All vans have their pros and cons.
They are practical, with plenty of enclosed space for passengers and cargo. They are comfortable with plenty of room to stretch out and they have powerful motors perfect for towing light trailers.
However, they are usually gas-thirsty because they are so big and boring to drive. Above all, their image sucks. It evokes a commuter resigned to transporting young children after giving up on his own ambitions. Do you want people to think that of you?
For years, drivers who should be buying minivans have skipped them for more macho SUVs or even pickup trucks. Toyota’s next-generation Sienna seeks to address this issue by offering a minivan that’s more SUV-like, performs just as well, and consumes far less fuel.
There are currently four minivans on the Canadian market, five if you consider that the Chrysler Grand Caravan and the more luxurious Chrysler Pacifica are separate vehicles. The Honda Odyssey and Kia Carnival offer upscale cabins, as does the Pacifica, to rival the upscale Sienna. The Kia is the cheapest, starting at $34,795, but most new minivans in the trims you might want to buy will end up costing close to $50,000.
And then there’s the top-of-the-line Sienna I recently drove, which has a base MSRP of $59,290. Indeed, it had all the safety features imaginable, as well as a fuel-efficient hybrid engine and all-wheel drive.
The Sienna is the only minivan to offer all of these features together. The Pacifica is available with all-wheel drive and as a hybrid (and it’s a plug-in hybrid, with a claimed all-electric range of up to 51 kilometres), but you can’t have both together. The Honda and Kia have conventional gasoline engines and front-wheel drive.
My wife and I drove our son to Ottawa from our home near Toronto, to move him into an apartment. The Sienna swallowed up its furniture and bags in a way that SUVs can’t, and still left a comfortable space for the three of us. At one point, he even carried a double bed around town. An SUV would have needed more flat-packing because the floor is so high, with an overall cabin loading depth of perhaps two-thirds that of the Sienna.
When all the cargo was inside, there wasn’t enough room to fully extend the second-row seat, to use the expensive reclining option. This would also be the case if the third row was used, as the second row slides back far enough to be virtually flat and would interfere with the third row’s legroom. However, each side folds down to create more options.
A former Canadian Governor General once used minivans as personal transport in convoys for this reason: they can be extremely comfortable in the second row, yet remain anonymous among SUVs.
The Sienna lacks Chrysler’s extremely convenient “Stow-n-Go” feature, where the second and third rows easily fold under the floor to create a spacious rear cabin. Its second-row seats are too soft to fit in such a small storage space and can only fold forward if they don’t want to. They will delete, but it’s not practical. The Pacifica doesn’t offer Stow-n-Go with its hybrid editions, however, because the batteries take up that storage space, or with its top-of-the-line Pinnacle trim, because the more comfortable seats are too bulky. As mentioned, there are always pros and cons.
- Base Price/As Tested: $41,050 / $59,290 plus $1,890 freight and PDI and taxes
- Motor: 2.5-liter inline-four with hybrid electric motors
- Gearbox/Drive: CVT / front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive
- Fuel consumption (litres/100 kilometres): 6.8 City, 6.6 Highway, 6.7 Combined (claimed)
- Alternatives: Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid, Chrysler Pacifica AWD, Honda Odyssey, Kia Carnival
This latest generation Sienna looks more aggressive than before. The designers removed the A-pillar, lifted the hood and put a small bulge around the rear wheels, like they would for an SUV. But it’s still a minivan.
Quite magnificent for comfort, and everything falls easily to hand. There is a large storage area under the transmission lever, which is ideal for a purse or a small bag, although push buttons instead of a lever offer even more lightness. Almost everything is controlled via the central touchscreen, while there are manual switches for cabin warmth and comfort, as well as volume and radio tuning. No need to wait for the screen to warm up on a winter morning to turn down the sound or turn on the heated seats.
It’s not fast – it’s a minivan, don’t forget that – but it’s smooth, comfortable and the electronic steering is firm. There’s a Sport drive mode that changes gear ratios, but you’ll probably forget about it.
Fuel mileage is much better than most minivans and large SUVs. My own observed fuel consumption was 10.2 litres/100 kilometers over around 1,000 kilometers of driving, but that was in extremely cold weather and at the comfortable speed of traffic. I would normally expect around 12 litres/100 kilometers under such circumstances.
The new Sienna is only sold as a hybrid. It has an option to switch to pure electric drive, but that’ll only last a few miles under a light load; it is really intended for use in traffic jams and queues at the wheel.
The all-wheel drive, which costs almost $2,000 over FWD models, is very capable. It’s actually a dedicated electric motor attached to the rear axle that’s activated when needed or wanted – like all Toyota Hybrid AWD models, there’s no mechanical driveshaft attached to transmission.
I took the Sienna AWD up my favorite unmaintained steep hill in January, where there was ice on its sometimes 15-degree incline, and drove up and down without skidding or incident. Winter tires made that possible, of course. I met a novice female driver in a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon who was quite terrified, but emboldened when she saw that the road could be conquered by a minivan.
This top-of-the-line edition included all the driver assistance features available from Toyota, but I turned off the lane guidance assist when driving on the highway. It kept fighting my position in the lane and it was just boring. I’m sure he knows better than me, but I don’t have that problem with vehicles from other manufacturers.
Huge rear space, of course, for passengers and cargo – officially 2,860 liters behind the front seats. The second row only pushes forward and doesn’t come out easily, but that’s the same for the Honda and Kia, and the seats fold down quite compactly. When all three rows are raised, there’s just as much room to sit in the third row as there is in the second, again with a deep well for 949 liters of luggage behind.
The new Sienna will give you more in a vehicle than any other van, if you pay for it. It will offer you a hybrid engine and also an all-wheel drive. If you avoid all the comforts and technologies of the high-end seven-passenger tester, you can have a hybrid AWD for around $47,000 including freight and delivery, which is a very reasonable price for such a vehicle. Or you can damn the expense, tick all the boxes and push $70,000. It will be the busiest pickup truck in Canada.