By Jim Bray
Once the mainstay of so-called soccer moms, the minivan seems to have fallen somewhat out of favour in recent years, judging by the few models still on the market. Yet a few soldier on, primed to pick up people and their possessions and take them to whatever venue their busy lives require.
Click on the image to open a slideshow.
This fall in minivans' fortunes is due undoubtedly, at least in part, to the rise of the SUV/Crossover. The average SUV offers a more car-like drive, all things being equal, and most also have a higher driver's eye view than the typical minivan, which can be nice in traffic.
But if you have a bunch of folk and gear to carry around often, it's hard to argue with the utility of the typical minivan, with its big sliding doors and three rows of seats that can configured in a variety of ways.
So it was that the 2016 Toyota Sienna minivan arrived outside Chateau Bray for a week, timed perfectly for a couple of grandparents to take the kids and grandkid on some amazing journeys through southern Alberta. And while I'd rather be torn apart by wild dogs than actually own a minivan, I came away from my time with the Sienna liking it for what it is - a good family vehicle, albeit a bit of a wallower.
My opinion about its drivability may have been coloured unfairly a tad, however, because I had the bad luck of stepping into the Sienna immediately upon stepping out of Mercedes-Benz' Metris utility van, which drives better than a van has any right to. The Sienna, on the other hand, drives just like a minivan, which should surprise no one. So while it carries your loved ones and their loot in lovely surroundings, it does feel tippy on tighter curves, though never to the point where we thought we were going to end up scraping the Sienna's side down the asphalt.
Powering the Sienna is Toyota's great 3.5 litre V6 ("up to" 266 horsepower and 245 lb.-ft. of torque), coupled to a nicely-shifting six speed automatic. Power gets to either the front or all of the wheels (Toyota Canada's sample's was the AWD version), and other than the mild top-heaviness it felt stable and serene on our jaunts to the mountains.
And talk about loaded for bear! The sample was of the Sienna XLE AWD seven passenger persuasion, with the optional Limited package - the only thing it didn't have on it was a built in biffy.
The base Sienna starts at just under $32,000 CAD, and even that trim level gives you nice stuff like an audio system with touchscreen activation and Bluetooth Capability for phone and tunes. On the other hand, the XLE Limited lets you bring along your video library, too, thanks to a built in Blu-ray player and the double wide LCD screen that folds down from the ceiling behind the front seats. The screen is so wide you can actually play two 16x9 sources on it side by side, which is pretty remarkable. Toyota's sample came with two sets of wireless headphones, and you can play the Blu-ray's soundtrack through the Sienna's main audio system as well. The van also had extra video hookups, so another kid (or whomever) can plug in a second video player or game system.
We brought along a copy of "Finding Nemo" when we took our two-and-a-half-year old ankle biter to Banff and it kept the little guy happily proclaiming "…ish!" all the way out. I guess that means it didn't actually keep him quiet - but it did keep him peaceful! And the huge child seat mandated these days fit fine in the second row captain's chair.
Siennas also come with steering wheel-mounted audio controls and voice recognition (Toyota's voice recognition has improved to the point where, when I shut off the prompts and confirmations, I didn't want to smash my fist into the dashboard). There's also SIRI Eyes Free Mode, which sounds as if it lets you drive with your eyes closed (something far too many drivers seem to do already, without SIRI), though I didn't have the technology to try it.
The three zone automatic climate control is nice, as is the back-up camera, cruise control, power windows and locks, halogen headlights and Toyota's usual Star Safety System that includes Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), Traction Control (TRAC), Anti-lock Brakes (ABS), Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), Brake Assist (BA) and Smart Stop Technology (SST).
Toyota's sample included leather trim, including on the comfortable captain's chairs that occupied the first two rows. The third row bench splits and folds right into the floor, creating a huge area for hauling stuff, and you can tip up the second row's seat cushions so they can be slid further forward, giving even more cargo room as well as making access to the third row easier. It also had a wonderful, dual opening panoramic sunroof.
The Sienna XLE also comes "standard" with features such as Toyota's Smart Key System with Push Button Start, LED Daytime Running Lights, navigation, the Driver Easy Speak system, power adjustable front seats, power flip-out rear side windows, windshield acoustic glass, "wood-grain" interior trim, sonar rear parking assist, blind spot monitor and rear cross traffic alert systems, 18 inch aluminum alloy wheels, the power moon roofs, dual power sliding side doors, and plenty more.
The Limited package raises the price to an as-tested $49,700 CAD, which is getting to be serious cash. Still, you get a heated and leather-wrapped steering wheel, a decent JBL Synthesis audio system, the Blu-Ray rear-seat entertainment system, driver's seat memory, front and rear parking assist, wide-angle back-up camera, power folding mirrors (linked to the seat memory), rain sensing wipers, HID headlights with automatic high beam, and more. As said, about the only thing missing is a place to pee.
A very cool idea that's actually cooler in concept than execution is the "Driver Easy Speak" system, which you can use to make the driver's voice more understandable to those riding back in Steerage. It would be great for those times when the kids are as close to bouncing off the walls as their seatbelts allow, but are too far away for the front seat folk to reach around and smack 'em.
And it does work, at least a tad. I sat back in the third row and could hear my son's voice coming through the audio system from the driver's seat, but it wasn't loud or clear enough; the system is a great idea, but as it sits it wouldn't have stopped him nor his brother from acting up when they were youngsters. Like so many other innovations, however, it may improve in subsequent generations.
Toyota says safety is paramount to them (even though the movie we played was from Disney), to which end the Sienna comes standard with eight airbags and child protector door locks as well as the abovementioned Star Safety System that's on all Toyotas.
It's interesting to see how the Sienna has evolved over the years, from its days as the mid-engined Previa to the current people hauler. It's a good minivan, comfortable and appointed very well (depending how much you spend) and should prove to be an able vehicle for those shopping in this segment.
Copyright 2016 Jim Bray
We welcome your comments!