Design for Living - 2011 Toyota Sienna SE Long-Term Road Test

2011 Toyota Sienna Long Term Road Test

2011 Toyota Sienna SE: Design for Living

January 26, 2011


As much as the minivan is disdained as the instrument of the design devil, a simple box on wheels, it's actually the only vehicle in the road where you see real innovation in both appearance and function.

While every other sort of vehicle asks you to sit in the usual cockpit-style space that's riddled with design cues from other machines (airplanes) and other times (the 1950s), the 2011 Toyota Sienna bravely suggests that you consider a different control layout, one that's more friction-free, ergonomically speaking.

While everyone else is sitting in the automotive equivalent of a stupidly stuffed office chair -- designed foremost to be seen rather than to be used -- the Toyota Sienna suggests that a seat that has been modeled after those in an airliner's business class might actually be more appropriate for those riding behind the flight deck.

Think of all the design stuff that has come from the minivan.

For me, the Volkswagen microbus came first, an oblong shape of Bauhaus efficiency that achieved the kind of passenger count from a small space that you usually see only in clown cars at the circus. Then came the Chevy Corvair van, America's response to the VW bus, with a radical downsizing of proportions in an American van, not to mention a reshuffling of major components. (Too bad they couldn't keep the oil on the inside of the engine.)

The Brubaker Box expressed the reinterpretation of the van as a machine for driving as well as hauling. And America's boogie van mania of the 1970s was legitimized by one-box design concepts from Giugiaro and Pininfarina. Even the introduction of the front-wheel-drive 1984 Dodge Caravan -- a rethink of a concept that Hal Sperlich had first developed for Ford in 1974 and then brought to Chrysler -- is surely an important milestone in the history of design, a moment that makes me think of Le Corbusier, not Lee Iacocca.

The minivan is one of the few vehicles that has inspired designers to go into the real world and study the way that real people use vehicles. (Usually designers like to sit around in sunny courtyards in Barcelona and just make assumptions.) Consider the clever innovations that have come to us from minivan design. The center storage console. The sliding cargo bin beneath the passenger seat. Automatic sliding doors. The reclining, sliding and tumbling second-row seat. The rearview camera. Rear-seat entertainment systems. Remote-operated rear window vents. Stow n' Go seats. Swivel n' Go seats. Power-operated liftgates. The cupholder!

Sadly the standard of exterior design for minivans has declined from the days of the third-generation 1996 Dodge Caravan, a masterful blend of style and utility from the designers led by Tom Gale, Chrysler's now-forgotten studio master. In comparison, the current generation of vans is all about the competition to produce the largest possible measurement of interior passenger volume, which looks very impressive on a sales brochure. That's why the Sienna has the same aesthetic impact you'd get from throwing a sheet over a hospital gurney.

But for all the decline in the standards of one-box exterior design (remember the original Renault Espace?), I still get a design buzz from sitting in the Sienna. I mean, why not make a vehicle that is less like the usual roundup of vehicular cliches and more like Le Corbusier's Machine for Living?

Michael Jordan, Executive Editor,

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