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Car Report

2011 Toyota Sienna

 

Since I am a thorough automotive reviewer (read: not all that mature), the first thing I do with a vehicle that I’m testing is floor the gas pedal. Time and time again the response this causes usually means that my second act is to slam on the brakes before bodily harm occurs. Times have a way of changing, though, and, because I know some of you are going to ask, I now find myself performing both of these actions at the same time.

That being the case, I can report first hand that if you do such a thing in the 2011 Toyota Sienna minivan it will come to a stop. In fact, even if you just press lightly on the brakes with the accelerator wide open it’ll still slow down. That’s because the Sienna is fitted with the kind of brake override system that will be coming soon to a Toyota near you. In short, if the car is faced with the above conflict of inputs, it will let the four wheel discs win every time. Better to be safe than stupid.

I will also note that if you shift the transmission into neutral while you are moving forward, it will go into neutral, and if you select reverse by accident it will also go into neutral, because that’s what modern automatic transmissions are designed to do.

Of course, since the Sienna has not been party to any of Toyota’s recent sudden unintended acceleration recalls, none of the above is particularly relevant, but I guess it’s good to know in case there’s another one.

Now that that’s over with, let’s get back to the part about flooring the gas.

The Sienna I tested was a nearly loaded, top of the line Limited model fitted with a 266 hp 3.5 liter V6 that’s not only the most powerful engine in the minivan class, but the most powerful engine in a minivan…ever.

The ostensible reason for this is that power of that magnitude comes in handy when you need to tote around eight people and the 3,500-pound trailer filled with all of their stuff. But when it’s just you, the Sienna, and a road literally named Mountain Road, well, you see how you can get in trouble even without any electronic gremlins involved.

But you don’t. The Sienna is currently the only minivan available with all-wheel-drive, it has a suspension that’s tuned to keep you from wallowing about like a tugboat in a storm, speed-sensitive power steering, and astonishingly effective stability control. It’s as hard to upset this rolling family reunion as it is to not get upset about having to drive other minivans over the river, through the woods, and down a sharp grade peppered with switchbacks.

Taking hairpins at “what are you thinking?!” speeds is met with fancy computerized footwork that keeps the Sienna dead center in the road, without impeding progress, much. You can feel the brakes at the four corners working independently, and sense the throttle adjusting itself, all to good effect. The first time I fully experienced this was honestly one of the most entertaining moments I have ever had behind the wheel. The sheer absurdity of such a big box going around a corner so quickly was a moment to savor.

And what a relatively sexy box it is. A quarter-century of tinkering has proven that there’s only so much you can do with the basic shape of a minivan, but the Sienna illustrates that little changes can make a big difference. A strong, blunt nose where a slope used to be, bulging sheetmetal replacing flat slabs on the sides, and taillights that look like someone actually put a some effort into designing them all add up to create an arguably attractive piece of machinery. The best compliment that you can pay a new car is that it renders the model it replaces lame by comparison. The Sienna achieves that. Yes, driving one still makes you look like a cougar in training, but that’s better than a soccer mom, right?

The interior overhaul is nearly as successful, and apes the asymmetrical design from Toyota’s Venza crossover, complete with its tree bark-textured plastic and plastic-textured faux wood trim.

All of the de rigueur minivan features are either included, or on the options list, including a third row that folds flat into the floor, remote opening rear doors, and a deep, sliding front center console. The most unique items are second row ‘lounge’ chairs that not only recline, but also have La-Z-Boy-style footrests.

So positioned, the chairs offer an excellent vantage point from where to view the single, ultra wide monitor for the DVD system, which can be split to display two inputs a the same time. Why? Because it’s neat, and probably because one big screen is cheaper to make than two small ones, but since packages that include it start a $2,819, any savings don’t seem to be passed on to the consumer. Oddly, a traditional dual monitor system is also available for $1999.

The JBL brand stereo that comes standard in the Limited does as much good to the interior of the car as the driving dynamics do to the rest of it. Turned up to maximum volume, the 10-speakers fill every corner of the Sienna with the crystal clearest sound you ever heard this side of the club you wouldn’t want to be seen pulling up to in it.

The touch-screen infotainment system that controls it could use some work. The menus are a little clumsy, and not helped by the long reach needed to operate them from the driver’s seat. It does have streaming Bluetooth audio, and an iPod connection, but the integration is not fantastic and voice commands are limited. The navigation system is more impressive, even if live traffic is the only high-tech extra.

If frugality is more of what you’re looking for, you can pick up a base front-wheel-drive Sienna with a 187 hp four-cylinder engine for $24,260, but since it gets nearly the same fuel economy as a front-wheel-drive V6 – 19/24 mpg vs 18/24 mpg – the extra $1,240 for the bigger motor seems like money well spent.

Then again, for those of you who have lost all perspective on life, there is an SE model that has a somewhat aggressive body kit, 19-inch rims, and an even tighter suspension for $30,550. Making a minivan that goes fast and handles well is a good thing, making a blatant sport version is just wrong. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to trying one out, but only because I’m thorough.

Unfortunately, I did encounter one electronic issue during my week with the Sienna. After pulling up in front of grandma and grandpa’s house to pick up my son, I got out of the car, closed the door, and was met with a loud and incessant beeping sound. I pressed all of the buttons on the key fob, opened and closed the doors, and even hit the start/stop button a few times…nothing. Then I noticed that when I parked I’d left the dashboard-mounted transmission selector in Drive. Apparently the car was telling me that I was the one having a malfunction, and it never moved an inch while it did.

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2011 Toyota Sienna Limited 3.5L AWD

Base Price: $39,770

As Tested: $44,919

Type: 7-passenger, front-engine, five-door, all-wheel-drive minivan

Engine: 3.5L V6

Power: 266 hp, 245 lb-ft

Transmission: six-speed automatic

MPG: 16 city/22 hwy