The Minivan World has changed a lot since the first batch of them came out in the early ’80s. They actually were “mini” vans, for openers. Not much bigger than a car – being based on small cars, like the Chrysler K-cars. Today’s vans – like this Toyota Sienna – are as far from being “mini” as Shaquille O’Neill is from being skinny.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Times – and tastes – change.
Minivans today are as much for affluent empty-nesters as the original-era vans were made for carrying a bunch of greasy-fingered kids from Here to There without giving a damn if they spilled juice on the leather.
Because there was no leather.
Well, here we are.
You could still use the Sienna – or its two main rivals, the Honda Odyssey and the Chrysler Town & Country – for hauling kids around. But they’re more like downscaled luxury RVs now than utilitarian appliances.
With prices (and appetites for gas) to match.
They all start close to $30k – and optioned out, it’s not hard to be staring down the barrel of nearly $50k.
But which to pick?
Luckily, it’s fairly easy to decide.
WHAT IT IS
The Sienna is a full-size (and not so mini) van. It’s available in either 7 or 8 passenger seating configurations – and unlike its rivals, with (or without) AWD.
Base price for the seven passenger, front-drive L is $28,700. The eight-passenger LE version of the Sienna starts at $31,430.
A top-of-the-line AWD Limited with the Premium package has an MSRP of $46,250.
Its main rivals are the Honda Odyssey – which starts at $28,975 and runs to $44,600 – and the Chrysler Town & Country – which starts at $29,995 and runs up to $40,295.
While the exterior differences are minor and hard to discern without looking closely, the ’15 Sienna has a redone interior and the suspension/body structure have been significantly updated for improved ride quality and road feel.
It’s still a big bus – but feels less like a big bus.
The only traditional van you can still get with all-wheel-drive
Available just about everything (including an oversized split-screen LCD rear seat entertainment system).
Traditionally Toyota high resale value.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Pricey relative to rivals. A Limited Premium Sienna’s MSRP is almost $6k higher than a top-of-the-line Town & Country’s. (But the Toyota does come with AWD).
SUV-esque fuel economy. Expect high-teens, real-world.
It’s a bus.
Now that the 2.7 liter four has been retired, all Siennas come standard with the 3.5 liter V6 that was formerly optional in the lower trims. It’s the same engine as last year, making 266 hp – which is still more than the Honda Odyssey’s standard 248 hp 3.5 liter V6. The recently redesigned Chrysler Town & Country’s class-leading 283 hp 3.6 liter V-6 is the most powerful – on paper – of all current minivans engines.
But wait a minute for the scoop on that.
The Sienna’s V6 is paired with a standard six-speed automatic, which has a manual shift “sport” mode.
Buyers can choose either FWD or go with a full-time AWD system – a feature not offered in any other minivan currently on the market.
This is a pretty quick bus, too: Zero to 60 in about 7.5 seconds with FWD.
Honda’s Odyssey needs 7.9 seconds. And that van is not available with AWD, either.
Interestingly, the most powerful-on-paper of these vans – the Chrysler T&C – is a bit of a slow-mo. It needs 8.3 seconds to get to 60. That’s almost a full second behind the Toyota van. This is odd given the Chrysler’s lighter than the much quicker Toyota: 4,371 lbs. vs. 4,540 for the Sienna. Something doesn’t quite add up. Maybe Toyota is under-rating the output of the Sienna’s V6.
Or perhaps Chrysler’s exaggerating the output of its V6.
The Chrysler van also has the widest turning circle of the bunch – by a not-small margin: 39.1 feet vs. 37.5 for the Toyota and 36.7 for the Honda.
Gas mileage-wise, the Sienna’s a pig. They all are.
EPA slaps an 18 city, 25 highway sticker on FWD versions – 16 city, 23 highway for the AWD-equipped models.
In real-world driving, a Sienna with AWD will average mid teens. That is a ferocious appetite for such a seemingly responsible vehicle. Want a comparo? The 707 hp Dodge Hellcat – a brutal 200 MPH muscle car with the most powerful V8 ever put into an American production car – manages to rate 13 city, 22 highway.
Now you know why AWD is so uncommon in this segment.
But the FWD competition isn’t much better.
A Chrysler Town & Country carries a 17 city, 25 highway rating; the Honda Odyssey, 19 city, 28 highway.
If gas mileage is a consideration, you probably ought to consider something else.
ON THE ROAD
Time gives perspective – and appreciation – for the engineering Great Leaps Forward made over the past 25 years. The first-generation minivans of the early-mid 1980s (the Chrysler vans) were basically compact-sized economy cars (K-cars) with a box bolted on top of them. They felt cheap, they looked cheap – and they drove cheap. They had just enough power to get where you needed to go – provided you weren’t in much of a hurry.
