- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2006

There is no shortage of minivan choices out there. The competition in this segment is every bit as fierce as it is among midsize sedans or full-size pickup trucks. Each new innovation such as power-operated side doors or fold-flat seats gives a manufacturer a dominating market advantage, propelling the rest of the pack into a manic frenzy of catch up.

No other vehicle segment is as sensitive to this game of one-upmanship as minivans. Comfort and convenience are the reasons the public continues to buy them and any advantage in either makes a huge marketing difference.

The redesign of the Toyota Sienna in 2004, ensured its rank among the segment front-runners. While its 3.3-liter V-6 is not among the more powerful in the segment and transforming the area behind the front seats into cargo-carrying mode isn’t the most user-friendly system, Sienna has compensated for these shortcomings with a luxurious interior populated with leading-edge standard features and options. It comes in four trim levels: CE, LE, XLE and XLE Limited.

As with most of its product, Toyota makes no apologies for Sienna’s $24,380. The CE is nicely equipped with front and rear air conditioning, power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, audio system with CD player and ABS. Pricing ranges upward to the all-wheel-drive XLE Limited at $38,685. It is crammed full of high-end standard features such as auto-dimming heated outboard mirrors with turn signals and power fold, power-adjustable front seats with memory, leather seating, 10-speaker JBL audio system with six-disc CD changer, power sliding side doors and lift gate, and power moon roof. Buyers of the top-end Sienna can spend even more on options such as the Limited Package 1($1,780) featuring a rear-seat DVD entertainment system with two sets of wireless headphones and two 115-volt power outlets.

With the proper mindset, a Sienna buyer can cross the $40,000 threshold without breaking a sweat.

Generating 215 horsepower, the Sienna’s powerplant falls short of the 240-horsepower V-6 in the Nissan Quest and the 244-horsepower V-6 in Honda’s Odyssey; however, it is more productive than the 200-horsepower V-6 of Mazda’s MPV and the Pontiac Montana V-6’s 201 ponies.

The Sienna accelerates with alacrity. Its V-6 is smooth and quiet. A five-speed automatic transmission disperses engine output to either the front wheels or all the wheels when appropriately equipped.

The AWD system available on the LE, XLE and XLE Limited is transparent, requiring no driver input. It doesn’t feature a 4-Lo setting, so it is engineered more for foul weather than off-pavement duties. Well within segment averages, the FWD Sienna has an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 19 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the highway.

Other than the funky positioning of the shift lever protruding from the center of the dashboard, from behind the wheel it would be easy to confuse Sienna’s driving experience with the Avalon.

The ride is very sedanlike, thanks to a four-wheel independent suspension tuned for ride quality. The steering is responsive and the handling is decent for a minivan.

Most Siennas have disc brakes up front and drums in the rear with ABS, electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist.

The XLE Limited and all AWD versions add disc brakes to the rear wheels. The upgrade includes vehicle stability control and traction control. This is an option on other trim levels that requires paying for a package with nonrelated features. The premium in the CE is $1,345 and in the LE $1,915.

Sienna’s interior styling and comfort is where it really racks up serious points. Highly functional, beautifully styled and packed with convenience, the passenger space is what sells this Toyota. A logical arrangement of gauges and controls buoyed by quality construction and impressive noise insulation make the Sienna a great place to spend 10 minutes or 10 hours.

Designed for extended trips, the seats are well cushioned and supportive. Visibility in all directions is uninhibited.

Versions equipped with the power sliding doors and hatchback define convenience. It is an exceptionally appealing package. Toyota made the front-seat side-impact air bags and the three-row side-curtain air bags standard for 2006.

The only real interior caveat is the dated middle-row seats that must be physically removed from the minivan to utilize the entire cargo floor.

Once spoiled by the convenience of, say, Chrysler’s Stow ‘n Go seating system, anything else seems positively archaic. While Sienna’s rear 60/40 split seat tumbles into the floor, the second-row seats must be manhandled out of the vehicle.

They are rather heavy and re-installing them is an exercise in patience that would bring someone in charge of watching paint dry to tears.

With the rear seat folded into the floor and the second-row seats removed, though, a full 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood — the cargo-carrying standard — fits inside the cargo bay with the rear lift gate closed.

Taking its place among the high-end minivans, Sienna provides plenty of luxury, comfort and peace of mind.

It may cost a bit more than some competitors, but it offers Toyota’s reputation for bullet-proof reliability.

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