2016 Toyota Sienna XLE (USA)

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Although the market has moved to the Crossover-type vehicle, the MiniVan, as the Americans call it – or MPV, to Europeans – is not completely dead, and these vehicles still have a loyal following with those who need a roomy vehicle that will carry 7 or sometimes even 8 people and lots of luggage, something which many of the largest Crossovers or SUVs struggle to do. For sure there is a lot less choice than there used to be. In America, the only domestic manufacturer who has an offering is Chrysler, with their latest product, the Pacifica, joining the older and cheaper Dodge Grand Caravan. Korea has the Kia Sedona and there are currently three Japanese vehicles to choose from: the Honda Odyssey, Nissan Quest and Toyota Sienna. None of these will be familiar to Europeans, as they are far larger than the sort of vehicles that will find favour in the crowded cities and streets of the UK or the continent. But for Americans, who often have needs to convey lots of people and stuff over long distances, they have a place, and the rental fleets are usually well stocked with them. During US holiday periods, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and Independence, these are the vehicles that are among the first to be snapped up, but for the rest of the year, there is not that much demand, so when I arrived at Hertz’ LAX facility on a Tuesday morning in mid-September, I found that there were an awful lot of MiniVans (and the gargantuan SUVs) on offer and not a lot else. Having tested the rival Nissan Quest earlier in the year and in the interests of sampling something that I had not previously tested, I picked a Toyota Sienna for the day’s excursion. It turned out to be a 2016 model year car, with over 41,000 miles showing, and a few rental car scars, especially on one corner. It was in the XLE trim, whereas the others I saw on site were the less plush LE, and generally in less photography-friendly hues.

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The current Sienna is the third generation to bear the name. The first, launched in 1997, was a follow-on to the Previa that was sold in Europe, and which enjoyed a certain level of popularity, was designed in America and was made at Toyota’s Indiana plant, specifically for the US market. It marked a switch to front wheel drive and used an adapted version of the big-selling Camry’s platform. It proved popular, with sales of around 115,000 units a year, a figure which has not changed much ever since. The current car, looking fairly similar to the model it replaced, was launched at the 2009 Los Angeles Auto Show, and reached dealers a few weeks later in February 2010. It has been on sale ever since, and during this time has received only fairly minor modifications, with new lights for 2015 being the only obvious visual alteration. Comparison tests published by US reviewers have consistently praised the Sienna, with it frequently claiming class honours, or at the very least, runner-up to the Honda Odyssey. This always intrigued me, as I sampled the second generation model towards the end of its life, and thought it was far from something I could endorse, its evident practicality not-withstanding. I guessed that perhaps more had been changed than the looks would lead you to believe, and with this test, I aimed to find out.

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All models of the Sienna come with the same 3.5 litre V6 engine, which puts out 265 bhp, and 245 lb-ft of torque, coupled to a six speed automatic gearbox. These have been in use for some time, though both were upgraded for the 2017 model year, with power increased to 296 bhp, and the transmission gaining a further couple of ratios to make it an eight speeder. I suspect that both are worthwhile changes, especially if you were to load the Sienna up with people and things, but as driven, one-up, there felt to be ample power available, and the gearbox made the best use of it, with very smooth and seamless gearchanges. The engine is quiet and refined, and goes about its business with minimum fuss, though you would never say that the results are anything other than perfectly acceptable. On flat surfaces, and in the melange of Los Angeles traffic, the Sienna was absolutely fine, and even when shown some open roads and some gradients, it coped with similar aplomb, but as this is not a car that you would push that hard for fun, so the fact that it is far from the fastest out there will not be a real issue. It is also far from the most frugal. The test car had half of tank of fuel in it, something I spotted just after I left Hertz, but which I got them to accept, so they told me to bring it back with the gauge showing the same. I put in around 6 gallons, and drove the Sienna 134 miles, and it did indeed show the same level when I returned it in the evening. The trip computer recorded an average of 20.5 mpg. That’s US gallons, which computes to 24.6 mpg Imperial, which means that the Sienna will not prizes for its frugality, but then large and heavy cars of this type never do, and looking back at tests of its predecessor and other MiniVans, it would seem that this is a little better than they all achieved.

