I remember when this third-generation 2011 Sienna was brand new, and in sporty SE trim it was the coolest minivan to ever hit the road.
I was on the press launch and specifically chose to focus on the SE after driving the majority of trims during the national launch program in early 2010, and soon after I tested a four-cylinder LE model at home (that engine since discontinued in the Sienna), another four-cylinder the following year in 2012 trim while visiting my daughter at her university on east coast, and after that a well-equipped 2012 XLE model at home, a 2013 LE V6 likewise, a 2014 Limited, the mid-cycle updated 2015 in LE AWD guise, and finally an XLE AWD version of the same vintage, so it felt good to get back in the Sienna saddle once again, this time in a Limited Premium AWD.
You may have noticed something about that list, of all the trims tested and reviewed I’ve only ever covered the top-line Limited model once before. Strange as that may be, it’s good to enjoy this van with all of its many splendored features, especially now that it’s no longer the newest minivan parked on America’s suburban cul-de-sac.
Seven years is a long time for any vehicle to remain fundamentally unchanged, even one that was as good as the Sienna when introduced. Certainly its extensive 2015 update helped breathe new life into the old gal, but compared to the new Chrysler Pacifica, introduced for 2017 to replace the aging Town and Country, the almost as impressive Kia Sedona that was updated for 2015, and the now available all-new 2018 Honda Odyssey, the Sienna is starting to show its age. Ok, it’s not aging as noticeably as the Dodge Grand Caravan (the launch of which I attended in the fall of 2007), but that model sells so cheaply and is so conveniently equipped with second-row seats that fold completely into the floor that it hardly matters how old it is.
Before delving into this top-line Limited Premium AWD model, the 2017 Sienna comes standard with a 3.5-liter V6, and can be had in either front-wheel or optional all-wheel drivetrains. In fact the Sienna is the only minivan offered with AWD, making it a favorite for cold Midwest winters.
The engine, which made a healthy 266 horsepower and 245 lb-ft of torque last year, gets bumped to 296 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque for 2017 thanks to a new D4-S direct-injection and port injection combination, not to mention a new lean-burn Atkinson cycle design that aids fuel efficiency. What’s more, Toyota added two gears to the standard automatic for a total of eight, which improves both performance and fuel economy.
The numbers you’re likely looking for are 19 mpg city, 27 highway and 22 combined for the FWD model, or 18 mpg city, 24 highway and 20 combined for the as-tested AWD version, making it the minivan segment’s most efficient non-hybrid competitor (the plug-in Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid gets a difficult to compare rating of 84 MPGe combined city/highway), and I should also add it’s most powerful.
Where the modifications under the hood modernize the powertrain, the changes for 2015 gave the Sienna a more upscale cabin with much better materials quality, especially in top-tier trims, with an additional focus on enhancing its infotainment systems to surpass the best in the class for the time. Now, three years later, its newer rivals are starting to outclass the Sienna in most every respect, powertrain aside.
Still it sells quite well, despite further being challenged by a $29,750 base window sticker that slots it into the upper echelons of the minivan pricing hierarchy, the Pacifica, Sedona and Grand Caravan available for less, its selling advantage being a reputation for reliability and a strong resale value.
Even that base model comes stocked with a higher level of standard features than most rivals, including 17-inch alloy wheels, power-adjustable side mirrors, variable intermittent wipers, cruise control, tri-zone auto climate control, high-resolution color touchscreen infotainment, a backup camera, Bluetooth phone connectivity with audio streaming, multiple USB ports, Siri Eyes-Free, second-row captain’s chairs, and the usual assortment of active and passive safety equipment.
On that last point, the current 2017 Sienna doesn’t offer the types of advanced driver assistance systems available in many other models across the Toyota lineup, but this will soon be remedied by the refreshed 2018 Sienna that will receive the brand’s Sense-P safety suite, including autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane departure warning and assist, the latter to forcefully push wayward drivers back onto their chosen course, all-speed adaptive cruise control, plus automatic high beams that automatically dim so as not to blind surround drivers at night.
The adoption of these features and changes to the frontal design should allow for a better IIHS rating, hopefully resulting in best-possible Top Safety Pick + status that’s already been achieved by the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica and new 2018 Honda Odyssey when upgraded to include optional front crash prevention equipment and specific headlights, while the 2017 Kia Sedona still does better than the current Sienna thanks to a lesser Top Safety Pick (minus the “+”) rating. As it is now, the 2017 Sienna only scores three out of six for front crash avoidance and mitigation, while it gets top “Good” marks for the moderate overlap front, side, roof strength, plus head restraints and seats crash tests. On the negative its small overlap front test on the driver’s side is merely “Acceptable” and on the passenger’s side remains untested. It also gets an “Acceptable” rating for the ease of use of its LATCH child seat anchors.
The base 2017 Sienna can manage seven occupants, although you can optimize the second-rung LE or the sportier SE with a second-row bench seat if you need room for eight, while that LE model gets a larger 7.0-inch infotainment touchscreen, satellite radio, eight-way powered front seats, power sliding side doors, and more.
Toyota will have to loan me an SE in order to get me to spend too much time going over its details (that’s a snub their way in hopes of snagging an SE tester, because it’s been way too long since they’ve put one on the fleet and it’s still among my favorite minivans), but suffice to say it features sporty 19-inch alloys, a specially tuned sport suspension (that’s a bit firmer), recalibrated (read sharper) steering, a really attractive aero body kit, a unique primary gauge package, and plenty more. With more aggressive styling coming for all 2018 trims, the renewed Sienna SE should be especially expressive.
