Minivan vs. Hotel Bel-Air - 2011 Toyota Sienna SE Long-Term Road Test

2011 Toyota Sienna Long Term Road Test

2011 Toyota Sienna SE: Minivan vs. Hotel Bel-Air

November 23, 2011

As I pulled into valet parking for the Hotel Bel-Air in the Toyota Sienna, it occurred to me that Vehicle Testing Manager Mike Schmidt might have been paying me back for some past transgression by arranging it so I would attend a press event at one of the most fashionable hotels in L.A. in a minivan.

Schmidt later denied it, of course. And the Hotel Bel-Air valet guys took it in stride and said that they get minivans all the time.

Maybe so, because the Hotel Bel-Air is the quintessential suburban hotel, so L.A. in its expression of a design ethic that’s all about sunshine, iced drinks and the sound of sprinklers on a summer morning. If you really know L.A., you head for the Hotel Bel-Air. All those flashy hotels on the Sunset Strip are strictly for hicks and Euro-trash.

And while a minivan might seem out of place at a hotel (especially at this one), it is of course equally suburban in its design ethic. In fact, the Sienna turns out to be better at what it does than the Hotel Bel-Air. It’s all about the difference between design and décor.

By a fluke I had temporary custody of one of Hotel Bel-Air’s newest rooms, built during the 2-year renovation that concluded with the re-opening of the hotel just months ago. It had all the usual suburban charm, the big windows and the flower pots on the verandah. But the spirit of suburban practicality had been compromised by a kind of triumph of Beverly Hills décor.

The room was overrun by electronics, but you had to watch a video on the widescreen to figure out a way to operate them all, as if the room were some kind of weird convertible top designed by Pininfarina. Light switches were scattered everywhere and each required one of three choices to operate it, a real adventure in the dark. The room’s temperature control was buried in one of the menus in the television interface. There were so many pillows on the couch that the only available sitting room was sized for a Chihuahua. The desk had an outlet for a laptop plug, only the telephone plug next to it took up so much space that it was unusable.

Every last room detail was an ergonomic disaster — every one. It was kind of funny, actually. There was not even a good place to sit down and put on your shoes. I have been in fancy hotels from Tokyo to Paris and never encountered anything quite like this.

As I departed in the humble Toyota Sienna, it occurred to me that while it’s unlikely you would ever catch a designer-caliber Chihuahua within a minivan, neither would you encounter any violations of fundamental ergonomic principles. Say what you will about the American minivan, but it has been refined into one of the most practical spaces you will ever experience, a little miracle of functionality where every last detail delights you with clever thoughtfulness.

Later at the auto show, Stewart Reed came over to say hello. Now the chairman of the transportation department at Art Center College of Design, Reed is known for his long successful career as a designer in Detroit and California, and indeed he held the pen that shaped the first concepts for the 1984 Dodge Caravan, the minivan that changed the world. He’s one of my favorite designers ever because he’s a total enthusiast for what a car does, not just the way it looks.

Right after Reed finished showing me pictures of the all-aluminum chassis of the 1939 Bugatti Type 64 that he was transforming into a display for the Mullin Automotive Museum, we started talking about minivans. He said, “From a design perspective, the minivan is one of the best vehicles on the road. Every bit of it is functional; there is not a square inch of it that is wasted. It is all about usability.”

I wanted to drag him away from the show in the Toyota Sienna and drive him back to the Hotel Bel-Air so he could give a little seminar about the difference between design and décor.

Michael Jordan, Executive Editor, @ 20,555 miles

Leave a Comment

Past Long-Term Road Tests

Have a question? We're here to help!
Chat online with us
Email us at
*Available daily 8AM-5PM Pacific
Call us at 855-782-4711
Text us at ED411