There was not much to like about them except their utility – and cheapness.
A modern minivan like the Sienna is a completely different animal. It is huge – and ingot-solid.
Powerful, quiet – and luxurious, too.
Even the formerly available four cylinder was making about as much horsepower as mass-market V8s were back in the 1980s.
The now-standard V6, meanwhile, makes more hp than a V8 Corvette was putting down back around ’85.
That’s how far – and fast – we’ve come in 30-something years.
Rolling stock provides another barometer of the changes. Even the base L trim FWD Sienna LE comes standard with 17-inch alloy wheels and if you want, you can order a Sport package that ups them to 19 inches.
This minivan offers a more aggressive wheel-tire package than a mid-’80s Corvette!
Stamped steel 16 inch wheels and low-cost all-season tires would seem like the right choice for a utilitarian family-hauler. But minivans like the Sienna and its main rivals aren’t basic transpo family-mobiles anymore. Haven’t been for years. They’re more like custom conversion vans were back in the day: As much for adults as for kids. The buyer demographic for vans like the Sienna has shifted. The typical buyer is older – and more affluent. He needs to be. The typical profile is an affluent empty-nester less worried about how many juice box holders the thing has than what the resolution of the DVD entertainment system is (very high, in this case)
People who buy these things expect more – so Toyota gives them more.
The Sienna is big.
200.2 inches long and 78.1 inches wide. It rides on a 119.3 inch wheelbase – two inches longer than a Lincoln Town Car’s. The Sienna’s two chief competitors are similarly plus-sized. The Chrysler T&C is actually two inches longer overall and rides on a Rolls-Royce-like 121.2 inch wheelbase.
Despite its size, the Sienna is very manageable to drive. From behind the wheel it doesn’t feel as big as it really is – probably because most of the length is behind you. There’s only about three feet of Sienna from the windshield forward. The front end is very stubby – which is helpful because it makes it easier to judge how much of a margin you’ve got available during parking maneuvers. The “one-finger “electric-assist power steering helps with close-quarters docking maneuvers, too.
It’s also very easy to get into. No need for deploying running boards, step ladders or grab handles. You literally almost walk into the thing.
So, it’s bulk notwithstanding, the Sienna is quite car-like, for the most part. Its Large Marge proportions only become apparent when you’re backing up – and when you slide the thing into your garage. The rearview is also pretty occluded due to the high seatbacks of both the second and third row (though the third row’s headrests can be folded and of course, so can the seats) and relatively small rear glass area. The now-standard back-up camera helps, but it’s small, has limited peripheral view. So, be careful when backing-up – and also when easing it into the garage. The Sienna eats up about as much space as a full-sized SUV.
AT THE CURB
Well, it’s a minivan. What are you gonna do?
Even though several major car companies – Ford and GM – have entirely dropped traditional minivans from their product portfolios, they weren’t dropped because the concept is unsound. If that were the case, then crossovers would be dying off, too.
Crossovers are popular because they offer more or less the same utility/practicality in a different wrapper. They are minivans on the down-low.
Meanwhile, what of the remaining “out of the closet” minivans? The focus is now on luxury as much as utility.
Witness the available second row captain’s chairs that have fold-out footrests that ride in long-travel tracks that allow the chairs to be pushed back so far that you can’t touch the backs of the front seats with your feets. On Limited trims, the third row seats power fold themselves into the floor at the touch of a button. There is also a 10-speaker JBL surround sound audio system, heated steering wheel, an almost 18×7 drop-down (and split screen) DVD player, power folding outside mirrors, adaptive cruise control… und so weiter.
Even the “base” L trim comes standard with three-zone automatic climate control, 17 inch wheels, Bluetoof, a 6.1 inch touchscreen and a very decent stereo system.
Equipment no circa Reagan Years Grand Caravan ever even offered.
Of course, the others (Odyssey and T&C) offer such equipment as well. Which accounts for their nearly $30k to start MSRPs – and the often close to $40k out-the-door price.
For a minivan, it’s not a bad looker. In fact, if you look at it from a certain angle (like above) you’ll see at least a few interesting angles – more like sweeps and scallops, actually.
It’s trying, at least.
You can even order a sporty Sienna.
That would be the SE – which is rides on low-profile 19-inch wheels, has an angrier-looking front clip with built-in foglights and lower body side skirts. The suspension is also firmed up some over the standard calibrations – and inside, you get perforated leather seats with heaters and a sportier-looking gauge cluster.
Of the three, Sienna wins on cargo space. With the second row seats out and the third row folded, there’sa total of 150 cubic feet of open space gaping behind that liftgate – vs. 148.5 in the Honda and – surprisingly – 143.8 in the T&C. Surprising, because the T&C is physically a little bigger than both the Sienna and the Odyssey. Another surprise is how little space you get in the Nissan Quest – which is also larger overall than the Sienna (200.8 inches, stem to stern, vs. 200.2) but which has much less cargo capacity: a mere 108.4 cubic feet.