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Re-reading the test of the 2010 Sienna brought back memories not just of the trip to Hawaii where I tested it, but also of a vehicle with one of the most alarmingly vague steering setups I have ever encountered (and there are plenty of rivals for this brickbat, now!) and brakes that were equally worrying. I am pleased to report that what I found with this model was a lot better. It still won’t win any prizes, but it is massively better than what went before. The steering – now an electric system as opposed to the hydraulic set-up of the previous generation car – is still very light, but there is a modicum of feel to it, and, unlike the last model, you do at least have the confidence that the steering wheel is connected to the road wheels, so inputs by the driver will change direction in the way you expect. This was perhaps just as well, as I took the Sienna up into the canyons up above La Canada, on the Angeles Crest Highway and the Big Tujunga Canyon Road, both of which I know well, and which – in the right car – can be a lot of fun, with their swooping bends. I never expected fun from driving the Sienna, and I did not get it, but at least I was able to make progress at a decent speed without feeling unduly alarmed. There is still an amount of body lean if you tackle the bends with gusto, but you probably won’t, as this is much more of a vehicle that finds its own gait and you will stick to that, so this test is also not going to report that there is lots of understeer, though I suspect that there is, if you were to push things hard. I can tell you that the ride, on this model’s 235/60 R17 alloys, varies from feeling quite soft and compliant to it leading to the car pitching a certain amount as the suspension tries to cope with the ridges and bumps that are all too common on many of California’s roads. Show the Sienna some nice smooth surfaces, and this is a pleasant enough place to be, with low noise levels from the engine, and thanks to more sound insulation and an acoustic windscreen, little disturbance from the wind or the road to make it anything other than quiet, but change the surfaces and you will notice. The brakes were an awful lot better in this Sienna than the last one, too. I did not have cause to make anything close to an emergency stop, but in ordinary motoring, there was ample feel to the pedal and the Sienna came to a halt as you would expect. There is a foot operated parking brake. I only set it once, when parking on a steep incline, and found that I had to raise my left foot quite high to reach it, much as was the case with the previous generation car, but as few people will use this very often, this is not much of an irritation, really. The boxy design and large glass area mean that all round visibility is good. The field of vision from the door mirrors was good, though there was a blind spot, but the XLE trim includes Blind Spot Monitoring, with a light in either mirror when there is something alongside you, which proved useful when joining freeways and wanting to change lanes. There is also a rear-view camera and all-round parking sensors to help you to see exactly how much clearance you have. Accordingly, the Sienna proved easy to manoeuvre, despite its size.

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Toyota have certainly made an effort to make the interior look that bit more up-market than some of their other volume offerings. In the XLE trim of the test car, there is a stitched simulated leather top to the dash, for instance. But this is in black, and the rest of the dash and door casings are in grey, barring some relatively small inlays of a particularly shiny looking fake-wood, so the results are not really that successful, especially when you touch some of the surfaces and realise that whilst are pleasingly soft-touch, others are anything but. There was a leather-wrapped steering wheel, but it was not particularly nice to hold. At least the layout of the controls is nice and straightforward. There is a curved binnacle covering the two instrument dials and then the rest of the dash panel is straight, with the infotainment screen neatly incorporated in the panel. Those dials are for rev counter and speedo and there are an awful of markings in them, with a slightly odd series of crenallations around the outer circumference, making them look fussy, but they are easy to read. Smaller water temperature and fuel gauges are set in the lower portion of the two, respectively. Between the dials is an area used for various data displays, ranging from the top mileometer readings to vehicle settings data or the currently selected audio channel. You select which of these you want using the buttons on the right hand steering wheel spoke. Push button starting features, with a large button to the right of the wheel. There is no slot for the key, but leaving it in your pocket was a good solution to that. There are two chunky column stalks, with indicators and wipers operated from the left hand one and wipers from the right, with auto settings for both lights and wipers featuring in the XLE trim. A stubbier one, set lower down on the right of the wheel is used for the cruise control. The centre of the dash contains a 7″ touch-sensitive colour screen set between a pair of air vents, for the Entune infotainment system. As well as offering AM, FM and XM Satellite radio (surprisingly, working on this test car despite the fact that it had been on fleet for over a year), as well as a series of Apps (including traffic reports and a local weather report), and vehicle settings. The system proved easy enough to use, even though most of the buttons have been banished so you have to use the screen, or the repeaters on the left hand spoke of the wheel. Beneath this unit, there is the gearlever to one side and the controls for the tri-zone climate control to the other. As all this is high up, it falls to hand readily. There are a few buttons in the lower part of the dash, both to the left of the wheel and in the middle of the car, but these are for things that you will rarely use of change, so although they do fall as readily to hand, this is not an issue.

