by NICK KURCZEWSKI
A company in crisis, Toyota hopes to put family first with its new minivan.
The most exceptional feature of the totally redesigned 2011 Toyota Sienna minivan could be its remarkably poor timing. The Sienna arrives in a car market where having a Toyota badge has suddenly become more of a liability than an asset. Once known for quality and dependability, Toyota’s image has taken a beating due to the company’s poor handling of recalls related to sticking accelerator pedals.
The recent release of an internal memo, boasting how the company saved $100 million by limiting investigations into problems related to sudden acceleration has, to put it mildly, not helped matters. Faced with government investigations, countless class action lawsuits, and approximately 9 million recalled cars, along comes the revamped Toyota Sienna minivan.
While it’s impossible to ignore the quagmire of bad press currently engulfing Toyota, it would be unfair to totally dismiss the Sienna (especially since, as of now, it’s not part of the ongoing recall). In fact, this could be a perfect opportunity for bargain hunters to do some serious haggling at a Toyota dealership.
Pricing for the base front wheel-drive, four-cylinder Sienna starts at approximately $25,000. Throw every available goodie into it – including a more powerful V-6, optional all wheel-drive, and touch-screen DVD entertainment system – and stand back, because the price for the range-topping Sienna Limited AWD rockets past $40,000.
We spent time behind the wheel of every Sienna set to go on sale, from base models to the luxury-loaded Limited, and even a sport-themed trim level called the SE. Believe it or not – and we were awfully skeptical during the press presentation – Toyota thinks there is a market for a sportier, more fun-to-drive minivan.
Riding on a firmer suspension and with aggressive-looking 19-inch wheels (235/50s), the Sienna SE was surprisingly entertaining on a stretch of seriously scary mountain road. Roly-poly body control and sloppy steering could have easily ended up with us (and the Sienna) at the bottom of a gorge. Thankfully, the SE felt composed and tackled the twisties with way more gusto than any minivan we’ve driven.
Of course, if driving pleasure is your ultimate passion, a sedan is always going to be the better choice. There is only so much Toyota engineers can do with a vehicle weighing more than 2-tons and stretching 200.2 inches long. Yet, of all the Sienna models we drove, the SE was definitely our favorite. Better still, Toyota has added some long overdue styling to make the Sienna look far less anonymous than its predecessors.
The grill and headlights look especially cool, giving the Sienna that extra ounce of attitude when hunting for a parking spot at Home Depot. Things are a lot tamer from other angles but, at the very least, the Sienna’s exterior is a welcome step up from the plain-vanilla minivans we’re used to. The interior is airy and dash has a smart-looking layout – too bad the overall success of the cabin is marred by several cheap-feeling plastic switches and panels.
New for 2011 is a standard 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine, which comes in the two lower-priced trim levels. With only 187 horsepower – 79 hp less than the optional 3.5-liter V-6 – we didn’t expect to fall in love with the smaller motor. But considering the savings in fuel (19 m.p.g. city/26 highway versus 18 city/24 highway for the 6-cylinder) and sticker-price, this engine is worth considering.
The four offers plenty of power for most driving situations, though it does get noisy when punching the gas pedal from a red light, or when merging onto a highway. Then again, the V-6 didn’t impress us by being that much quieter. No matter the engine choice, the Sienna’s ride is always smooth and comfortable – though the electronic steering feels a little too disconnected from what’s going on at the front wheels.
Basically, the Sienna is a solid minivan with good road manners and a little extra styling pizzazz. You’d never buy one because it’s sexy to drive, or handles like a sports car – even the edgier SE model can’t shake off its minivan roots – but it definitely proves that minivans don’t have to look (or drive) like the box they came in.
The bigger question, at least for now, is whether or not the Toyota image is too tarnished to recommend. Resale values will certainly plummet (even for vehicles not directly affected by the recall) and with car sales still limping back from the Great Recession, a Toyota showroom won’t be the only place to find a great deal on a new minivan.
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