- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 19, 2003

During America’s ongoing love affair with the SUV, the lowly minivan has been largely forgotten — except as the butt of a few jokes about its lack of “cool.” And it’s a shame. Because, as the all-new 2004 Toyota Sienna minivan demonstrates, the minivan is still the best family companion on the road.

No disrespect to the plethora of family-friendly, cargo-roomy, safety-minded SUVs on the market. But the Sienna, with improved handling, best-in-class 0-to-60 time, upgraded styling, reconfigurable seating and top-notch crash-test performance, has shaped up to be a real hot ticket.

For starters, the Sienna is now a real all-American. All but 10 percent of its components are from North American suppliers, and this personal van is being built on an all-new assembly line in Indiana. The second generation of the Japanese automaker’s family hauler was even born on American soil, with most of its development taking place in Michigan and California.

Sienna comes in four trim levels: the basic CE starts at $22,995 and comes with a long list of features including anti-lock brake system, a single CD player, 16-inch wheels, 10 cupholders (with four bottle holders), 12-volt power outlets, power windows and available eight-passenger seating. Next up is the LE at $24,260, which adds a roof rack, power heated outside mirrors, cruise control, steering wheel-integrated audio controls, upgraded fabric and a fold-flat front passenger seat.

XLE starts at $28,260 and has alloy wheels, power sliding side doors and rear door, leather-wrapped steering wheel, three-zone climate control and rear seat audio system, 300-watt stereo, overhead information console with Homelink, power adjustable driver’s seat, fog lamps and faux wood-grain trim.

The high-end XLE Limited ($34,480), overdoses on the interior “wood” trim, but includes a lot of extras: rear disc brakes, traction control, leather trim, front and rear parking assist, power moonroof, heated front seats and curtain air bags over all three rows of seats.

All models come standard in front-wheel drive with front disc/rear drum brakes (except Limited, which has rear discs also).

LE, XLE and Limited models can be ordered with all-wheel drive, which adds daytime running lights, traction control 17-inch wheels and rear disc brakes.

On the outside, improvements to the Sienna’s exterior are clear. First and foremost, it is bigger than its predecessor, with a 119.3-inch wheelbase that is more than 5 inches longer than the previous generation.

Its overall length is increased by nearly 6 inches and is also wider by about 4 inches. Sienna now competes in stature with Honda’s Odyssey and the Dodge Grand Caravan.

Styling is improved as well. Taking cues from the Matrix multiutility vehicle that Toyota introduced last year, the minivan has a curved beltline and windows that narrow slightly from front to rear.

The front end is snipped and modern-looking, with slanted headlamps and a sharply raked windshield.

The rear end is your basic bubble-shaped liftback with large horizontal taillamps and a prominent bumper.

It’s no sports coupe, but it is a perfectly fine minivan design.

Toyota’s latest van is equipped with an all-new 3.3-liter, 230-horsepower V-6 that packs a lot more wallop than the previous 3.0-liter engine. Its five-speed automatic transmission is all-new, as well; both transmission and engine are shared with the Sienna’s luxury cousin, the RX330.

Peak horsepower is achieved at 5,600 rpm, while the full 242 foot-pounds of torque is accessible at 3,600 revolutions.

Not that anyone would test this on the way to dropping off youngsters at school, of course, but its 0-60 time is 8.4 seconds. Fuel economy is 19/27 miles per gallon city/highway for front-wheel drive models; 18/24 mpg city/highway with all-wheel drive.

Inside, where it counts, there is room for seven or eight passengers (depending on the model) to sit very comfortably. Best-in-class cargo room is behind the third row of seats and the van has the most passenger volume overall in its class.

Reconfigurable seating makes the most of this space: seven-passenger vans have a second row of captain’s chairs that can be pushed together or kept apart.

Eight-passenger models have a second-row bench that splits and folds three ways, including a middle seat that can be pushed between front seats for better accessibility to infants in their child seats.

On all models, the third row of seats is a 60/40 split that can be folded flat into the floor or split and stowed, leaving room for cargo as well as room for seating.

Second-row seats also are removable, giving Sienna a load floor that any home-improvement buff or antique furniture shopper would love.

Handy interior features include a center console with removable tray table, numerous nooks, crannies and tie-downs for stowing a wide variety of goods, a convex flip-down roof-mounted front seat mirror for monitoring back-seat activity and optional DVD naviga- tion/entertainment system with rearview camera.

The cabin is quiet and peaceful thanks to an improved chassis designed to reduce noise and vibration.

Its suspension is supportive without being too tight or too loose, and steering is improved, with a turning radius reduced by three feet over the previous generation.

Sienna is set to score high in government crash testing; Toyota confidently anticipates best-in-class performance in that department.

Four-wheel ABS with brake assist and EBD is standard, as are driver and front passenger air bags.

Side bags are available. Seven-passenger models include four child seat ISOFIX tethers; eight-passenger vans have five. Run-flat tires are standard on all AWD models.

Overall, Sienna doesn’t best its SUV stablemates in style, and the “cool factor” will forever haunt the minivan.

But the overall convenience, comfort and carrying capacity of this all-new offering make it a great choice.

Toyota has given us an all-American minivan-next-door that any family could fall in love with.

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