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In XLE trim, you get leather upholstery, which was a sort of mouse-fur grey colour in the test car. It certainly won’t win prizes for its quality, and on the hot day of my test, I almost thought I might prefer the sort of velour cloth that you get in cheaper versions of the Sienna. There is electric adjustment of the seats, with switches on the seat side, and a separate (manual) lumbar adjuster on the inside side of the seat, and there are seat heaters. The steering column telescopes in and out as well as up and down. Although I could get the right driving position, I did not find the seat itself particularly comfortable. It seemed a bit too flat and shapeless. There’s certainly a feeling of space for the driver, with a lot of headroom, and the glass sunroof of the test car added extra light into the cabin. You can keep some of the direct sun out, as there are pull-up blinds on the passenger side windows.

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The raison d’etre of the Sienna, and indeed any MiniVan, is the space inside it for people and luggage. And here, Toyota have done a good job. There are two separate seats up front, with a large oddments stowage area between them. The middle row of seats easily accessed through the large aperture created from the sliding doors, are Captain’s Chair style. Toyota offer a choice of a 7-seater model or an 8-seater. The test car was the latter. What this means is that there is a small additional seat, which can be inserted in the middle, between the two regular seats, clipping over the base unit, which is otherwise a low-set area for odds and ends with cup-holders moulded in it. When not in use, this extra seat can be stored in a recess on the left side of the boot, well out of the way. The middle seats are on long sliders, and you can adjust the cushion angle and backrest angle using the levers on the side of the seat. As with the front seats, there are armrests attached to the sides of the seat, which swivel up and down. Even with the front seats set well back, there is ample legroom for those in this row of seats, and headroom is even more plentiful. A set of controls for the climate control for the rear area of the Sienna are mounted on the roof above the driver’s side rear door. The rear-most row of seats are split 60/40. Unlike a lot of three-row vehicles, these really can be used by adults. Getting in and out is not too difficult, as you can slide the middle row seat well forward, leaving quite a large space to clamber through, and once installed, you find a seat that gives the occupant plenty of leg room and head room. Three burly adults might find that the width is a bit tight, but I tested it and thought the seat otherwise quite comfortable, with none of the “knees in chin” posture you sometimes have to adopt.

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Even with all three rows of seats erect, there is decent boot space. It is not all that long from front to back, but it is very deep, as there is quite a well, much lower than the bottom of the large and electrically-assisted tailgate. If you want to fold down the rearmost seats, this is easy. You pull on the large flap on the seat back, which unlocks it, so you can lever the whole unit back towards the rear of the vehicle and it then drops down into the well, with a flap then covering over the front-most surface so you have a completely seamless floor right up to the middle row of seats, that is flat. It is now level with the base of the tailgate, so it would be easy to slide heavy things in and out. One slight irritation is that the middle seat belt is anchored from the roof, so this is still in the way. With both rearmost seats folded down, there is a vast luggage area, as it is long, wide and still quite deep. I spent quite a whole trying to fold down the middle seats, and failed to do so, though in the process, I did manage to figure out how to remove them completely. Clearly if you were to do this, you have something which is, well, Van-like in cargo capacity. In case this is not enough, there are roof rails, allowing you to add luggage up above. There is plenty of space for odds and ends in the cabin. As well as long but quite narrow bins on all four doors, there is a split level glovebox, the lower part of which was a good size and there are lots of little lidded compartments on the lower dash, as well as slot under the gearlever. Between the front seats, there is a central unit behind the cup holders, with a lipped edge to it, which contains a very deep bin, and there is also an area in front of this unit, with more of a lip to it which could be used for quite a lot of bits and pieces. Middle seat occupants get map pockets on the back of the front seats, and the unit between the seats unless in 8-seater mode. Those in the rear most seats get lidded bins in the side mouldings. Needless to say, there are plenty of hooks throughout the cabin to hang things from or to secure items.

