Review: Toyota Sienna XLE 3.5L

By Charles Krome

As most people with more than two kids eventually discover, it really takes more than two rows worth of seating to survive a family road trip of any kind of distance (or time) with your sanity intact. And if you need to optimize your ability to haul both cargo and kids at the same time on said trip, even today’s full-size crossovers can be a tight squeeze. Alternatively, for those whose routine driving includes shorter but more frequent trips carrying the same sort of payload mix—kids, kids’ friends, everyone’s gear, etc.—the same concern over maximizing interior at the expense of nearly everything else still obtains. Which is where the minivan comes in. Only nowadays, in an effort to get people to consider these vehicles because out of choice, not necessity, not quite everything is being sacrificed on the altar of interior versatility. Which is where the 2011 Toyota Sienna comes in.

Toyota’s heavily hyped “Swagger Wagon,” like the all-new Honda Odyssey and Nissan Quest, and to a lesser extent the refreshed Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan, represent a concerted effort on the part of their manufacturers to up the coolness factor in today’s minivan segment, and I was lucky enough to experience the swagger for myself recently, when Toyota loaned me a Sienna XLE for a week, dropping it off with the requisite full tank of gas for my driving pleasure.

And be clear, Toyota sincerely presents the Sienna as something capable of providing a (somewhat) dynamic driving experience. I imagine that the serious driver would choose the “sporty” SE configuration, but the V6-powered Sienna delivered nearly spirited acceleration. The 3.5-liter engine in the Sienna makes 266 hp and 245 lb.-ft. of torque, which is roughly in the middle of the pack when you also throw the Kia Sedona in the minivan mix, and stomping the go pedal almost—almost—brought a grin to my face.

The rest of the driving experience, however, was unexceptional. The Sienna handles about as well as you can expect your basic minivan to handle, but the steering, pedal feel and transmission operation all seemed surprisingly unrefined. And as regards all three, I think the issue was the same: Intrusive electronics that caused noticeable delays in implementing driver inputs. The non-linear response of the transmission even drove me back to the spec sheet to see if Toyota had stuck a CVT under the hood for 2011 without my noticing.

To be fair, it’s not so much that the Sienna is a poor-driving minivan—it’s really not—it’s just that it wasn’t able to transcend the segment the way I hoped it would.

Plus, from a design and ergonomics standpoint, it nearly felt as if Toyota designers went out of their way to make the Sienna unfriendly to drivers. The seat backs were hard and uncomfortable, and I couldn’t actually see through the nifty-looking front quarter windows, so, practically speaking, front visibility was just as challenging as if the Sienna’s A-pillar were a foot wide. The center-stack controls were physically and visually flowing away from the driver’s seat, and the touch-screen didn’t operate the climate systems or display their settings. That stuff was presented in a much smaller, hooded and recessed monitor that was entirely separate from the touchscreen. The roof-mounted controls for the power-sliding doors and whatnot, were much better laid out.

And despite an up-level 10-speaker JBL sound system that was part of the $6,225 XLE premium package, I was unimpressed by the audio.

On the other hand, that package made a huge difference in the rear of the Sienna, courtesy of toys like a dual-view entertainment screen that could show either wide-screen movies or be configured to display two entirely different outputs side-by-side, with the system’s two wireless headphones playing two entirely different soundtracks. There also were some much-appreciated design details, like the “wood” trim around the power-window buttons in the second row, and the “chrome” door pulls back there, too.

With plenty of other rear comfort/convenience features, like an effective tri-zone climate system and those power second-row windows, the outboard second-row spots were excellent for adults—the bucket seats felt more comfortable than the driver’s spot—and third-row split bench was tolerable for average-size adults for shorter periods. The Sienna also had an easy-to-remove center “jump seat” that could handle children in a pinch.

And interior versatility was nothing less than excellent. The second-row seats mounted on particularly long tracks, allowing a lot of flexibility for both increasing passenger leg room and mixing passengers with cargo, while the third row did the fold-and-tumble tango without missing a beat. I do have a minor concern: It seems like it would be very easy to lose small items in that back space that the last row tumbles into, what with all the nooks and crannies in the molded plastic there. That’s a lot of plastic, but it works in the Sienna, because the entire interior has a highly artificial feel, enhanced by the unnatural color scheme. Which, I re-emphasize, works to the vehicle’s advantage: I was never worried that a pack of kids bumping around back there, spilling the occasional Slurpee or tossing around their backpacks, would do any lasting damage to the Sienna’s interior surfaces.

