2011 Toyota Sienna First Drive
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2011 Toyota Sienna First Drive

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The Triumph of Natural Selection


"This is how all the Siennas should drive — maybe how all minivans should drive."

That's what we found ourselves saying behind the wheel of the 2011 Toyota Sienna SE. The SE model is the sport version of the third-generation Sienna, which is coming to market in base model, SE, LE, XLE and Limited trim levels. Toyota anticipates the SE will account for a little less than 15 percent of the 100,000 Sienna minivans expected to be built next year at Toyota's plant in Princeton, Indiana.

What makes the 2011 Toyota Sienna SE so good, and why is Toyota's sales forecast for its minivan so rosy in these dark times?

It Sounds Like Morrison, but It's Mori-san
While introducing the 2011 Toyota Sienna, chief engineer Kazuo Mori uncharacteristically peeled back the corporate curtain and shared his pre-Toyota life with us. We learned that when he was a college student, Mr. Mori had a penchant for speed and enjoyed racing his Corolla AE86 at night on mountain roads. (That's code for drifting, of course.)

Mori was hired fresh out of college by Toyota in 1986 and he remembers, "My dream was to plan and design sports cars." He was promptly charged with detailing hydraulic lines for the Toyota Land Cruiser, so he found his outlet in go-kart racing. He even competed in the All-Japan Kart Championships in 1996-'97.

Sadly, Mori never got the sports car assignment he longed for. And yet he says, "Even though I have been working on minivans for 17 years, I feel that being the chief engineer of the all-new Sienna was where I was meant to be."

If the Sienna SE is any measure, Mori-san is right.

A Sporty Minivan? From Toyota?
Not much has changed in the Sienna package. It's a little wider and a little shorter, yet rides on the same 119.3-inch wheelbase. But in its usual way, Toyota has tried to improve everything. And one of the most important things it has improved has been the way the Sienna drives. The 2011 Toyota Sienna is meant to drive like a car, not a minivan.

The Sienna SE is the poster child for this effort. To set it apart from the rest of the Sienna lineup, the SE has its own wheels and tires, springing and damping rates, and even a specific calibration for the electric-assist power steering. Compared to the Sienna Limited, we found that the SE not only corners with more composure and control but also delivers better ride quality on any number of surfaces, even with its 19-inch tires.

The Sienna SE doesn't float like a marshmallow because the body motions are so much better controlled. The SE doesn't steer like an ocean liner because the steering is more lively and natural-feeling. Don't get us wrong, because the 4,465-pound Sienna SE will never feel like a sport sedan or even a European wagon, but it will give a run to the class-leading handler, the Honda Odyssey.

The Only Four-Cylinder Minivan
As you'd expect, a 3.5-liter V6 will be the default choice for most Sienna buyers, and the 2GR-FE is everything you want with 266 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 245 pound-feet of torque at 4,700 rpm. More provocative is the availability of the Toyota 1AR-FE 2.7-liter inline-4, familiar from its use in the Toyota Highlander and Venza. This smooth-running four-cylinder has enough power to do the job for around-town work, with 187 hp at 5,000 rpm and an especially broad torque band.

Naturally you'll care about fuel economy, and the 2011 Toyota Sienna with the four gets 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway, which compares to the V6's ratings of 18 mpg city/24 mpg highway. But you'll also be interested to know that the inline-4 is available not just in the cheapskate base model but also the better-equipped LE.

As it turns out, the use of a six-speed transmission is maybe more important here than the engine choice. These new six-speeds (different transmissions are used for the V6 and four) have been programmed for intuitive operation, including grade logic. As a result, the transmission doesn't race to 6th gear for peak fuel economy only to cycle to 4th gear a millisecond later because you need acceleration. Even in Drive, squeezing the throttle gently on the freeway results in just-right, one-gear kick-downs.

While we only had two people aboard during our drive of V6- and I-4 models of the Sienna, we noticed the 78-hp deficit of the four-cylinder only while going up a steady grade. As with the V6 model, the I-4's six-speed transmission held gears appropriately, but it was clear that the engine was working harder than the V6. Faced with a choice between the two engines, we'd just drive the V6 more conservatively if we needed better fuel economy. Properly equipped, the six-cylinder models of the Sienna will tow up to 3,500 pounds.

