Is the new Sienna the world's first sports minivan?
By Jim Bray
Minivans and sports cars. Shall the twain ever meet?
I mean, when one talks of utility vehicles – as opposed to SUV/crossovers – one can be forgiven for thinking of minivans, pickup trucks, "real" vans and delivery vehicles, etc. But, while I've seen some rather lame – er, sorry, physically challenged – analogies to minivans and sportiness over the years, they're few and far between. And, in my never humble opinion, they're mostly BS.
Why? Minivans are the height (and width and length) of practicality for family hauling, whether hauling the family or the family's stuff (or both). And they're great for that.
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One thing I've never known them for, however, was being compelling driver's vehicles. The last generation Chrysler Pacifica wasn't too bad, I suppose, and it's hard to argue against the feel of a Honda Odyssey when you unleash the 3.5 litre V6 that comes in it. But whether it's the focus on utility or the mere fact that the laws of physics say a big and long and tall box isn't going to give you the buzz that, say, a Porsche Cayman will, I've never been struck with the thought of taking a minivan out for a nice run through the twisty bits on the great driving roads around here.
Enter the 2021 Toyota Sienna.
Oh, sure, it's still a minivan in every way, and Toyota's new generation of its long-lasting family hauler is now available in these parts only as a four-cylinder hybrid. Despite that, within about two minutes of having picked up Toyota Canada's sample Sienna XSE seven passenger front wheel drive model I was hooked. Gobsmacked, in fact.
This is a minivan that's actually quite a bit of fun to drive. I had to keep checking the rear-view mirror to ensure that gigantic buttock was back there and that I wasn't behind the wheel of an X5 or Macan.
Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but the mere fact that I mention a Sienna in the same breath as a sporty German SUV either means Toyota has pulled off something really remarkable here, or it's time for my lobotomy. Heck, there was a couple of times I actually wished Toyota had put in an honest-to-goodness hand brake in so I could do some playful skidding. In a minivan!
If Toyota had done this 25 years ago, when our kids were of the minivan age, I might not have dragged my feet on buying one until they'd grown up and moved out and it was once again safe to ignore minivans.
Yet the damn thing is only a four banger, and a hybrid, and it has a damn CVT transmission that's as loud and obnoxious as most of them are.
Well, the hybrid aspect works to the Sienna's favour, in that the electrical stuff adds to the gas engine's oomph, taking what would have been a tad underpowered and making it perform just fine. Step on the gas pedal to pass and (other than the wailing from the CVT) the vehicle picks up its skirts and moves ahead in a very engaging way.
Toyota says the all-new Sienna, which was designed and built in North America, "delivers a combination of room, comfort, convenience, fuel efficiency and versatility that other types of vehicles can't match. Starting with an all-new minivan structure based on the TNGA-K Platform, the goal was to optimize everything that is great about minivan function, while wrapping it all into a bold, sexy, and provocative design, expanding the definition of what a next generation minivan should be.
"This is an all-new vehicle from the ground up, including a new chassis platform as well as a new electrical platform," said Chief Engineer Monte Kaehr. "The development of the fourth generation Sienna was a huge undertaking but we always worked towards one single mission—to make the best van yet."
After a week with the new Sienna I think it's safe to say they've pulled it off. Sure, I haven't driven all the minivans on the market back-to-back, but this is the only minivan I've ever driven that didn't make me want to get the drive finished so I could get back to a "real vehicle."
Even the new look belies the minivan mien. Rather than being blandly smooth, it's much more in your face. That isn't necessarily a good thing, but it works here – other than the rear end, which looks like a Prius that's had its buttocks kicked up to its shoulders.
But it's inside that really tells the tale. Open the driver's door and you're greeted by a very un-minivan-like driver's environment, with a comfortable seat and excellent driving position. Next to the driver is a tall, bridge-like centre console that looks like it's more out of a car – or at least an SUV – than a minivan. It offers multiple cup holders, a big, covered storage space inside it for your contraband, and an open storage area below it that's perfect for purses, laptops, etc..
Instrumentation is clear and logical and the LCD screen atop the centre stack was close enough for me to reach (a nice change from some vehicles!), though its visibility drops 'way off when you put on polarized sunglasses.
The front passenger seat is a pretty nice place to be, too, and of course it didn't hurt that Toyota's sample's front seats were heated and powered and seemed quite a bit like leather.
Driving impressions and driver-focused cabin notwithstanding, once you move past the B pillar the sporty pretentions leave and you're greeted by real minivan stuff, including sliding side doors you can activate with a kick of the foot below the door, as opposed to a kick from the spouse…
Toyota's sample came with sliding, second row Captain's chairs, which are very nice but which also means it's capable of taking seven people rather than the "bench" seat version into which you can pry a third soul's posterior.
The third row is pretty much what you'd expect, and that's fine. The seats fold down into the floor to make for more storage space (the Captain's chairs in the middle don't fold flat, though), and the sample's tailgate was power-operated, which is always nice.
Toyota says its Hybrid System II delivers 245 horsepower in total from the four-banger and the electric motors. Since this isn't a plug-in hybrid, there's no plug-in, but since the batteries are recharged as you drive, there's no need for one anyway.
As is in the new Venza SUV, Toyota included its nifty Digital Display Rear View Mirror on the Sienna (as part of the $5,500 Technology Package). This is a really cool display, but I'm torn about it. I love the wide viewing angle you get from the video display, but it also takes you "virtually" out of the driver's seat and makes the vehicle's rear end disappear so you only get the view as if you were outside, hanging onto the rear end – kind of like a higher, wider, panoramic back-up camera, only better.
I found that a tad disconcerting in the Venza, and mucho disconcerting in the Sienna because when you look in the "mirror" you can't see the vehicle around you and that just feels weird. I also think that, while you can't see as much of the panoramic view behind you with the regular mirror, you still see it better because you get the view from your drivers' perspective, not a "sanitized" view of just the great outdoors from a disembodied eye.
I can make arguments for either way of looking behind but think the Digital Display Rear View Mirror would work better if it were bigger and had higher resolution. Perhaps put it on the centre stack's LCD? I dunno. All I know is that I loved the concept and I loved the view, but the "niftiness factor" isn't enough to make me want to use it instead of the regular mirror. And fortunately, you don't have to sacrifice one for the other (just pay extra!).
Your mileage, of course, may vary.
Sienna's, according to Toyota Canada's website, start at $39,990 for the base LE eight passenger front wheel drive model. Toyota's sample XSE FWD seven passenger version lists at $45,690 and I'd probably pay the extra five and a half grand for that tech package which, besides the nifty "mirror" also includes stuff like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, LED Fog Lamps, Intelligent Clearance Sonar with Rear Cross Traffic Brake, wireless charging, nine inch Touch Screen, Wide Angle Backup Camera, Rear Camera Washer, Rear Seat Entertainment System, HDMI Inputs and two sets of wireless headphones to keep the ankle biters away from your ankles.
I still find it hard to believe I'm singing the praises of a darn minivan, but I doff my derby to Toyota for pulling off what I'd never thought, nor imagined, could be done: they've built a minivan that does minivan stuff well, yet doesn't make the driver want to put a paper bag on his/her/its head to avoid the embarrassment of being seen in one.
Copyright 2021 Jim Bray