Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
The Toyota Sienna is proof that sometimes a late entrance makes the best impression.
Let's face it, minivans are not glamorous. They are many things, but certainly not glamorous or cool a more accurate description of the traditional minivan would be practical, convenient or versatile. And that's OK, not everything has to be so cool or hot or hip to be worthwhile I'll include myself in that category as well. Perhaps that's why so many of us have taken a liking to minivans. Like ourselves, they're not the amped-up, super-cool, top-down, V8-powered sports cars of life, but man, do they get the job done and sometimes in great style.
Stylish? Yes, stylish. Many of today's minivans offer luxury befitting a European touring sedan. Sure, the dowdy minivan began life as a utilitarian box on wheels with three bench seats, but the latest crop of vans are sleek and offer interiors so inviting that giving up the sport coupe might seem like a step up.
While Honda and Chrysler have dominated the long-wheelbase minivan arena for years, Toyota has a distinct advantage by being last to the ball. Arguably, the manufacturer has struggled with the minivan formula just like everyone else, but the latest Toyota Sienna shows why it's not always great to be first. By offering the newly redesigned, bigger Sienna late in the game, Toyota has effectively incorporated many of the great features from the competition and, in some cases, even improved on them. The Sienna has the "must-have" fold-flat third-row seats from the Odyssey, the revolutionary "roll-down" side windows from the Mazda MPV and the (common to almost all minivans in upper trim levels these days) power rear liftgate from the Grand Caravan. Any one of these features may be enough to steer a potential customer into the respective brand's camp, but Toyota comes out swinging and swinging big by giving a Sienna buyer virtually everything the competition offers but in a very Toyota-esque package.
And it's really that Toyota package that customers want. Too many Toyota loyalists were forced to shop outside the brand because the previous Sienna was just too small or didn't offer the features they wanted.
While the most noticeable improvement to the 2004 Toyota Sienna is its larger size, the more powerful V6 engine is worth noting as well. The 3.3-liter V6 performs admirably and offers a 20-horsepower advantage over the 3.0-liter six it replaces for a total of 230 hp. Of course there's more weight to pull around now, so the anticipated performance advantage isn't fully realized. Still, the Sienna's V6 is smooth and quiet, making the van a wonderful road trip companion. We can't promise the trip will remain quiet once you pack little Brandon, Britney and Taylor in there, but should you be a glutton for punishment, the little rugrats can bring up to four of their closest friends on that summer trip to Disneyworld as the Sienna is available in either seven- or eight-passenger configurations. Third-row seat room is a little tight, but even adults won't be completely unhappy back there on short trips.
Now the great thing about a minivan is how it can quickly convert from mommy wagon to cargo van the Toyota Sienna delivers in this area as well. Although Toyota may have borrowed the Honda Odyssey's fold-flat third-row seat idea, the company engineers improved on the design by making the operation nearly effortless and more versatile. Simply pull a few straps and the seats flip and/or fold easily. The third-row seats can fold flat in a 60/40-split fashion whereas other vans force you to have the rearmost seat folded all the way down or all the way up, the Sienna makes it possible to fold only part of the seat down should that suit your needs. With the third-row seats up, the hole they fold into works well as a generous cargo hold. Brandon, Britney and Taylor are gonna have stuff to carry, and whether it's soccer gear or science projects, the Sienna can accommodate.
Unfortunately, if you need to remove the second-row seats, the operation takes a bit more time and muscle. Even though no tools are required, we found the seats heavy and cumbersome to remove. Reinstalling them was even more difficult as it was too easy to inadvertently allow the latching mechanism to latch to the wrong receptacle. This may not sound so bad, but it is difficult to unlatch the seat once you attach it in a place that it was never intended to attach to in the first place. Could this be nothing more than a bonehead auto writer not thoroughly reading the owner's manual before starting? Could be, but attaching the seat the wrong way required virtually no effort at all.
In XLE Limited trim, as our test vehicle was, the leather that covers those seats is soft and Lexuslike, and the wood grain trim looks like it would be more at home in a GS 430 than a family van. Like most Toyotas, the quality of materials inside is top-notch and all switchgear feels durable with a very precise action. It's nice that Toyota has separated the climate control and audio control functions, but they still lack a certain logic. The center stack looks great, but the audio display too easily washes out in the midday sun and the automatic climate controls are sometimes confusing.
In the climate control section, there is a left-to-right toggle button that controls fan speed, but directly above the fan speed switch is the word "TEMP." To the left of that is a round button also labeled "TEMP." As it turns out, the word "TEMP" that's written above the fan switch is just a readout of what the current temperature is set to. Everything else is pretty straightforward, but the arrangement of the controls is a little clunky.
