A minivan is a minivan is a minivan. There’s no avoiding the image, no matter how some makers have tried to disguise it. It’s a life-stage vehicle and very efficient at what it does — spacious, accommodating and a cruise-mobile of comfort with a place for everything that parents and commuters must drag with them every day. It has been said that you can fit anything in a minivan except an ego.
Those who have embraced the concept love the minivan’s utility and find it difficult to give up that space even when the kids have left the nest. That’s why there are the minivan-imitators, aka the extended-wheelbase crossover, of which there are easily more than a dozen choices.
Today there are about five traditional, full-size minivans on the market, including the Chrysler Town & Country (and Dodge Grand Caravan), Honda Odyssey, Kia Sedona, Nissan Quest and today’s tester, the Toyota Sienna.
Each has its unique features and there is much to like about the 2015 Toyota Sienna, though it sets no new benchmarks. But it is the only minivan to offer all-wheel drive. And it will tow up to 3,500 pounds, which is plenty for the family power toy, boat or travel trailer.
For 2015, Sienna has had a mild styling refresh outside and in. Updates include a new grille style and a stiffened chassis (with more than 140 spot welds). The interior was freshened with new materials and stitched surfaces. There is a more ergonomic design to the layout and buttons for the climate control and audio system. And the gauge array was restyled with a multi-information display between speedometer and tachometer. More soft-touch materials replace hard plastic.
Safety upgrades include one more air bag, now totaling eight (including larger curtain side bags) and a new the front-passenger seat cushion air bag. And a back-up camera is standard on all models.
The Sienna is sold with seven- or eight seats in front-wheel or all-wheel drive in five grades (trim levels), all using a 266-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission, which are unchanged for 2015. Fuel economy ratings are 18 mpg city, 25 highway and 21 mpg combined. AWD models are rated 16/23/19 mpg.
Starting prices range from $29,485 to $47,035 for the loaded, seven-passenger Limited Premium AWD. Pricing includes the $885 freight charge from Princeton, Ind.
Today’s tester is an XLE AWD seven-passenger that had a starting price of $38,185 and was $39,685 with $1,500 in extras. Standard features include smart key entry/locking and push-button ignition, three-zone climate control, dual power sliding doors, heated front seats, power windows and power rear quarter windows and 18-inch alloy wheels and 235/55 all-season run-flat tires.
Toyota’s Driver Easy Speak is a clever idea that uses a microphone in the overhead console to broadcast the driver’s voice through the rear speakers. If there were only an occupant pay-attention mode for when the driver speaks. There’s also a conversation mirror for driver eye contact with those in back.
Maybe it was the tester’s all-wheel drive, but this minivan defies all logic in its sharp handling. There is good power from the V-6 and the six-speed automatic (common to most of the competitors) is smooth enough, but not quick on downshifts. AWD adds 165 pounds.
Braking is confident from four-wheel disc brakes (12.9-inch vented rotors front, 12.2 inch solid rear.) And the steering is also a standout for its light, two-finger tooling and a turning circle that is tighter than most midsize sedans at 37.4 feet (and 37.5 for front-drive). Parents will volunteer to drive the tribe to the mall.
Fuel economy is acceptable (and comparable with the competition) at 16 mpg city, 23 highway and 19 mpg combined, on 87 octane. (18/25/21 mpg for front-drive). I was averaging 19.3 to 20.3 mpg. The 20-gallon tank gives a good cruising radius.
Moving from the cargo bay forward, the third row has a clever fold-flat design that allows a 4-foot-wide flat space that is almost six feet long with the second row seats folded forward.
It takes some oomph to manually lift the three-seat, 60/40 split bench into place, but it exposes a deep well that will corral a week’s worth of groceries. And the seats aren’t all that stingy for such foldable designs; legroom is great at 36.3 inches, if the second row isn’t pushed back.
The tilt-n-slide second row captain’s chairs give wide access to the third row. And those captain’s chairs are well padded with pull-down armrests and long legroom (up to 37.6 inches) with seatback recline. There are seatback pockets, grab handles with coat hooks, side-window sunshades, reading lights and a fan-temp control, but its controller is on the left above the window, rather than center in the back of the front console.
Up front there is a straightforward and ergonomic layout to the driver controls. There’s nothing fussy about finding the desired audio format – including just about all digital options. My iPhone connected in a split second. And there are multiple 12-volt plugs and the expected USB ports, but just a couple. The front seats are full bodied, but it was disappointing (for $40,000) that the passenger seat has no height adjustment, just power fore and aft and seatback angle.
The interior materials are durable and with some attractive design elements. There is a woven-fabric headliner and visors, which slide and have covered and lighted mirrors. There are many cup holders, door slots and places to drop, stash and forget about things.
The Sienna may not be an overachiever, but its charming ways are honest and effective. There is enough new that an owner trading in a tired minivan will have good reason to stay with the brand.
Mark Maynard is online at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find photo galleries and more news at Facebook.com/MaynardsGarage