2011 Toyota Sienna SE: The Best Toyota?
January 14, 2011
My affection for Toyotas run shallow. If I'm not irritated by the fact that I can't find a comfortable driving position (I'm not Dikembe Mutumbo, make the back of the seat go lower), then I'm depressed by how utterly dull and responsive they are to drive. Seriously, how is the Corolla acceptable to anyone? And don't give me this 'some people don't like to drive' business. As our consumer comparison test showed a couple of years ago, once such people drove anything else, the Corolla's true, bland colors quickly showed themselves and it was dropped from consideration.
The Camry is only slightly less depressing. Just the other day a friend asked me if he should replace his 10-year-old Camry with another one. I responded thusly.
"The new Camry is tremendously disappointing. Compared to your car, they've cheaped out, using crappy interior plastics and putting them together poorly. Every new Camry I have sat in has different interior panels that are misaligned or different shades of grey. Sadly, people seem to keep buying Camrys and Corollas on reputation alone without driving anything else (which my friend would've done and probably still will). It's like only buying the albums of some great 80s band, despite the fact they've gotten fat, old, uninspired and simply doing it for the pay check."
That may be harsh, but after driving our long-term Toyota Sienna SE, I know the company is capable of so much more. I'm a 27-year-old father of no one who has absolutely no use for a minivan, yet the Sienna SE has responsive steering, a strong engine and a seating position capable of accommodating someone who isn't 5-foot-8 (a revelation!). I happily picked the Sienna SE last night to drive home because it's comfortable and nice to drive. Not exciting or fun or sporty -- it's still a minivan -- just nice to drive.
Frankly, I don't understand why the SE's tuning isn't the way all Siennas are tuned or all Toyotas for that matter. Its suspension isn't harsh, its steering isn't stiff in parking lots, its seats don't squish your love handles, its throttle isn't jerky, its transmission isn't programmed to kill fuel economy. In other words, it's not especially sporty -- the Sienna SE just feels like an actual car rather than an inert rolling transport pod. The Camry SE and now-discontinued Corolla XRS do/did not improve upon the base car in this manner.
As such, I think the Sienna SE is presently the best Toyota (even if it inexplicably can't be had with a variety of family-friendly options). My favorite? That probably goes to the FJ Cruiser since it's the only member of the family with any semblance of character and since Toyota trucks are generally better to drive relative the competition.
Toyota's sales are down this year, and although Recallapolooza played the principal part in that, I can't help but think that it was an impetus for loyal buyers to begin considering other brands for the first time in a long time. Perhaps this has made folks see what they've been missing by being so unwaveringly loyal to their Camry or Corolla. If this trend continues, Toyota could see itself hemorrhaging buyers.
Thankfully, it seems that the company's CEO Akio Toyoda has noted this trend and has repeatedly mentioned that the cars labeled with his family's name (sort of) need to have "more heart and soul" and be more engaging to drive. Not sporty, just more engaging. The Sienna SE proves it's possible and that doing so results in a much better car.
James Riswick, Automotive Editor @ 4,900 miles