Admittedly, the confusing climate control is a minor beef in a car that amounts to a technological tour de force. Triple-zone climate control, a rear-passenger DVD entertainment system with audio-in jacks, household-style plug receptacles, power side and rear doors and adaptive cruise control are only a few of the whiz-bang techno-features that put the Sienna light-years ahead of other minivan offerings.
Yes, you read correctly, the 2004 Toyota Sienna offers adaptive cruise control, a feature usually reserved for such high-dollar marques as Jaguar, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz. Available only on the XLE Limited, Toyota's adaptive cruise control system is eerie in just how well it works. You just set the speed, and then adjust a steering wheel-mounted lever to set the distance you wish to keep between you and the car in front of you. Three choices are available for setting distance short, medium and long. Using a radarlike laser sensor mounted below the front bumper, the system will automatically apply brakes, decrease throttle input or add throttle to maintain the vehicle's speed, all the while keeping a safe distance behind any car that may be directly ahead of you. This is not an accident avoidance system and the brakes are only applied up to a point (no more than two-tenths of a G). Should the Sienna get too close to another car, the system will alert you with an audible warning which basically means "manually apply the brakes now."
The system is downright amazing but it is not perfect there's really no substitute for human interaction. Because the "eye" or laser system can only see in a straight line, your vehicle may slow unnecessarily when the road ahead curves. As vehicles ahead of you make the gradual curve, they then come into the sight of the electronic "eye" (which cannot know you are about to gradually turn as well) and the system thinks a car is now directly in front of you and decreases throttle, even though your vehicle and all other cars on the road are staying in their respective lanes. If all this Buck Rogers technology is too much to think about while Junior slips into a teething pain-induced crying fit, you can use the cruise control without the adaptive feature.
On those long trips, the adaptive cruise control is really nice; in fact, the Sienna seems to do its best work on those long stretches of highway. Cruising along at 60 or 70 mph, the Sienna's interior remains quiet and only the worst potholes upset the smooth, supple ride. There is a bit of wind noise at higher speeds, but the Sienna feels more refined than both the Grand Caravan and Honda Odyssey. Sienna is by far the smoothest, most civilized minivan around. Where the Sienna falls short is around town. The smooth ride is appreciated in all driving circumstances, but handling suffers as a result. By comparison, the Odyssey feels more carlike in terms of responsive handling. When cornering, the Sienna exhibits a good deal of body roll it's certainly a sacrifice most will be willing to make when considering the size advantage the new Sienna offers over the old model.
From the base CE (which includes plenty of equipment) to the luxo XLE Limited edition, the Sienna is available in a wide variety of trims. Accordingly, the price range on this van is vast as well. The bargain of the bunch is the value-priced Sienna CE seven-passenger van with an MSRP of just under $24,000, while a loaded XLE Limited with options (the one tested here) can run north of $37,000. That's a lot of scratch for a minivan, but the level of luxury in the Sienna is astonishing in a minivan. Slap a Mark Levinson stereo in the XLE Limited and swap the Toyota badge for Lexus and no one would be the wiser.
But what good would a family minivan be at any price if it didn't go to great lengths to protect that family? The new Sienna offers a host of safety features that are designed to prevent you from having an accident in the first place. Standard ABS on all models is just the beginning. Stability control is standard on all-wheel-drive models as is traction control, BrakeAssist and run-flat tires. To help keep the driver's eyes on the road, all Sienna models come equipped with a small conversation mirror which allows a look into the rear seat without the driver turning his or her head. As if all this was not enough, the Sienna is the only minivan to offer a full third-row side curtain supplemental restraint system.
Ultimately, the new Toyota Sienna so clearly outclasses other minivans it almost seems unfair. It is all new, and as a result, the Sienna's main competitors are starting to show their age. The 2004 Sienna is not perfect, but what it does well it does really well. The Lexus-like interior is probably the most luxury you'll find in a minivan, and the wide range of prices and options should make it so that everyone can find a trim to fit their lifestyle and/or budget. We suspect all this hemming and hawing about clunky climate controls and balky seats will amount to nothing more than just a bunch of armchair quarterbacking on our part. The truth is there's no shortage of minivan buyers who want only two things in a family wagon a long wheelbase and a Toyota logo on the hood. Consider it done.