It’s odd that Nissan upsized the Quest – ostensibly to make it more competitive with the Sienna, Odyssey and T&C – but ended up with a van that’s still a lot smaller on the inside than all of them. On top of that, the Quest has lost its formerly sporty personality. Well, its sportier-than-other-vans personality. Now it’s just a big van with less space than other big vans.
It’s strange that – so far – no one has thought to offer a hybrid minivan.
The platform – and mission – would seem to be ideal. Here you have a large vehicle (plenty of room for batteries/motors) that’s generally used for lower-speed touring/cruising duty. Vans make for great taxis, too.
But so far – nothing. Other than heavy gas bills.
A diesel engine would seem like the ticket, too. But again, no joy.
Something – anything – to crutch the god-awful gas mileage of these things. Even leaving aside the CAFE issue. I mean, if you’re driving a Hellcat then 13 MPG isn’t so bad.
But 13 MPG in a . . . minivan?
That’s my chief beef with the Sienna – with all of them. For what they are – and what they’re for – they’re almost disgustingly profligate at the pump.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Its appetite aside, the Sienna still holds a winning hand: Eight-passenger capacity – and available AWD. If you’ve got to have those things, then the Sienna’s the van you’ve got to have.
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I was in Germany last year and drove a diesel Seat minivan ( made by VW I think). What a dream to drive – it performed well on the Autobahn and the diesel engine was quite efficient – we drove to old East Germany and back without a refill. It really bothers me that Americans cannot experience these excellent diesel cars!
I have to agree, put sliding doors on an SUV and I might have bought it. Instead I have a 2015 Sienna. Major interior improvement over prior years. Almost as good inside as a Honda. But overall the best out of all minivans. I have a 2001 GM mini and liked that all of the rear seats are removable. More space, lighter weight, and better gas mileage. I wish newer minis had rear seats that could fold flat and/or be removable. Paid a lot extra for a GPS that is over two years out of date and downright awful in route selection. I wish vehicle reviews would give a quick summary of installed GPS’s. For my money just get a top notch app for ones’ phone would be way better and cheaper then what is installed on a Toyota.
Given the quick pace of technological changes, it would seem much more sensible to fit these cars with a plug-in for a tablet or iPad that could serve as the GPS unit.
A TomTom or Garmin is another good way to go.
GM and Ford quit making minivans because their versions were orders of magnitude worse than were the crappy Caravan/Voyager and got even worse over time, eventually selling mostly to government and rental fleets.
Yup. The Ford especially. An epic POS.
Ask any mechanic. It’s a vehicle that’s kept many of them busy!
Epic, that’s an understatement! Windstars had a multitude of serious defects built right in to just about every imaginable system. Brakes, electrical, fuel, engine, transmission, hardware – hard to repair when everything seemed designed to fail.
You wrote in this article on the Toyota minivan that,
“Crossovers are popular because they offer more or less the same utility/practicality in a different wrapper.” I agree completely. Except for one very important difference, the lack of sliding doors.
My ideal vehicle would be a truck-based SUV with a duel sliding side door option. How great would that be? The strength of a
SUV and it’s serious four wheel system and the convenience of minivan doors. Great!
All the best,
That’s a damned fine idea!
In 2007, I was shopping for a minivan. The choices were the sienna or the odyssey. I chose the Odyssey because the reviews were good and the fuel mileage was in the 20’s. In real driving on the highway, I was getting 25-27 mpg. It is now down to 21-23 mpg. I have the 3.5L six cylinder which goes to 3 cylinders under steady state driving. Either van is good.
The wife reserved a full size rent car. Got there and the Sienna was all they had left. If it had been me I’d have taken a Sentra or the Hyundai. I removed the front headrest on the passenger side and then folded down all the seats so she could sorta see out.
She got back a week later and I asked how it was. Big, she said, and real thirsty. I think she averaged 24, all highway miles.
When we first opened the side door I said “throw all this crap out pull up to the loading chute”. You could have hauled your prize steers to the show and had room for hay and feed and all that other stuff. Not much mini here including price, size and gas guzzling. Seems like the FedEx guy told me he got around 25 in that Sprinter with the Merc diesel.
re this: “This is odd given the Chrysler’s lighter than the much quicker Toyota: 4,371 lbs. vs. 4,540 for the Sienna. Something doesn’t quite add up. Maybe Toyota is under-rating the output of the Sienna’s V6.
Or perhaps Chrysler’s exaggerating the output of its V6.”
