It's that time of the decade again. The current class of people movers is getting long in the tooth, its tech is lapsing behind and ordinary sedans are starting to catch up. It's time, then, for a new era of minivans.
The Toyota Sienna SE joins the class of 2011 with tougher competition than ever. Honda has a new Odyssey, Nissan has a new Quest and Chrysler has significantly updated the current Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country. The war for the hearts, minds and cereal crumbs of America's families has never been fiercer, or more feature-laden.
And with a 265-horsepower 3.5-liter V6, seating for eight, 150 cubic feet of cargo space and a starting price of just over $30,000, the sporty Toyota Sienna SE — which has a racier suspension calibration than other Siennas — has a good chance of running away with the division. As good a chance as the others, at least.
We took a shine to the 2011 Toyota Sienna SE's handling in our first drive, but living with such a setup over the long haul is a different story. We wanted to know, so we bought a Sienna SE of our own for the long-term test fleet. Twelve months and 20,000 miles of day-in/day-out testing should reveal where this minivan fits in the new world order.
What We Bought
The first big thing you'll notice on paper is that the base seven-passenger, 2.7-liter four-cylinder Sienna starts at $24,460. For this you get the standard stereo with AM/FM/MP3/CD capability, an auxiliary audio jack, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, cruise, triple-zone air-conditioning, a 60/40-split fold-flat third-row seat, three-row side curtain airbags, stability control, a six-speed automatic transmission and 17-inch alloy wheels, among other features. All for the reasonable sum of $24,460.
But we upgraded, two levels in fact, skipping directly over the LE to the SE model and its unique 19-inch wheels and P235/50R19 Michelin Primacy all-season tires. In addition to the SE's different spring and damping rates, it also features a specific calibration for the electric-assist power steering. Unlike the LE, XLE and Limited models, the SE comes in front-drive configuration only; all-wheel drive is not available.
Other standard items on the SE include a leather-trimmed wheel, a distinctive "sport" gauge cluster (complete with speedo, tach and fuel coolant temp gauges, plus an LCD odometer and trip computer display), and a leatherette-trimmed "sport fabric," eight-way power driver seat and four-way passenger chair. This is all on top of the LE's 3.5-inch TFT multi-information display and back-up monitor; overhead console with map lights and side door controls; fixed center console with illuminated storage; and keyless entry. Our van also has the 40/20/40 second row (instead of captain's chairs), making room for all eight passengers. All this doesn't come cheap: The 2011 Toyota Sienna SE starts at $30,750, before options.
Our traditional approach to options is this: It's easier for readers to ignore options and focus on the base car — if that's their intent — than it is to imagine what the goods are like to live with. So in that mindset, we really looked for a Sienna with the SE Preferred package, which adds a power liftgate, automatic climate control, roof rails, rear-window sunshades, an upgraded six-speaker stereo with XM radio, a USB input, Bluetooth phone/streaming audio connectivity and steering-wheel audio controls. That cost $1,545.
Another option that piqued our interest was the towing pack. It gave us an engine oil cooler (increasing capacity to 7.5 from 7.2 quarts) and a larger radiator and fan (upping coolant capacity from 11 to 11.7 quarts). The Sienna's towing rating is just 3,500 pounds, but we also live in a warm climate, so more cooling is always better, not to mention it only cost an extra $220.
The other options on our Sienna are an $850 sunroof, a $324 carpet/floor mat option and the $185 roof-rail cross bars. We didn't necessarily want this stuff, but the dealership had a 2011 Toyota Sienna SE with the Preferred and tow packages in stock, and they were willing to deal.
The MSRP on this van is $34,684, including the $810 destination charge. We found the van online and offered $500 over invoice, which the dealer accepted. No drama. No test-drives. No throwing the Edmunds name around. Just show up, sign and drive away. We paid $32,243 and this Predawn Gray Mica Sienna SE was ours.
Why We Bought It
"This is how all Siennas should drive — maybe how all minivans should drive."
That's what Chief Road Test Editor Chris Walton said after driving the 2011 Toyota Sienna SE. The SE model doesn't steer like other Toyotas, it doesn't ride like other Toyotas, and it certainly doesn't steer or ride anything like the outgoing generation of minivans. And that's a good thing.
We tested an early 2011 Toyota Sienna (a Limited, not an SE), and it toppled the 2010 Honda Odyssey, the previous benchmark in this segment, in a comparison test. Of course, the redesigned 2011 Odyssey took the crown back from a 2011 Sienna XLE in a subsequent Inside Line comparison, but the sportier Sienna SE model is a potential game-changer so it's getting another shot.
Minivans are on pace to recover from their historical bad rap, and the Toyota Sienna is going to be part of the resurgence. The flocks of image-conscious parents who jumped from vans to SUVs are fast being replaced by younger people who dig the huge functionality of vans, combined with their quirky looks and surprisingly decent driving dynamics. These buyers will proudly stand up and say, "I drive a minivan."
And for the next 12 months and 20,000 miles, we'll be that guy. Remote-controlled sliding doors, giant cargo space and a ride that's controlled but innocuous enough for unimpeded highway driving? What's not to love?
Current Odometer: 2,092
Best Fuel Economy: 20.9
Worst Fuel Economy: 17.9
Average Fuel Economy (over the life of the vehicle): 19.0
Edmunds purchased this vehicle for the purpose of this evaluation.