System Score: 9.0
Components: The 10-speaker, 360-watt JBL audio system is standard equipment on the XLE Limited. It also includes a six-disc CD changer mounted high in the dash that loads very quickly (and even has a slot for your old Depeche Mode tapes), along with steering wheel-mounted controls. There's a center channel speaker just above the head unit and tweeters on each side of the dash. Large oval-shaped full-range speakers are mounted in the front door panels, circular midwoofers can be found near the third-row seats and two more tweeters are also mounted in the back. Best of all, there is a big subwoofer hidden in the wall of the cargo area.
Performance: The bass output is not what you expect from a minivan. The Sienna's sub produces taut bass that is warm and accurate without faltering until the volume is maxed out. With low tones filling the cabin, the remaining speakers are able to concentrate on vocals and other higher-frequency sounds. The speaker placement is very good and creates a lively soundstage. The center channel is evident, but does not interfere with the separation of the left and right signals. Cymbals and guitars sound crisp, and distortion is only apparent at high volumes. There is also a surround sound setting on the head unit that adds faux depth with slight digital echoes if you like that kind of thing.
Best Feature: Strong subwoofer.
Worst Feature: Distortion creeps in at high volumes.
Conclusion: The best factory sound system available in a minivan. Trevor Reed
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says: Rich wood accents, multizone climate control, front and rear proximity sensors and electroluminescent gauges. You may think I'm talking about a Lexus, and in a way the top-of-the-line 2004 Sienna is as close as you'll ever get to a Lexus minivan. But the most exciting part about Toyota's all-new people mover is that even a base CE model, at around two-thirds the cost of our loaded XLE, still comes with all the things that make this van great: a powerful, refined engine; a super-quiet cabin; and a comfortable yet confident ride. The Honda Odyssey finally has some serious competition for the minivan crown. I've loved that Honda van for years (and even owned a 2000 model), but if I were buying a new minivan tomorrow I would be in quite a conundrum as to which automaker would get my money.
Road Test Editor Erin Riches says: Unlike my colleagues here, I don't have kids, just a familiarity with most of the current minivan offerings, particularly the Dodge Grand Caravan and Honda Odyssey. After driving our test vehicle, it's obvious to me that Toyota really studied up on the key features during the redesign process. In terms of seating, for example, the Sienna combines the virtues of the Dodge (modular seats) and Honda (fold-flat third-row seat) its third-row seat folds in 60/40 portions. For the second row, you can get a pair of captain's chairs or a 40/20/40 bench that increases total capacity to eight (as in GM's minivans). Since the captain's chairs don't slide together easily as in the Odyssey and Mazda MPV, the bench is probably the better way to go for families who need lots of seating flexibility. The seats themselves are quite comfortable for the most part, and the second-row seats' fore/aft travel opens up ample legroom in the way-back and makes it a legitimate prospect for two adults or three kids to ride in the third row on long trips. Toyota has picked up on Chrysler's power liftgate, and predictably, the Sienna's operated in a quieter, more refined manner than that on our long-term 2001 Grand Caravan.
A few hours behind the wheel convinced me that the Sienna is the plushest-riding minivan on the market basically, it rides like a Lexus, a good thing given the price of our XLE Limited tester. It was also easy to maneuver in traffic and generally felt smaller than it was (though it was not as engaging to drive as a Chrysler minivan). As expected, the new V6 is smooth, quiet and ample for the task of lugging around a minivan body. Controls are large and easy to operate (even with three separate climate control zones), and I expect the provisions for storage and beverages will be enough for most families, though there's still no substitute for the Odyssey's folding center tray. Telescopic adjustment for the steering wheel makes it easy to settle into the driver seat, but I found the seat itself short on thigh support.
My only serious hesitation about the Sienna is price. Test vehicles like this one are out of reach for most families, while LE and XLE models have a confusing array of option packages. I say keep it simple and go with a base CE with Package 3, which gives you cruise control and all the airbags.
"We bought the 2004 XLE model because of the third row fold flat into the floor seats, the ability to open the center windows, the spacious interior, the leather seats that don't look cheap, power doors and liftgate, middle bench seats easily fold or move together. We had a 2002 model that did not have these features and wanted to upgrade. I am so glad we did because I am so happy with this van. We test-drove the Mazda and Honda, but the ride quality could not compare. We love the reliability that all our Toyota vehicles have demonstrated." Teresa, April 22, 2003
"After looking and driving everything, it all came down to the drive, comfort, style, handling and reliability. This van has it all over every one on the market. Toyota is the real stuff. We'll own it for 10 years easily." Nellsbells, April 12, 2003
"We couldn't be more pleased. The pickup and ride are excellent and compare well to the 240-hp Pathfinder, the interior and exterior design are excellent and the size is HUGE. It has made moving from 'cool' to 'minivan' easier!" Kpreede, April 23, 2003
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