Of note, like the base model the $36,110 2017 SE can only be had with FWD, AWD reserved for LE, XLE and Limited models. The EXL AWD, priced at $39,630, includes a unique silver painted grille, fog lamps, chrome door handles, sound deadening acoustic glass for the windshield, heated side mirrors, powered flip-out rear side windows, proximity-sensing keyless access with pushbutton ignition, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a 4.2-inch color multi-information display, woodgrain inlays on the dash, doors and center console, voice activation, SMS- and email-to-speech, navigation with detailed mapping, leather upholstery, heatable front seats, a powered moonroof, a powered rear liftgate, blindspot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and an anti-theft system.
Limited Premium AWD trim, which pushes the Sienna’s price up to $47,310 before freight and fees, adds HID headlamps with auto high beams, power-folding auto-dimming side mirrors with integrated turn signals, puddle lamps, and reverse tilt, a heatable steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, driver’s seat memory, a wide-angle backup camera, a 10-speaker JBL Synthesis audio system, a large 16.4-inch widescreen Blu-Ray rear entertainment system, household-style 120-volt power outlets, upgraded premium leather upholstery, a dual powered panoramic moonroof, plus front and rear parking sensors.
All of this premium kit comes in an interior that’s very nicely finished thanks to premium-level soft touch detailing across the leading edge of the dash top. And it’s not the usual pliable plastic either, but instead an upscale contrast-stitched padded leatherette for a really rich look and feel. There’s a similar application ahead of the front passenger, which actually doubles as the upper glove box kid. Just below that, and to the left of the steering column as well, is nice faux hardwood inlay that looks a lot better than it feels, this woodgrain also adorning the door panels and removable center console. Other premium touches include a leather-wrapped steering wheel with nice satin-silver trim, yet more silver trim throughout the interior, and some very impressive electronic interfaces.
The first sits between the backlit analog gauges, a full-color multi-information display controllable via a toggle switch on the right steering wheel spoke and a button at center. Just to the right, atop the center stack is Toyota’s superb infotainment interface that’s mostly a touchscreen, except for some nicely integrated glossy black dials for volume control and other functions. Just below is a well-organized climate control interface with large knobs that are easy to use with winter gloves, as well as a separate dial for rear temperature control. The heatable seat controls offer variable temperatures for ideal comfort, while the heatable steering wheel can be turned on by pressing a button within the row of controls to the left of the steering column. All in all the Sienna Limited Premium delivers a fairly luxurious experience, but it’s not the most premium-like in the class anymore.
While I’ve pointed out some of the current Sienna’s positives and negatives, it’s one of the better vans from a driving perspective, at least mostly. The aforementioned performance upgrades make it plenty capable off the line and more than adequate for passing big highway trucks quickly when the pullout lane wouldn’t have looked long enough in the previous model. The new eight-speed automatic is wonderfully smooth and fairly quick to downshift when needed, albeit take note it’s primary goal is fuel economy reduction so don’t expect Lexus F-like responsiveness.
Still, it’s sporty for a minivan, yet when getting heavier on the throttle for passing or going up a steep grade it remained in its higher rev range (between 3,500 to 4,500 rpm) for too long without kicking down, which certainly didn’t help with real-world fuel consumption. Strangely, this problem disappeared after the first half of my test week, after which the transmission was the epitome of smooth, making me question whether this was an anomaly. Still, it makes me concerned the new powertrain has an initial teething process to go through before it’s ready for prime time—why I almost never buy anything in its first year. On that note I look forward to testing this new gearbox in the 2018 model, with its first year behind it and the refresh refining its operation. What’s more, it’ll be interesting to see how Toyota optimizes it for sportier SE trim.
The SE advantage should be similar for handling, but again the Limited Premium AWD is no slouch around fast-paced corners thanks to a wide overall stance and well-sorted fully independent suspension, although the 235/55R18 Bridgestone Blizzak winters appropriately added to prepare for a possible early snowfall certainly weren’t as grippy as the stock all-seasons. Nevertheless, other than a greater propensity to understeer at the limit than it would otherwise, the van performed well when pushed harder than most post-teen drivers might dare, which makes it better than average for quickly coursing through a winding country road or trying to steer your way around a potential mishap.
Of course, while accidence avoidance capability should be considered with any vehicle purchase, most of us don’t push our family vehicles as hard as an auto journalist should for testing purposes. Therefore, the Sienna’s best dynamic asset is its excellent ride and superb visibility all around, both of which will help you arrive at your destination more refreshed than if piloting something more sport-oriented.
It’s wonderfully accommodating for passengers too, the seats comfortable at all positions with plenty of room for all sizes of adults or kids from front to back. Getting flexible with the available space, however, isn’t as easy as with the Dodge and Chrysler vans that offer the ability to fold their second-row seats completely into the floor. Instead, if wanting to maximize cargo capacity without fully removing the middle seats you can tilt and slide them forward against the front seatbacks, but this is still a half-measure that won’t allow transport of large furniture or building materials like 4×8 sheets of plywood or plasterboard. The second-row captain’s chairs aren’t overly large so they’re not too difficult to remove, but don’t even attempt it if your back is suspect or you’re not the most physical as they’re quite heavy. You’ll also need somewhere open, dry and secure to store them. When emptied out the Sienna provides an amazing amount of storage space measuring 150 cubic feet, while you can stow up to 87.1 cubic feet behind the second-row and 39.1 cubic feet in the very back with all seats upright.
If you don’t use your van for big jobs and aren’t looking for an opulent Lexus-like experience, I can recommend the Sienna Limited Premium AWD, although due to the transmission’s spotty performance I’d wait for a 2018 to see if they’ve ironed out any first-year jitters. As noted, the 2018 Sienna will get styling updates and some changes inside as well, so this top-line trim might even be more luxurious and refined. It should be equally comfortable and plenty reliable as well, while delivering the same strong performance, all positives that can’t be ignored when shopping for a new minivan.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press