The select automakers that are still competing in the minivan segment seem to be facing a challenge that becomes more difficult, model year after model year. Put simply, minivans aren’t particularly cool, and nobody really wants to drive one. That “nobody” part might be a bit hyperbolic, but it’s certainly closer than ever to being really true. After suffering a SUV-induced shock to their collective sales numbers throughout the last two decades, the minivan segment has been further decimated in recent years by the rise in popularity of the crossover. The minivan is old enough now that many of today’s young parents were ferried around in a Caravan or Aerostar when they were growing up, and might be particularly sensitive to the perceived image associated with driving something in that mold.
With all of that said, Toyota still understands that there are some buyers for which only a minivan will suffice. These buyers need to transport lots of people, lots of the time, and they put a major premium on space and flexibility. With its new-for-2011 Sienna SE, Toyota is satiating those needs, while also hoping to lure customers with the promise of something a whole lot more interesting to drive, and good to look at, too. The SE grade is a new addition to the Sienna lineup, and the model that takes dead aim at the young families Toyota is so feverish to attract. Company reps claim that the SE has been specifically styled and engineered to be the oft-discussed “cool minivan.”
A family hauler that won’t be put to shame on a good road, or get young, hip parents laughed at by their young, non-parent friends. No mean feat.
So to start, the SE utilizes Toyota’s 3.5-liter V-6 engine coupled to a six-speed automatic transmission. The powerplant makes 266 horsepower and 245 pound-feet of torque—more than adequate power to make the minivan feel pretty potent—while delivering reasonable (20 miles per gallon combined, estimated) fuel economy. Even in the front-drive SE, engineers have tuned out the sort of wheels-spinning, torque-steering behavior that is sometimes evident via the front wheels. Throttle response remains good at slower and medium speeds, despite this small, well-meaning muting of that at initial acceleration. Sienna owners will likely appreciate the passing power, but we doubt that they’ll miss any smoky, front-drive burnout ability. The V-6 also offers a rather surprising and energetic engine note, when you really get into the throttle—a nice touch for a vehicle that one might expect to be completely sanitized.
Now, the power, power-delivery, and exhaust note, nice as they are, are all available on any of the V-6 equipped version of the Sienna.
SE’s electric steering has also been tweaked from the rest of the Sienna crew, with a higher effort feel that is slightly more reassuring at speed.
The crowds at the Los Angeles Auto Show were pretty impressed when Toyota showed off some of Sienna’s new toys, with the two most impressive being the second-row Lounge Seating, and the massive new rear entertainment system. The lounge chairs take away the option of the eighth seat, but they add two seats with extending footrests, and the ability to fold to a nearly horizontal position. These seats (standard equipment on the $38,500 Limited grade) are sure to be a hit with the kids whose parents shell out for them, but only the kids in question number fewer than three. When fully extended, the lounge chairs basically eliminate all legroom for the third row.
Sienna pricing will start at an MSRP of $24,260 for the base, four-cylinder Sienna grade van, and move up to $39,770 to start the Limited V-6 AWD affair.