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Although you don’t get a choice of engine or gearbox, there are lots of different versions of the Sienna, with 5 main trim options on offer, the choice of 7 or 8 seats, and (unusual for the class), All Wheel Drive. The base L trim starts at $29,750 and comes standard with cloth seats, three-zone automatic climate control, a rearview camera, a Split & Stow third-row seat, Bluetooth, Siri Eyes Free, a USB port, a tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel, keyless entry, and an infotainment system with a 6.1″ touch screen. The LE offers a larger 7″ touch screen, navigation, automatic collision notification, an eight-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, and dual-power sliding doors. It starts at $32,540. For all-wheel drive, add about $2,500. The SE is the “sportier” version of the Sienna. In addition to a mild body kit, clear rear light lenses, 19″ alloys, unique gauges and badging, the Sienna SE features a sport-tuned suspension. Reviews I have seen suggest that this stiffer setup cuts down on how much the body moves in corners (for a more stable feel), but that many will find it too firm. The SE trim also includes ventilated and heated leather-trimmed front seats, a leatherette-trimmed Split & Stow third-row seat, and a leather-trimmed tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel. It starts at $36,110 and has standard seating for eight. The Preferred Package is available with the SE trim for $2,240. It includes blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, push-button start, a smart key system, a moonroof, Driver Easy Speak (which amplifies the driver’s voice through the speakers to the back rows), and the Entune Multimedia Bundle and App Suite, which includes a 7-inch touch screen, navigation, smartphone integration, a six-speaker sound system, a USB port, HD Radio, predictive traffic and weather, Siri Eyes Free, a rearview camera, and satellite radio. This trim can also be upgraded to the SE Premium trim ($40,830). This includes the Preferred Package features plus a dual-view Blu-ray entertainment centre and a perforated leather-trimmed 40/20/40 second row that can tip up and slide forward. It includes a stowable centre seat. The seven-seat XLE’s starting price is $36,310. It includes leather-trimmed and heated front seats, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, a proximity key, push-button start and remote illuminated entry, and wood grain-style accents. For $715, you can add the Navigation Package, which includes rear parking sensors, Driver Easy Speak, and the Entune Premium Audio system, which features navigation, smartphone integration, a 7-inch touch screen, a six-speaker audio system, HD Radio, predictive traffic and weather, and satellite radio. The all-wheel-drive seven-seat model starts at $38,520. The eight-seat XLE Premium trim starts at $39,505, and the all-wheel-drive seven-seat XLE Premium starts at $41,715. The Premium trims come with the Navigation Package features plus a dual-view Blu-ray entertainment system. Top of the range is the Sienna Limited, which seats seven and starts at $42,800, or $43,950 with all-wheel drive. It comes standard with a 10-speaker sound system with a subwoofer, hands-free phone connectivity, Driver Easy Speak, the dual-view Blu-ray entertainment centre (in the all-wheel-drive model), and the Entune App Suite, which includes Pandora, Yelp, OpenTable, MovieTickets.com, and real-time fuel prices, weather, traffic, sports, and stocks. The Limited Premium trim starts at $46,170 and includes the Blu-ray entertainment centre, while the all-wheel-drive Limited Premium starts at $47,310 and features extras like automatic high beams and rain-sensing windshield wipers. The Advanced Technology Package can be added to the Limited Premium for $1,800. It includes adaptive cruise control, hill-start assist control, and Toyota’s pre-collision system.

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I was pleasantly surprised by the Sienna. Mind you, I have to say that my expectations were very low, as the vague steering and scary brakes of that second generation model were so indelibly imprinted in my memory. The fact that almost every recent Toyota I have driven has been utterly anodyne to drive did not lead me to expect anything other than a supremely practical vehicle that was no good at all from behind the wheel. But actually, this Sienna was OK. Not better than OK, but perhaps good enough for what it sets out to do. The Sienna scores highly as an ownership proposition, as in addition to a top NHTSA safety rating, it also delivers excellent levels of reliability. Couple that with available All Wheel Drive, where its rivals do not offer this, and you can see why, although it starts to look a bit pricey in some of the higher trim levels, this Sienna, now the oldest vehicle in its rather small class, is still finding favour. It may not be winning the Group Tests – and indeed I read one on the day I had the car, where it came third to the Chrysler Pacifica and Honda Odyssey (in that order) – but for those who still need MiniVan space and not the less commodious Crossover approach, it could be worth a look. It’s not really the sort of vehicle that appeals to me, so, with only a mild facelift on the stocks for the 2018 model year, which will doubtless prolong its life a good few years yet, it could be quite a while before I drive another one. But I won’t be as apprehensive when I do, as I was at the outset of this test.

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