliding doors and on the windows behind the sliding doors. Though the shades are manual, they are a great feature for families with children, and far easier to use and more durable than the suction cup-mounted ones available in stores. Other family-friendly features include a conversation mirror that shares space with the sunglasses holder, the dual-display widescreen entertainment screen, power sliding side doors and power opening rear hatch, and tri-zone automatic climate control.
Toyota makes a big deal about the widescreen entertainment system, which can display an external video source (for example, a video game) on one side of the screen and the DVD from the van’s in-dash DVD player (with the player itself moved from the roof to the lower front console, at the expense of a fairly-significant storage compartment, but putting it at a far more accessible location for parents who need to swap movies for their kids. Though the DVD can now be inserted at the front of the van, a parent (even from the passenger seat) cannot effectively control DVD playback (other than selecting the next track) without stopping the van and applying the parking brake; it’s too bad there isn’t an easier way to control it.
When I connected a portable DVD player as the second input source, I was unable to get its sound to play either through the van’s audio system or the included wireless headphones. The two pictures did display side-by-side as advertised, though. Just be sure to not lose the DVD remote control, because that’s how you switch among the different viewing modes. I’m not sold on the concept of a single extra-wide screen versus Chrysler’s two regular screen implementation. While the Chrysler approach is perhaps cleaner, the reality is that most third-row seats are empty most of the time in vans, so having both displays in the second row makes more sense if children are only sitting there.
From the perspective of a parent with small children, one major disappointment is that the second-row seats no longer accommodate the large LATCH anchors that Britax seats have, so we had to use the seatbelts to secure child seats. My wife’s 2008 Sienna has the easiest LATCH anchor points to use in the world; there’s a small flap on the seat cushion that opens to leave the anchor point wide open to access. From someone who moves car seats into different cars often, the difference is somewhat major; I can install seats within five minutes in the old van, but it takes much longer in the new one. The 2010 Highlander has the same affliction as the new Sienna does. The rear power moonroof is nice for letting more light into the van and enhancing one’s perception of spaciousness, but my kids hate to have the sun in their eyes, so I only left its shade open when piloting the van solo.
In terms of the actual driving experience, the 2011 Sienna basically tops the old model in nearly every measure. The steering – though it is now electric rather than hydraulic – has the same 15.5:1 ratio and 3.4 turns lock-to-lock as the 2010 model does, but actually manages to deliver its boost more progressively as speed builds and have a more natural feel than does the steering in the previous generation’s. The 2011’s wider front track doesn’t help with the turning circle, but does help with the van’s handling, as do the up-sized 18 inch wheels compared to the 17s in the last generation. There is also no discernible ride penalty from the improved handling and lower profile tires, either.
There is considerably less body roll in the new van than is present in the previous-generation vehicle, which makes the van feel far more surefooted, even if perhaps maximum performance numbers may or may not bear this subjective impression out. I had a chance to drive a Sienna SE with the lowered suspension and sportier tuning a few days ago, but passed on it for a shot at driving an Audi R8 instead. If that makes me a bad van reviewer, then so be it, but it still would have been interesting to contrast the two Sienna variants.
Braking performance is slightly improved in the new van thanks to upgraded (larger) hardware. The pedal is easy to modulate and doesn’t bite prematurely or too late. Don’t let the new Sienna’s more Odyssey-like looks fool you into thinking it has the same on-road presence that Honda’s family hauler does, however. The Odyssey is by far the best-driving minivan that I’ve sampled; however, Honda doesn’t offer their van with all-wheel drive, and that’s a must-have for some buyers.
According to the EPA, the 2011 Sienna’s fuel economy is slightly better than the previous generation’s, thanks largely to the new six-speed automatic, but trails its primary rivals, even with the available 2.7 liter four cylinder (the only four cylinder available in a “regular” minivan). The FWD four cylinder is rated at 19 city/24 highway, the FWD V6 is rated at 18/24, and the AWD V6 is rated at 16/22. I observed about 18 mpg in mixed driving, which is mostly in line with what we see from my wife’s Sienna. Though I haven’t driven a four cylinder Sienna, I would not recommend one for solely fuel economy reasons; losing 78 horsepower and 59 lb-ft of torque for one lousy mile per gallon hardly seems worth the trade-off. The Odyssey and Chrysler Town & Country, by the way, are rated at 17 city/25 highway. The Kia Sedona is rated at 17/23.
At first glance, pricing is somewhat ambitious in the upper trim levels, if Toyota hopes to meet its objective of gaining market share. But when using TrueDelta’s online pricing tool, the Sienna XLE V6 FWD is about $3,000 cheaper than an Odyssey Touring when accounting for equipment differences. A Limited FWD is about $1,000 cheaper than the Odyssey Touring, which proves the point that many have said online before: the Limited is not really a great value, at least relative to the XLE. There’s much more value to be had with an LE if you can live without the fluff; and let’s face it, a van used to haul children – even one owned by a car guy – will live a rough life, so why pay for leather seats that will be covered by car seats and sunroofs that will always be closed?
My test vehicle was a Limited AWD that had a $40,570 base price (including destination) and the $4,025 Limited Premium Package (dual view entertainment center, DVD navigation and backup camera, JBL 10-speaker audio system, XM radio with NavTraffic, iPod connectivity, Bluetooth phone connectivity, and Bluetooth wireless streaming audio) and the $324 carpet floor mats/door sill protector for a total of $44,919. Missing, however, is the $972 Limited Convenience Package (automatic xenon HID headlamps with auto high beams and auto on/off and automatic wipers). Adaptive cruise control no longer appears to be available on the Sienna, which is a shame, because in certain situations, it is handy to have.
When I asked her to recap her thoughts on the new Sienna, my wife likened her 2008 to a worn pair of favorite jeans. Hers is comfortable and familiar, and she likes the way it looks. She didn’t appreciate the chassis and transmission upgrades as I did, and instead prefers her older van’s higher-quality interior (which is true) and doesn’t care about acceleration or the marginal fuel economy improvement that the six-speed brings. She thought the new one shifted too often, which to mean meant that it was always in the right gear, but to her, it was distracting.
Personally, I give this van a split decision. The on-road behavior is definitely improved – braking, handling, and acceleration. The looks, while my opinion is subjective, are improved as well. But I’m disappointed by some of the interior changes, where cost-cutting was done so obviously. You can walk out the door in a Sienna LE V6 FWD for more than $13,000 less than this test vehicle would cost, and still very effectively move your family around, and probably never miss the woodgrain dash trim, etc. But the Limited sure is a comfortable vehicle; perhaps the ultimate roadtrip vehicle.