Reader Question: Sienna vs. RAV4 vs. Highlander?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Ed asks: Your advice is needed on my next new Toyota AWD vehicle choice.

Currently I own a 2015 Toyota RAV4 and live in upstate New York in the snow belt. It starts snowing here in November until the end of March; that’s over 4 months. The average snow storm depths are 12 inches to 18 inches , but we do receive 18 to 36 inch snow storms sometimes. I have driven my RAV4 through 18 to 24 inch  of snow and it ran good; have not had the opportunity yet to test the RAV4 in deeper snow than that.

I am thinking about a new AWD Toyota vehicle because I’m of senior age now and I’m interested in the new safety features like automated braking if something runs out in front, lane change technology’s, etc.

What’s appealing to me about the larger Sienna or Highlander is they both have the same 3.5 L engine which I believe is a non-interference engine (let me know if I’m correct on the 3.5 L engine being non-interference because the 2015 RAV that I own now has the 2.4 engine non-interference. The non interference are great if you’re a vehicle owner who keeps a vehicle 10 plus years; they are made to last forever verses the interference engines).

I like the larger Toyotas; sometimes we put a large dog cage in the back with my 110 pound dog and it barely fits in the RAV 4. I have an open 8 foot long 5 foot wide trailer that loaded could weigh 3,500 pounds, and the RAV 4 is rated to tow 1,500 pounds. The Highlander is rated 4,500 pounds; why is the Sienna only rated 3,500 pounds; doesn’t it share the same chassis as the Highlander?

If I replace my RAV4 with the Sienna is the ground clearance and over all height similar? I believe if I get a Highlander the ground clearance and its over all height is taller, if so by how much in inches? I know the weight of the RAV is approx. 3,600 to 3,700 pounds; the Sienna weight and the Highlander weight is about similar – around 4,350 pounds – although the Highlander is like 10 inches shorter than the Sienna. So do you think the AWD Sienna will handle as good as the AWD Highlander and RAV4 in deep snow and occasionally be hobble to handle pulling as much as 4500 pounds?

My reply: The Sienna is, of course, a minivan – and so not primarily intended to be a particularly capable vehicle in heavy snow, even though it is available with all-wheel-drive. The chief problem with this vehicle in terms of heavy snow – and vs. the RAV4 – is, indeed, ground clearance. The Sienna has only 6.5 inches of ground clearance – much less than the RAV4’s 8.4 inches, which is a critical difference in terms of dealing with deep snow. You can have a fantastic AWD system, but if the vehicle rides up on packed snow, it will lose traction and you’ll be just as helpless as if you were driving a ’78 Caprice with rear-drive and no positraction axle!

Also, the Sienna comes with all-season tires meant mostly for dry/wet roads; not heavy snow. The RAV is available with tires geared more toward the kind of weather you’ll be dealing with. Of course, you can change tires – but not ground clearance. At least, not easily. Finally, the RAV4 no longer offers a V6 and its acceleration is very slow-pokey compared with the Sienna, which is a powerful and surprisingly quick vehicle – its being a minivan notwithstanding. It is, however, a much larger vehicle than the RAV; it will be harder to park and will take up much more room in your garage. That said, it’s a very nice RV – which is what these “not so mini” minivans have become!

The Highlander is about the same size (7-8 passengers) and of course, it’s not a minivan. It also has 8 inches of clearance – about the same as the RAV – and (like the RAV and unlike the Sienna) is better able to deal with occasional severe weather. It has standard-style outward-opening doors rather than sliding doors – which you may (or may not) prefer.

Tow ratings are a function of more than just the engine and transmission; the vehicle’s frame/chassis and suspension layout are taken into account. The new (2019) RAV has a stronger standard engine, but its maximum tow rating is still only 1,500 lbs. – which is insufficient for your 3,500 lb. trailer. You might get away with it – but you might not. And if something happens to the vehicle, the warranty would not cover it; you could also find yourself liable if there is harm/damage to anyone else’s person or property – and for that reason alone I would personally never attempt to pull a trailer more than twice as heavy as the vehicle’s maximum safe tow rating.

Both the Highlander and the Sienna can handle the 3,500 lb. trailer – so no issues on that score.

Based on everything you’ve told me about what you need, I think that of the three under discussion, the Highlander will likely be the one which suits you best. It has the capability of the RAV in snow – and it can pull. The main potential drawback – and it may not be one at all – is its physical size. It may be a much larger (and longer) vehicle than you need. And you may find it more of a handful to drive than your current RAV.

You didn’t mention whether you might be open to this, but I’ll suggest you at least take a look at other brands – which offer vehicles that have the attributes you want but in a smaller (closer to mid-sized) package; something in between the RAV4 and the Highlander/Sienna.

For example, the Hyundai Sante Fe. It isn’t as long as the Sienna, but it has a powerful V6, AWD and can tow 5,000 lbs. It also has about 7.5 inches of clearance – splitting the difference between the RAV4 and the Sienna/Highlander.

Another one I think could fill the bill is the new Subaru Ascent. Superb AWD system, 8.7 inches of clearance, standard 250 horsepower engine and a 5,000 lb. max tow rating. My review of this vehicle can be found here.

In fact, I recommend this one over all of the other ones, given your parameters. It’s definitely worth your time to at least go have a look and maybe take one for a test drive.

Keep us posted!

. . .

Got a question about cars – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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  1. Eric,

    Ed brings up a point in his question which I don’t think you address. He says ” I’m interested in the new safety features like automated braking if something runs out in front”.

    Perhaps I’m wrong to infer a deer but, being upstate New York, I can’t imagine automatic braking being able to handle wild animals darting in front of you. Aren’t auto-brake systems designed to monitor other traffic and respond to their actions?

    Just curious.


    • Hi Mark,

      Many of these systems are specifically designed to brake (in the event the driver doesn’t) when a pedestrian moves into the path of the car, so I suppose it would work for a deer as well. Of course, deer sometimes move much faster than people – and even if the driver (or the system) applied full force pedal as soon as the danger is perceived, it might not matter much.

      • Hitting a deer at low speeds or as in slowing down could put the deer in your lap. At a higher speed, the deer would likely go over the top of the vehicle and leave you without any injuries or even death.


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