You have to look at the power band. If the Chrysler makes more HP than the Sienna at one point in its power range, but a lot less elsewhere at other RPMs, the net effect is a slower engine with a higher HP peak.
I own one of those 3.5L Toyota engines, and if you go full throttle and then the automatic transmission downshifts, you get more noise but you don’t seem to pick up a lot more HP after the downshift. It seems to be a fairly broad power band.
When will they just drop the “mini” prefix? These things are at least as long, tall, wide as the full size, RWD vans they replaced. I’m betting on larger.
As for why nobody makes a hybrid “mini”van, all I can say is this: Stay tuned. Soon grasshopper. Very soon.
There are some pretty big ‘full size’ vans out there these days: Sprinter, NV2500, etc. Maybe this is just another example of bracket creep, and they will soon be introducing ‘micro-vans.’ Wait a minute, the Ford TransIT, etc., are already on sale though not aimed at passenger comfort.
As for the EPA’s war on diesel, fishheads are too good for them.
Hellcat – with video – on deck…
If I were going to buy a minivan, the Sienna would be the one.
But I doubt that will ever happen.
Hey Oorgle, it just happened again, comment disappeared when I clicked the Post button.
When I was in HS, my dad had the original mini-van, a VW ‘microbus.’ (it was even red, or at least the bottom half was). His was a 64, the year they upgraded to the ‘big’ 1300cc squirrel cage. That was an econobox.
Back to today – is there any difference between a Dodge Grand Caravan and the T&C other than badging and trim?
BTW – the old Vdub seated 9 – but only belted the front 3 IIRC.
The only ‘cargo’ space (w/o removing seats) was above the engine box.
If I understand it correctly, the gas-guzzler tax starts kicking in at 22.5 mpg combined mileage. These vans are probably tickling that number.
I agree that a diesel would really help them – they’re heavy, so they need more torque than horsepower to get them going. If only the EPA rules weren’t so draconian about diesels…
“I agree that a diesel would really help them – they’re heavy, so they need more torque than horsepower to get them going.”
Not really. Torque X RPM = HP. What matters is the HP available at the RPMs you typically run the vehicle. If you need more power, you downshift and up the RPMs.
This is a minivan, and gets used mainly in the city where high rpms aren’t really your friend (ask any Honda S2000 owner). Plus higher rpms = more fuel burned. A diesel would provide the torque needed to get the van moving at lower rpms, keeping consumption down.
Amen what Chip said. To get this hulk moving, it’s necessary to spin the engine to 4,000-plus RPM. A diesel that made peak torque at 1,500 or 2,000 RPM would get the thing moving as well or better with much lower overall fuel consumption.
I agree that a diesel engine will get better mileage, but it’s not so much because of the torque or the RPM needed to make horsepower, but rather the inherent efficiency of diesel versus gasoline. Which do you think would get better gas mileage — a Honda Accord with a 4 banger that ran at somewhat high RPMs to get up to speed quickly, or the same car with a monster V8 dropped in with gearing that made it barely turn over under normal driving?
Maybe VW will import one or two of their European models since they have US qualified diesels. Not a thinly disguised Chrysler like the last one. Not some VW microbus nostalgia-mobile like the new Beetle. Not some trendy funky thing like the Element or Cube.
That, and I’ve driven my ex’s somewhat older version Sienna minivan. It’s possible to get it up to speed without spinning the engine much above 2,000 RPM if you’re not in any particular hurry.
Yup – but there’s the rub!
To get up to speed if you are in a hurry, you have to work that V6 pretty hard. The diesel’s tremendous low-speed torque is ideal for getting a heavy-ass vehicle going quickly without working it hard.
I’d bet that a 3-ish liter turbo-diesel could deliver appx. the same 0-60 capability and 30-35 on the highway, too.
“To get up to speed if you are in a hurry, you have to work that V6 pretty hard.”
Sure … for about 10 seconds … if you want to go 80 MPH. But it’s a mom-mobile. Who does that in a Sienna?
Drop in a diesel, to get the same (or more likely, lesser) performance you’d still have to work it really hard … at lower RPMs.
Jim, I can tell you ain’t a diesel guy. Go pretend you wanna buy a 3/4T pickup and drive a gas and a diesel. You’ll know the instant you step on the go pedal in a diesel there’s a whole lot more going on from idle on. The first time I drove a diesel I knew it was a whole nother ballgame and that was just when I began to untrack.
You’re right about taking 10 seconds to get to speed but not 80 in a Sienna. We do forget we used to put it to the floor and hold it there and cuss it while we waited to get to speed.
I recall we had a ’57 Chevy station wagon 283 2 barrel and my uncle bought a ’58 Nomad with a 348 and it felt like a rocket. Then another uncle bought an Olds 88 with the Rocket engine and it really was a rocket. All things are relative.