The Honda Odyssey has enjoyed a long run as king of the minivan hill. Edmunds.com named the Odyssey "Most Wanted" minivan every year since the current generation hit the market as a 1999 model, and consumers around the country reflect our editorial voting process by keeping the Odyssey perpetually on dealer order lists. While the Odyssey remains the one to beat for 2003 models, the early introduction of the 2004 Toyota Sienna could provide some stiff competition.
In order to fully appreciate the new Sienna's long list of improvements, we spent some time behind the wheel of a 2003 version just prior to our first experience in the 2004 model. Although still a capable minivan, the current Sienna showed signs of age in its interior design and was down on power compared to the competition.
The 2004 Sienna benefits from a new 3.3-liter V6 engine, increasing horsepower from 210 hp to 230 hp, and torque from 220 pound-feet to 242 lb-ft. We immediately noticed the difference around town and especially when moving into a freeway passing lane. The more powerful engine is coupled with a new five-speed automatic transmission an improvement over the previous four-speed automatic version. This combination results in better fuel mileage with preliminary EPA figures of 19 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway for two-wheel-drive models.
In addition to the larger engine and five-speed transmission, the new Sienna also offers an optional all-wheel-drive system, a benefit it claims over the Honda Odyssey and just about every other minivan on the market as well. This system not only provides peace of mind to families who live in areas where severe weather is a threat, but it's also an added safety benefit while driving on lightly dampened freeways. The all-wheel-drive system uses a center differential to divide engine power 50/50 to the front and rear wheels, so if one set of wheels begins to slip, power is automatically transferred to the wheels that have more grip. The standard 17-inch wheels that come on AWD-equipped models also feature run-flat tires for an added level of safety. All-wheel drive is available on the LE, XLE and XLE Limited models, while the CE will be limited to the standard two-wheel-drive powertrain.
With a stretched wheelbase nearly five inches longer than the current Sienna and widened front and rear tracks, the new Sienna handles much better than the previous model. The overall length has been increased by 6.5 inches, and while you might think that a larger vehicle would make for poorer handling characteristics, we found the new Sienna to be more carlike than ever before, although the Honda Odyssey shows less body roll during cornering. Surprisingly enough, even with its expanded dimensions, Toyota still managed to cut the Sienna's turning radius by more than three feet from 40 feet down to 36.8 feet, while the Odyssey is hampered comparatively at 37.7 feet.
By design, minivans are inherently used for transporting people, and therefore safety plays a big part in their design. The Sienna is no exception as it comes standard with antilock brakes, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and BrakeAssist on all models. Vehicle stability control with traction control is optional on lower-end models, but standard equipment on XLE Limited trim and all-wheel-drive models.
There are airbags aplenty in the new Sienna, including front side and side curtain airbags that cover all three rows yet another claim that the Sienna can now make over the Odyssey. The Sienna can also accommodate three child safety seats across the second row, since the LATCH (Lower Anchor with Tether for Children) system is standard in all second-row seating positions.
We were immediately impressed by the Sienna's spacious new cabin. Interior volume has increased by 45 cubic feet, making the Sienna the new class leader for cargo space at just under 149 cubic feet. The Sienna is available in both seven- and eight-passenger configurations, while the Odyssey maxes out at seven passengers. With the Sienna's seven-passenger configuration, the second-row captain's chairs can be pushed together to create a bench seat. The eight-passenger version uses a three-way split bench in the second row which allows you to pull the middle seat 13 inches closer to the driver to provide an easier reach to a pint-sized child safety-seat occupant.
One of the Odyssey's most heralded features has been its flat-folding third-row bench seat. While the Honda's seat is convenient to flip and fold into the floor, there's no doubt that it takes two hands and most of the body weight of a 120-pound woman to complete the action. The Sienna has improved upon the Odyssey's rear-seat function by engineering a 60/40-split third-row bench which can also be folded flat into the floor, either in halves or as the entire bench. Either way, flipping and folding that rear bench in two sections is much lighter and therefore easier than the Odyssey's one-piece bench. Toyota boasts that with the second-row seats removed and the third row stowed, 4-by-8 sheets of plywood can be transported flat on the Sienna's floor.
Most minivans now provide the convenience of dual sliding side doors, but not all have advanced to making them remote power doors. On the XLE and XLE Limited models, the Sienna takes the side doors, and also the rear hatch, all the way to remote power, allowing harried mothers and fathers to keep a hand on the kid and a hand on the grocery cart while the doors begin to open at the quick push of a button.
We found the Sienna's interior to be comfortable and pleasing with high-quality fabric and interior moldings on lower trim levels, and leather seating surfaces and wood trim on the high-end models. The center stack has been redesigned and sports simple stereo and climate controls, and a uniquely placed gated gearshift handle. Stereo controls work a standard AM/FM/cassette/CD unit with six speakers, or an upgraded 300-watt unit with 10 speakers and surround sound. Climate control comes in dual-zone on CE and LE models, and a new digitally operated tri-zone system on XLE and XLE Limited, allowing rear passengers to set the controls to their comfort level. While it took a few shifts between park, drive and reverse to remember that the quirky shifter was on the console instead of the steering column, we found it nothing to complain about.
Numerous storage compartments are placed throughout the Sienna's interior to secure small items that travel with you on a daily basis. We found the two gloveboxes, the large removable center console box and the 10 baggage hooks to be just the beginning of the hidden treasures found in the Sienna's nooks and crannies, and even noticed the handbag hook that designers placed on the side of the center stack in the passenger's footwell to prevent an unlatched purse from spilling its contents.
DVD rear-seat entertainment systems have been showing up on more and more family vehicles, and it was no surprise to find a DVD unit with a swing-down screen, remote control and two wireless headphone sets ready to entertain the little kids (and big kids, too) who travel as second- and third-row passengers.
The XLE model only offers Sienna buyers a GPS navigation system with a 6.5-inch touchscreen monitor and voice guidance. While we didn't travel any great distance using the nav system, we did allow it to guide us around town and found it easy to operate with simple controls. Combined with the nav system is a rearview camera monitoring system that shows a wide-angle view of the rear of the Sienna whenever the minivan is put in reverse gear. This feature will be much appreciated if you find that your kids' bikes often seem strategically placed in the driveway behind your rear tires.
The top-of-the-line XLE Limited model, a new trim level on the 2004 Sienna, gets the lion's share of the Sienna's new features. Standard on the XLE Limited is a park-assist system that uses a sonar range-finding system. The system uses two front sensors and four rear sensors with an audible beep that quickens as you close in on the obstruction in your path. Other standard equipment includes a laser cruise control system that can be set to conventional speed cruise control, or set as a time interval based on the car ahead of you, and pull-up sunshades for second- and third-row seating area windows.
There's no doubt in our minds that the 2004 Sienna will become a standout in the minivan world. Its carlike handling and innovative features will challenge all of its competition, and that's before pricing even comes into play. The Sienna CE will go on sale this spring with a price tag of $22,955 that's nearly $1,000 less than the 2003 CE model. The new Sienna is truly the right mix of product and pricing, not to mention it has the proud Toyota reputation behind it.