Additionally, the Sienna XLE and Sienna Limited can be equipped with an updated all-wheel-drive system that now uses a more efficient electro-magnetic coupling between the front and rear axles. In other words, AWD remains de-coupled, sleeping (essentially front-wheel drive) until the front wheels slip and it then wakes up, a strategy that maximizes fuel economy.

A Few Words About Styling
While Calty, Toyota's design studio in California, has done a reasonable job of expressing the new corporate styling vocabulary with such vehicles as the Highlander and Venza, its effort for the new minivan doesn't have much to say. The zaftig Sienna looks like someone threw a satin sheet over a hospital gurney.

Of course, the Nissan Quest hasn't won people over with its avant-garde styling, either. Maybe it's best to remember that a minivan is a box; embrace it, don't put a dress on it.

Ottoman Empire Seating
As attractive as Chrysler's Stow 'n Go seating might seem to minivan designers, Toyota decided not to go there. We're told Toyota's research indicated that owners of Dodge and Chrysler minivans so equipped made the effort to collapse and stow the second-row seats under the floor only 5 percent of the time. The Sienna engineers said they'd rather offer comfortable seats 95 percent of the time and make them removable for the 5 percent of the time people need cargo room.

As a result the 2011 Toyota Sienna features deeply cushioned captain's chairs as standard equipment because a good place to sit is what a minivan is all about. They weigh 49 pounds apiece, but can be removed to permit the transport of the proverbial 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood. The seat bottoms tilt upward on the front edge, while the entire seat slides forward up to 25 inches to make access to the third-row much easier. The 40/20/40-split rear bench (which weighs 89 pounds) does all the same things.

The optional second-row captain's chairs (75 pounds) feature lounge seating with footrests, just like a Lay-Z-Boy recliner. (Only the Maybach 62 and Lexus LS 460 L offer something similar.) Even the functionality of the third-row seats has been improved, as you can stow and retrieve them one-handed thanks to a new grab handle and simplified folding mechanism. Or you can order the optional power-operated available third-row seat.

By the way, legroom has been lost somewhere in each row of seating from last year to this; it's down 2.4 inches in the front seat, 2.0 inches in the second row and 3.2 inches in the third. Perhaps the measurement technique has changed, because the Sienna's wheelbase is the same as before, as is the floor stamping.

Drive-in Theater With Airbags
The 2011 Toyota Sienna also introduces a truly innovative rear entertainment option. Besides moving the DVD player to the base of the center console (where the adults have control), the new 16.4-inch LCD monitor deploys from the second-row headliner and allows either a true 16:9-ratio picture for movie viewing or two 4:3-ratio split screens with two A/B-channel headphones. In other words, one kid can watch "Up" while the other plays "Borderlands" from his game console even as parents enjoy iPod/satellite/Bluetooth streaming audio.

Standard equipment includes seven airbags (now including a driver's knee airbag), antilock brakes, electronic brakeforce distribution, brake assist and traction and stability control across the line. There's a new 180-degree-panorama back-up camera available in conjunction with the voice-activated DVD-based navigation system. For the Limited model, a pre-collision system is optional in conjunction with radar-based dynamic cruise control. A new telematics system is available that features automatic collision notification, stolen vehicle location, an emergency assistance button and roadside assistance.

A Sienna for Everybody — Even a Hybrid
For all the worries that the minivan market is no longer expanding, Toyota apparently seems confident that the market won't disappear either. How else do you explain five models, a V6 and inline-4 engines, and front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive? All that remains would be a Sienna Hybrid. Can you imagine the marketing strength of the world's first gasoline-electric hybrid minivan? Bob Carter, Toyota Division Group vice president and general manager, admits the Sienna Hybrid is, indeed, in the pipeline, and we bet it's closer to the spigot than he's letting on.

Toyota is betting a bundle that there's a new generation of folks out there who aren't fooled by the crossover craze, who have a need for the versatility of a minivan, but they don't harbor the shame associated with the current soccer-mom stigma of a minivan. For them Toyota will offer what Mori-san called the three Cs: cool, comfort and convenience.

The 2011 Toyota Sienna will range in price from $24,260 up to $39,770 when it goes on sale in January 2010 (all-wheel-drive models will follow slightly later). If you have a particular budget or a particular need, there will be a 2011 Toyota Sienna that'll fill the bill. You can't say that about every minivan out there, and the herd is thinning every year.

Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.

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