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No matter how much minivans suffer from a negative family car stigma, people often come to a time in their lives when they realize that this type of vehicle is the best option for hauling kids, groceries, pets, and other accouterments of a settled life. With the updated 2011 Sienna, Toyota has foreseen and used technology to address a few of the challenges facing the modern, overburdened parent.
Practicality often dictates design, and such is the case with the new Sienna. Although the front incorporates some of the latest Toyota styling language with its angular grille opening and curved hood, the sides are dominated by large, power-operated sliding doors. A beltline shoots straight back from the fenders, adding a little more style, but ultimately the Sienna is a large box on wheels. It looks modern and will fit unassumingly into grocery store parking lots.
Our Limited trim model Sienna made a good case for the harried parent with its smart key system. Keeping the key fob in a pocket, we merely needed to touch the front door handle to unlock it, or give the sliding door handles a light pull for them to power open. We imagined a mother, arms loaded with grocery bags and two young scamps underfoot, benefiting greatly from this effortless entry.
Toyota's six-speed automatic comes up to modern transmission standards.
Similarly, it just took a push of a button to start the car, with no need to rummage through pockets or bags for the key. Toyota's reliable 3.5-liter V-6 sat under the hood, an engine that is more than adequate for moving the Sienna. Its 265 horsepower and 245 pound-feet of torque, working through a six-speed automatic transmission, got us quickly off the line at traffic lights, let us merge on freeways, and powered up hills without losing steam.
During passing maneuvers, flooring the gas got the transmission to kick down and stirred up an awful racket from the engine, as if it were complaining about the effort we asked of it. But it still provided the push we needed to pass trucks and other slow traffic.
Toyota also offers a 2.7-liter four-cylinder, which makes 187 horsepower, but we can't see the point of this engine. The EPA rating for the V-6 is 18 mpg city and 24 mpg highway (16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway for the all-wheel-drive version), while the four-cylinder gets 19 mpg city and 24 mpg highway; not much of a gain, and a big loss of power. In our V-6 version, we turned in a final fuel economy of 19.7 mpg.
Maneuvering around parking lots, we found another feature of the Sienna that should please parents: the overpowered steering makes low-speed turns very easy. We could turn the wheel with a single finger. Combined with its good turning radius, we drove through the most treacherous parking garages incident-free.
The steering wheel takes a very light touch to turn.
Further enhancing our parking lot prowess, our car came with a backup camera showing distance and trajectory lines. The camera is invaluable for reversing the Sienna, as a rear cabin filled with rough-housing children can destroy rear visibility. Given the bulk of the vehicle, it could also benefit from the type of around-view camera system we saw in the Infiniti EX35.
At speed, the steering lacks much road feel due to its tuning, but that is to be expected. The few times we put the Sienna through some fast corners, it showed a lot of body movement, the suspension designed more to handle speed bumps than apexes. But the ride could also have been a little smoother; it seemed to jounce around a little too much over some harsher road surfaces.
A more stable platform would have been nice, as the middle-row seats proved very inviting. In our car's seven-passenger configuration, two captain's chairs made up the second row, and each had an integrated ottoman and reclining back that put us in La-Z-Boy heaven. A massage feature would have completed the picture.
The rear-seat entertainment system's ultra-wide-screen LCD made for one of the best movie-watching experiences we've seen in a car. Made of two LCDs, this screen measures 16.4 inches and can show a single video across its expanse or two separate images from different sources. Some movies can take advantage of this screen width for a very nice visual experience, or little Johnny can watch a movie while Janie plays a video game. Wireless headphones keep the audio private.
Recliners with ottomans make the middle row the best seats in the house.
Sitting in the front seat, we chose to play music as we drove, the Sienna offering satellite radio, an iPod jack, and Bluetooth streaming audio. The touchscreen LCD provided a usable interface for selecting channels or browsing an iPod music library. But the iPod interface is problematic in that it automatically starts playing any entry that shows up on the screen. For example, while browsing the albums category we hit the button that would make it show the next screen, and the music selection immediately changed to the top entry on that screen. This operation is very annoying if you want to browse the library while continuing to listen to a selection.
The audio came out loud and clear through the 10-speaker JBL-branded system, a feature of the Limited-trim Sienna. This system had surprisingly good clarity, probably due to a design geared toward the rear-seat entertainment system. But it wasn't the best for music, as midranges sounded a little hollow, and bass wasn't particularly strong.
One odd and annoying quirk of the Sienna's cabin tech is that the stereo would not mute or pause when the navigation system issued voice prompts for route guidance. With the music turned up, any route guidance was completely drowned out. And we could find no setting to fix this issue.
The navigation system shows traffic on maps with good resolution.
The navigation system itself is something we've seen in Lexus and Toyota models for some time, but despite its age, the maps still look good, and it incorporates some advanced features. The maps are strictly 2D, but the resolution is quite nice. Voice prompts for route guidance pronounce street names and graphics for turns, and freeway intersections are easy to read.
It shows traffic information on the maps and will dynamically change the route for bad traffic ahead. Further, the system used a voice prompt to warn about slow traffic, which typically means cars moving from 20 to 40 mph, on a programmed route. But this warning was not accompanied by a detour button, making it informational rather than actionable.
The car's navigation LCD also came in handy for the Bluetooth phone system. Along with showing an onscreen keypad to complement the voice command system, the phone system also ingested our phone's contact list, showing names on the LCD. The system falls short of offering dial-by-name voice commands, which many other automakers have adopted.
One final piece of tech helps for an effortless driving experience: adaptive cruise control. As in other cars we've tested, the adaptive cruise control let us set the Sienna's speed and following distance. As we approached slower traffic, the Sienna hit its own brakes and matched speed with the car ahead. Unlike adaptive cruise control in cars such as the Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid, the Sienna's only works above about 30 mph, and won't bring the car to a complete stop if traffic ahead is stopped. Although adaptive cruise control is nice, we would really like to see blind-spot detection on the Sienna, as it has large blind spots.
Although the 2011 Toyota Sienna brings in some innovative cabin tech, especially considering the segment, its power train remains fairly run-of-the-mill. The 3.5-liter V-6 doesn't represent much of an advance on engine tech from five years ago. The six-speed automatic keeps the car up with current technology. Design is also mostly average, tending toward practicality more than flair. The onscreen interface remains usable but could do with an aesthetic overhaul.
The Sienna mostly shines for its cabin tech. Although the navigation system is old, it still works and looks good. Odd quirks aside, we appreciate the traffic alerts and iPod connectivity. Adaptive cruise control is a surprise in this segment, and the backup camera is essential. There are a few other cabin tech features we would like to see, but the movie theater qualities of the Sienna made our day.
|Model||2011 Toyota Sienna|
|Power train||3.5-liter V-6|
|EPA fuel economy||18 mpg city/24 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||19.7 mpg|
|Navigation||DVD-based navigation system with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Optional|
|Disc player||MP3 compatible four CD changer|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||USB drive, Bluetooth streaming audio, satellite radio, auxiliary input|
|Audio system||JBL 10 speaker system|
|Driver aids||Adaptive cruise control, rear-view camera|
|Price as tested||$46,200|