Since 1984, many American families have utilized the virtues of minivans as a primary mode of transportation. An efficient one-box design that was more about function than style, the venerable minivan is clinging to the last vestiges of marketshare as the crossover onslaught has reduced consumer appeal and, ultimately, minivan sales.
Last year, the five remaining minivan marquees — Chrysler Pacifica, Dodge Grand Caravan (the top seller, still), Honda Odyssey, Kia Sedona and Toyota Sienna — accounted for 2.8 percent of new car sales, a number more than double the total electric cars sold, but less than half of the 1 million vans sold barely 13 years ago.
The sales data also indicates that over 35 percent of all minivans are sold to rental fleet operators — proof that when Americans travel we like minivans, but in our driveway at home, not so much.
Yet, there remain legions of minivan owners loyal to the platforms. Our recent Toyota Sienna SE Premium van’s visit stoked fond memories from my navigator’s four-minivan ownership period, while illustrating that the numerous virtues of a van fit most driver’s everyday needs better than the heavier crossovers that they crave.
Our navy-painted sample, with Lexus-like LED lights up front and clear-lens LEDs in the back, actually was quite fetching. Featuring all-wheel drive — the only minivan so equipped currently — the Sienna packed all of the expected amenities into its cavernous box; power side doors, power liftgate, rear vent windows, power sunroof, sliding and reclining second row captain’s chairs, split-folding third row seating, plus blind-spot/cross traffic sensors, Toyota’s Safety Sense portfolio, triple zone auto-climate as well as Entune 3.0 with JBL audio and Navigation.
Slide into the front leather seating — ingress and egress is among the easiest of any vehicles on the market, a boon for both young and old — and the Sienna’s helm gives the pilot push-button ignition, a dash-mounted shifter that saves space for a roomy console plus an open pass-through ahead of the console, as well as an array of familiar push-buttons and knobs. The touchscreen is simple, efficient and effective, while all other controls are as intuitive as they are ergonomically placed. Visibility to all sides is excellent.
Jump back to the second row and passengers gain captain’s chairs (a bench seat is standard) that offer basketball player-sized leg space, whether the seats are fully slid back or up behind the driver. The third row bench is very adult-friendly as well, with good access, leg, head and elbow room, and includes sun shades to conceal cargo or heat.
Behind the split-folding rear bench rests a deep cargo well that can swallow weeks worth of groceries, or, the whole bench seat. No crossover, no matter what the size category, comes close to the Sienna’s space inside.
The corporate 3.5-liter V-6 is the engine of choice now with 296 horses; the in-line four is long gone. Power is ample and smooth, now running through an upgraded eight-speed automatic. Front-drive models gain one mile per gallon, while the AWD version (the only AWD minivan available) earns EPA estimates of 18/24/20 mpg.
With Toyota’s expertise with hybrid powertrains, the Sienna’s flat-floor chassis would seem to be an excellent opportunity to exploit the company’s renowned hybrid powertrain technology to produce a 30-plus-mpg minivan. Alas, it has not occurred.
The Sienna, however, does have the handling chops and composure that minivan-owners have come to expect. With the tires pushed out to each corner, the Sienna rides and drives with a composure and comfort not offered by very many crossovers. A tiny low-speed turning radius complements the van’s stable behavior.
Pricing starts at under $31,000 for front drive L models. Other trims include LE, XLE, and Limited, with our SE Premium featuring AWD listing for $46,603 with several option packages and features upgrades.
Everyone who rode with us loved the Sienna’s packaging and space. From the flat floor, to the roomy seats, to the abundant headroom, the Toyota lets every occupant revel in their personal travel room. There really isn’t a better way to move seven or eight people — with these exterior measurements — than a minivan.
The market stereotypes have been cruel, maligning a perfectly sensible vehicle. The Sienna has power, ride, space, comfort, safety features and creature refinement going for it. From this seat, it also looked pretty good.
Yet beauty rests in the eye of the beholder, and too many consumers think that the minivan lacks style. Style is fleeting; practical sense never is.