- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 5, 2003

Toyota’s all-new Sienna minivan brings to mind a combination of an old saying and a movie. The saying is, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” In the movie, “Field of Dreams,” it’s stated more modestly: “If you build it, they will come.”

It’s not likely that the world will beat a path to Toyota dealers’ doors for what amounts to a nifty new vehicle. But there’s no question that the buyers will come for the 2004 Sienna.

That’s because, in addition to doing their own thing, the Toyota designers have shamelessly copied everything that customers like on competitors’ minivans, and even reproduced some luxury-car features.

Then they tacked that all onto a new van that — from a features and accommodations standpoint — accelerates ahead of the pack. Thus far, Toyota hasn’t been a major purveyor of minivans. Its first offering in 1984 — called the HiAce in foreign markets — was a small van based on a Japanese panel truck. The second was the Previa, which was big enough but bucked the prevailing taste for V-6 engines and front-wheel drive. It had rear drive and a four-cylinder motor mounted amidships.

Then came the current Sienna, which has the V-6 and the front drive. But it’s smaller than mainstream vans such as the Honda Odyssey, Dodge Grand Caravan and Ford Windstar. Not surprisingly, its sales lagged. All that changes with the 2004 Sienna. With 174 cubic feet of passenger accommodations and 44 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third seats, it’s marginally roomier inside than the Odyssey and now offers the biggest interior of any minivan.

Toyota’s chief engineer, Yuji Yokoya, went on an odyssey of his own. He traveled 53,000 miles through each of the 48 contiguous states, as well as Canada and Mexico, seeking ideas for the 2004 Sienna. Then he and his colleagues went ahead and incorporated them.

If somebody else already had the idea, Mr. Yokoya and his team were not deterred by pride. They simply copied the feature and, in some cases, improved on it. For example, a popular attribute of the Honda Odyssey is the third seat, which folds into the floor. The new Sienna has the same thing, except that it’s split, so you can fold three-fifths, two-fifths or all of the third seat.

Other stuff on the new Sienna, some optional, that came up first on competitors’ vehicles:

• Power sliding side doors, factory-installed DVD navigation and rear-entertainment systems, folding tray table between the front seats, side-to-side adjustable second-row seats: Honda Odyssey.

• Power rear hatch, all-wheel drive, three-zone climate control, center console that can be installed between the front or second-row seats: Town & Country and other Chrysler Group minivans.

• Power windows in the sliding side doors: Mazda MPV.

• Inside center-mounted convex “conversation mirror” for checking up on the children in back: Ford Windstar.

• Side-curtain air bags, automatic-interval cruise control, rearview monitoring with navigation system, retractable sun shades for side windows: Assorted luxury cars such as Mercedes-Benz, Infiniti and Audi.

But it wasn’t all imitation. The Toyota designers came up with a few wrinkles of their own. One is a center seat in the second row, on eight-passenger models, that is equipped for a child seat and slides forward as much as 13 inches to bump up against the front seats so parents seated there can minister to the little one.

The 2004 Sienna comes in four versions: the CE, LE, XLE and XLE Limited. There’s even a ramp conversion for wheelchair-bound drivers. All get Toyota’s 3.3-liter V-6 engine, which delivers 230 horsepower to the front wheels through a five-speed automatic transmission with the shifter mounted high on the center console.

According to Toyota, the combination is good for a zero to 60 acceleration time of a whiff over eight seconds, with a fuel-economy rating of 19 miles to the gallon in the city and 27 on the highway.

The base CE has a suggested sticker price of $23,575. That covers a decent level of equipment, including power windows and mirrors, remote locking, dual-zone air conditioning, a six-speaker stereo with CD player, seven- or eight-passenger seating, the “conversation mirror” and anti-lock brakes.

But you have to make do without alloy wheels, power side doors, cruise control and many of the other amenities that modern buyers take for granted.

Of course, there’s a long list of options, most of which get added as you move up through the model lineup. The top-of-the-line Limited gets leather upholstery, traction control, the laser-assisted automatic cruise control, sonar parking-assist warning system, a sunroof, side sunshades, heated seats and a high-output stereo with six-disc CD changer. Add all-wheel drive and the Sienna gets up to $37,440.

Driving any Sienna is relaxed and uneventful. Like its major competitors, and even better in some respects, it handles like a competent sedan, with little feeling of bulkiness.

Moreover, the Toyota designers have done an admirable job of rooting out unwanted engine and outside noises.

The insulation is such that a passenger in the third row can have a conversation with the driver at highway speeds without shouting.


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