This is an important quality in a minivan, and overall, except for the driver’s position, Toyota did an excellent job including value-added touches—others include a nicely finished sunroof opening and a double glovebox—without taking away from the Sienna’s ruggedness.

Then, the Sienna’s interior is wrapped up in sheet metal that it truly does showcase a fair amount of visual swagger. One of the keys is a very strong front end that includes typical sporty-car cues like a prominent lower air inlet and recessed fog lamps. As you can see when the Sienna is in profile, the hood is nearly parallel to the ground, instead of falling off steeply toward the front of the vehicle, which makes for a more trucky silhouette than used to be found in older minivans. Overall, the front end seems a bit stubby, but that works to the Sienna’s advantage in an Owen Wilson-kind of way, and the relatively upright grille is another notably truck-oriented design cue—although, more subjectively, I’m not a fan of Toyota’s “melting” grille-blade look.

Toyota designers also threw a lot of creases into the sheet metal up front, with subtle hood lines that flow into the front Toyota badge. In fact, as you can see by again checking the pics—specifically the one showing the front of the Sienna from the side—things get a little busy over the front wheels at some angles.

But I suppose part of what’s going on here is that Toyota had to pack on as much detail at the front as possible because there are just so many ways you can disguise the long rectangular box-like shape that defines a minivan aft of the driver’s seat.

This is where Honda tried to shake things up with the “lightning bolt” design of the Odyssey, but Toyota doesn’t do anything nearly as tricky. The flanks of the Sienna are essentially featureless, although with an overall aerodynamic shape that gives the minivan a pleasant, swept-back appearance. Unfortunately, it all sweeps back to a rear lift-gate that has the face of an angry beaver, with the license plate representing its two front teeth. There’s a unique “scooped out” treatment below brake lights, but this doesn’t mesh with the rest of the exterior and if you happen to compare the rear of SE with the rear of the XLE, you can see this cue seems to have been designed specifically for the “sportier” version.

This is probably a good place to point out that the Sienna was designed here in the U.S., by Toyota’s Calty studios, and I can imagine there was a lot of pressure on them, for a lot of reasons, to come up with a hit. The Sienna hasn’t been that, yet, but this spring’s disasters in Japan have thrown a monkey wrench into the industry this year, and it’s impossible to know how much, if any, impact the situation is having on the Sienna’s sales performance.

There’s certainly no reason for it not to become a success, at least in its own segment. After all, while relatively light on swagger, the Toyota Sienna XLE remains a superior minivan. Of course, with a price tag of $40,642—including that aforementioned $6,225 premium package on top of an MSRP of $32,375, along with various and sundry other fees and minor options—it had better be.

Author: Charles Krome

Charles Krome is a long-time automotive journalist who spent more than 10 years on the inside at General Motors and Ford, and also has corporate communications experience with Audi, Porsche and BASF Automotive Refinish. As a big motorsports fan growing up in the Detroit area, Krome was lucky enough to be able to attend numerous NASCAR, Indy car, F1 and SCCA events while still in his formative years. This, combined with a childhood that included significant (passenger) seat time in cars from Lotus and Jensen Healey, made him a car guy at an earlier age. Today, he lives in metro Detroit with his car wife, raising car kids.

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3 Comments

  1. stupid review where is the MPG

  2. The Sienna doesn’t really break any new ground, but is there really anything that hasn’t already been done in the minivan segment? The best anyone can hope for is steady improvements in interior versatility, reliability, and efficiency, with performance and styling that don’t embarass. Toyota has checked all the boxes, and avoided styling suicide (cough…Nissan…cough).

  3. Thanks for that constructive criticism, Nipsip!

    I certainly should have mentioned fuel efficiency in the review: The Sienna V6 is rated at 18 mpg city/24 mpg highway, and Toyota also is the only automaker to offer an I4 in its minivan. Unfortunately, even though that engine gives up .8 liters of displacement and about 80 hp/60 lb.-ft. of torque as compared to the V6, that only manages to up the minivan’s EPA line to 19/24.

    That’s right in line with the rest of the minivan crew, because even though the Honda Odyssey can reach up to 19/28, that doesn’t affect combined mileage much. The Sienna is rated at 20 mpg combined, the Odyssey at 22.

    I managed roughly 19.5 in the Sienna.

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