Mark Takahashi , Associate Editor
The Toyota Sienna has undergone a full redesign for the 2011 model year, and this all-new minivan looks to unseat our perennial favorite in this class -- the Honda Odyssey. This Sienna replaces the outgoing second-generation model -- which enjoyed a seven-year run -- attempting to remedy all of its predecessor's shortcomings, which included lifeless handling and a lack of entertainment options. The 2011 Toyota Sienna has successfully exorcised these demons.
While minivans have never focused on delivering sporty performance, the 2011 Sienna has made a sizable leap forward in terms of handling. The new Sienna feels much sharper and composed on the road, while maintaining its focus on passenger comfort. The Sienna also makes headway with its thoroughly modern interior and myriad amenities to make long road trips seem much shorter.
With this in mind, the 2011 Toyota Sienna is poised to wear the minivan crown -- even if only for a while. In a recent comparison test, the new Sienna edged out its aging nemesis, the Honda Odyssey, but we expect Honda to fire back with a full redesign later this year. Other minivans in the market include the Dodge Grand Caravan and nearly identical Chrysler Town and Country, but we tend to shy away from these choices because of substandard build quality and interior materials. The Kia Sedona represents the value leader in this segment, but it can't touch the Toyota when it comes to quality.
Our 2011 Toyota Sienna Limited test vehicle was powered by a 3.5-liter V6 paired with a six-speed automatic transmission driving the front wheels. A new 2.7-liter inline-4 is standard on base and LE trim levels, and all-wheel drive is available on the higher V6-powered trims.
The V6 produces 265 horsepower and 245 pound-feet of torque, enough to propel the Sienna to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds. Acceleration is quick for a minivan, as the Sienna bests its Odyssey rival by almost a full second. In braking tests from 60 mph, the Sienna required 127 feet to come to a complete stop, and the distance grew slightly after repeated runs. Despite this, the brake pedal felt consistently firm and confident. The electric power steering, however, tended to feel disconnected and numb.
Considering that our Toyota Sienna tester weighed in at a robust 4,586 pounds, handling was surprisingly carlike. It buzzed through the slalom cones at 60.6 mph and circled our skid pad pulling 0.77g. While it's unlikely Sienna owners would push this minivan to its performance threshold, these numbers are an indication that it can swerve away from trouble with confidence. More importantly, the Sienna navigates city streets and crowded parking lots with considerable ease.
One of the main reasons the 2011 Toyota Sienna -- and indeed, all minivans -- exists is its ability to comfortably shuttle large amounts of passengers and cargo from place to place. In this area, the Sienna is a top performer, as its cabin ably isolates occupants from the harshness of the outside world. Wind and road noise are reduced to almost cryptlike silence, while the suspension abates the majority of pavement bumps as well as most luxury cars do. Some concrete seams and larger potholes are more noticeable when the Sienna is empty, making the rear wheels feel a bit jittery.
The front seats are accommodating for a wide variety of body types, thanks to plenty of adjustments, headroom and legroom. The Limited's two second-row seats are the real scene stealers, though, as they look and feel like expensive first-class seats in a jumbo jet. Besides a reclining seatback and folding footrest, these seats also slide fore and aft with considerable travel. In full La-Z-Boy mode, passengers up to 5-foot-8 should be able to enjoy these uncommonly comfortable seats. Unfortunately, taller folks' legs will be too long to enjoy the full footrest extension. An optional center seat is available, though it is considerably smaller and less comfortable.
Farther back, the 60/40-split folding third row offers seating for three passengers. With the second-row seats slid forward, legroom is plentiful, but headroom is the limiting factor for the rearmost seats. We suggest that any adult passenger of average height or taller fight for a seat in the first two rows.
It is clear to us that the 2011 Toyota Sienna's designers and engineers really sweated the details. Drivers are treated to an expansive panoramic view good enough to put many large SUVs to shame, allowing for guess-free lane changes and stress-free parking in tight spaces. Controls are all within easy reach, intuitively placed and clearly marked. Gauges are also well-placed, attractive and legible, as is a small secondary color display mounted atop the dash.
We were not impressed, however, with the dot-matrix audio display, which looks significantly dated in today's world. On the other hand, the stereo's sound quality was praiseworthy, with enough speakers to fill the cavernous interior with full-bodied tones. Operation of an iPod was simple, making it easy to find your favorite song or playlist.
Obviously, the Sienna's real strength lies in its ability to gobble up cargo. Even with the third-row seats in passenger mode, a good 39.1 cubic feet of luggage space is at your disposal. Liftover height is mercifully low and the recessed cargo hold features six hooks to keep the contents of your grocery bags from escaping. Standard on the Sienna Limited are power-folding third-row seats that, with the removable second-row seats out, allow for an impressive 150 cubic feet of cargo space. Adding to that capacity is the boxy interior space that can easily accommodate large and bulky items.
Elsewhere in the cabin, storage is likewise generous. Large door pockets, a dual glovebox and numerous pockets and bins ensure plenty of places to store your personal effects. Cupholders are also plentiful and deep enough to keep beverages in place. We were duly impressed with the front center console and its deep storage bin. The back of this console slides rearward, opening up yet another large storage area and putting the rear cupholders within easy reach of the reclined second-row passengers.
Like most minivans out there, the 2011 Toyota Sienna's interior can be reconfigured to fit your needs. However, the act of morphing the cabin from seven-passenger hauler to full cargo van is not without a few hindrances. The controls to fold or deploy the third-row seats are situated atop the hatch, making them a reach for shorter people. The buttons must also be held down for as long as 18 seconds. Operating the power hatch and side sliding doors also requires some patience, as the remote button must be depressed for a full 5 seconds before they spring into motion.
Removing the second-row seats is a particularly laborious task. Weighing in at 76 pounds each and unable to fold into a manageable shape means this is a job for two strong people. Accessing the third-row seats requires sliding the middle-row seats forward, but the amount of effort to accomplish this may be troublesome for smaller passengers. Infants and children are better served, since these seats accept baby and booster seats with ease, and the sliding feature means they can receive even the largest of rear-facing carriers.
Design/Fit and Finish
The exterior styling of this all-new Toyota Sienna isn't a huge departure from the previous generation's, or for that matter, from minivans in general. The designers did manage to liven up the otherwise featureless slabs of bodywork with graceful curves and shapes to break up the monotony. We particularly like that the side door tracks are integrated into the rearmost side windows, making them essentially invisible.
The cabin design of our range-topping Sienna Limited is a bigger departure from minivan convention. Sweeping forms and complex shapes abound, for an atypically upscale feel. Had it been up to us, though, we would've opted for a darker interior color, as the light gray surfaces in our test vehicle acted as a magnet for handprints and smudges. Fortunately, these blemishes were quickly dispatched with a damp sponge. We were also not fans of the obviously plastic faux wood trim. Otherwise, every other surface was well-textured or soft to the touch and tightly fitted.
Who should consider this vehicle
Minivans are the undeniable leaders when it comes to hauling people and cargo, and the 2011 Toyota Sienna ranks on the top of our list. But the Sienna's top-dog status will likely be challenged when the Honda Odyssey gets a full redesign later this year.
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