I may just be the only automotive journalist (actually, one of two – ed.) that genuinely gets excited when given the keys to a new minivan. I traded in my rear-wheel-drive, manual trans sports car years ago and now drive our family minivan almost daily. I have four kids, so anytime we’re ready to go somewhere we’re riding with six – at a minimum. There are lots of good SUVs on the market today with three rows, including the Ford Explorer and GMC Acadia. We actually shopped both of those vehicles, but even with 3-rows the SUV gets pretty cramped, and offers no cargo room with the 3rd row seat up. You have bigger SUVs, ones we love and have taken on many family road trips, but every time I review one of these (like the Ford Expedition or Chevrolet Suburban) I can’t get over how expensive they are these days.
When you have a larger family, it’s harder than ever to afford one of these larger SUVs that fits everyone. As a family man or mom, if you’re looking for the most room for the buck while still getting good fuel economy and fitting the whole family, you can’t beat a minivan. So when we get one in the txGarage, know I’ll be putting it to a real test.
Even when driving a minivan I don’t want to be embarrassed by the exterior styling. This Sienna has some great lines and good style, but no one is going to mistake it for anything but a minivan. If buying a van solely on its looks I think the new Kia Sedona is a great looking vehicle, followed by the Honda Odyssey. The Sienna – at least subjectively – comes in a close 3rd place – it’s acceptably attractive.
It’s never really about the exterior styling with minivans, though; it’s all about the interior and technology packed within. This 2015 Sienna has one of the best interiors in the business. From the driver seat you get a thick, leather steering wheel which is comfortable in the hands and easily accessible controls. Other interior controls have been moved closer to the driver, such as the 3-zone climate control switches. Some of the best seats in the house are those offered in the second row, which move forward or back and can recline with pull-out leg rests. Doing this, though, reduces room in the 3rd row; if you have the van full it’s not really practical to be fully reclined.
Even with the third row seats up you still get plenty of cargo room. We kept the back packed with 4 fold up chairs, a baseball bag, and football helmets and pads; even with all this we still had lots of room to spare. Entering and leaving the back is made easy with dual power sliding rear doors, which you can open from controls in the front or buttons near the doors themselves.
Inside the Sienna, cruising down the road is extra quiet thanks to more sound-deadening throughout. Even though it’s a quieter ride it’s still difficult to communicate with the kids in the far back seats. Usually this involves turning down the radio and sometimes even turning around to project your voice to the back. To help, Toyota has included a new feature they call Easy Speak. This allows the driver to easily(!) talk to the third row with the push of a button, using a microphone in the front and piping your voice over the speakers in the rear. This may sound like a gimmick, but it actually works and can be useful. With that, I think it would be even more useful if the button was on the steering wheel instead of buried in the touchscreen display. Of course, you don’t want to just leave this on as you have adult conversations – and/or adult language, generally targeted at other drivers – in the front.
Available on the Sienna is an integrated DVD system, not offered on some of its key competitors. The screen in the rear is a widescreen and can play full widescreen movies. There’s definitely a ton of tech packed into this minivan, including a new driver info screen located between the speedo and tach. You can opt for either a 6.1-inch or 7-inch infotainment screen in the front, and you can now get heated seats and a heated steering wheel.
It’s not all about technology for the family-conscious buyer, though; you also have to worry about safety and reliability. The Sienna was rated as a Top Safety Pick Plus by IIHS, their highest honor. As for reliability? Well, it’s a Toyota. If you buy the vehicle new you get two years of ToyotaCare, which provides no-cost maintenance and includes free roadside assistance.
Under the hood of the Sienna is a 3.5-liter V6 engine and a 6-speed automatic transmission. This setup is good for 266-horsepower and can deliver an estimated 25-mpg highway. The power is more than adequate, even with the van packed with the whole family and gear. The ride is smooth and – depending on road conditions and speed – even a little floaty. Normally I wouldn’t like such a soft ride; on a sporty car or luxury sedan you want to feel as connected to the road as possible. In a minivan, though, it’s nice to have a smooth, compliant ride – especially if you have sleeping kids in the back (or want to nod off at the wheel…).
There are many different options and configurations to meet your family’s needs and budget. At the entry level, you can buy a Sienna for just $28,700, which is huge bang for the buck. Of course, you can also max out the options and end up with an MSRP of almost $48K. This seems like a lot for a large family that still needs clothing, food and education, but when compared to the base price of a Ford Expedition (the least expensive of the big 3-row SUVs) the Sienna is much more attainable. For us, we’ll continue to own a minivan for years to come (after kids, we’re told, are the grandkids). And if buying a new one today, the Sienna would be toward the top of my list.
To Toyota’s marketing pitch – Let’s Go Places – the most practical response is their Sienna minivan. Take it to the bank…