By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Here’s something that bucks the trend: The 2013 Toyota Sienna minivan is no longer available with a four-cylinder engine.
The formerly optional V-6 is now standard in all trims.
It’s interesting because across the industry, automakers are divesting themselves of gas-hungry V-6 and V-8s like Waffen SS soldiers ditched their uniforms back in May of ’45 — on account of political incorrectness and (in the case of bigger engines) the looming need to pass snuff with the new 35.5 MPG fuel economy mandate that goes into effect beginning with model year 2016 vehicles.
In theory, the Sienna’s formerly available 2.7 liter four ought to be an asset, efficiency-wise. In actual real-world fact, its MPGs (19 city, 24 highway) were virtually the same as the now-standard V-6’s (17 city, 23 highway). The problem wasn’t with the four cylinder engine — an engine that does deliver good economy in other Toyota models. It’s just too small to deal with a bus like the Sienna — which even in FWD form weighs in at a qaudruple Oprah-esque 4,275 lbs.
The downside is the otherwise-unchanged 2013 Sienna is about $1,400 more to start: $26,435 vs. $25,060 last year.
But on the upside, the Sienna still offers all-wheel-drive, a feature that’s no longer offered in other traditional minivans. And the price uptick notwithstanding, it’s still a deal relative to its principal rivals, the $28,575 to start (and front-wheel-drive only) Honda Odyssey — and the also front-drive-only (and $29,995) Chrysler Town & Country.
Also, it can take as many as eight — which the recently redesigned Nissan Quest can’t.
WHAT IT IS
The Sienna is a full-size, traditional minivan. It’s available in either 7 or 8 passenger seating configurations — and with or without AWD.
Base price for the seven passenger, front-drive LE is $26,435. The eight-passenger LE version of the Sienna starts at $29,985.
A top-of-the-line AWD Limited has an MSRP of $41,325.
Toyota also sells a “mobility access” version of the Sienna designed to accommodate handicapped users. Base price for this version is $30,185.
The big news for 2013 is standard V-6 power across the board. Base LE trims also now come standard with three-zone climate control while Limited and XLE trims get a Blind Spot Warning system as part of their standard equipment packages. Limited and XLE trims can be equipped with an optional accoustic glass windshield that helps reduce wind noise at speed.
Still a deal relative to Odyssey and T&C.
Full-size (eight-passenger) capacity.
Available just about everything (including a split-screen LCD DVD entertainment system).
Traditionally high resale value.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Higher price of entry.
Almost SUV fuel economy.
It’s a bus.
UNDER THE HOOD
Now that the 2.7 liter four has been retired, all Siennas come standard with the 3.5 liter V-6 that was formerly optional in the lower trims. It’s the same engine as last year, making 266 hp — which is still more than the Honda Odyssey’s standard 248 hp 3.5 liter V-6 and also edges out the Nissan’s Quest 260 hp 3.5 liter V-6. The recently redesigned Chrysler Town & Country’s class-leading 283 hp 3.6 liter V-6 is the most powerful — on paper — of all current minivans engines. But wait a minute for the scoop on that.
The Sienna’s V-6 is paired with a standard six-speed automatic, which has a manual shift “sport” mode.
Buyers can choose either FWD or go with a full-time AWD system — a feature not offered in any other minivan currently on the market.
This is a pretty quick bus, too: Zero to 60 in about 7.8 seconds with FWD. That’s best-in-class.
Honda’s Odyssey can almost match that performance — but only if you buy the extra-cost six-speed automatic. The 2013 Odyssey still comes standard with a five-speed automatic — and when saddled with that transmission, the Odyssey’s 0-60 time climbs to 8.8 seconds. Right behind it is the Nissan Quest, probably hobbled somewhat by its standard continuously variable (CVT) automatic — which is there for fuel economy reasons more than any other reason — including acceleration.
Interestingly, the most powerful-on-paper of these vans, the Chrysler T&C — which also has the benefit of a standard six-speed automatic — is also a bit of a slow-mo. It needs 8.3 seconds to get to 60. This is interesting given the Chrysler’s only just slightly heavier than the much quicker Toyota: 4,371 lbs. vs. 4,275 lbs. Something doesn’t quite add up. Maybe Toyota is under-rating the output of the Sienna’s V-6.
Or perhaps Chrysler’s exaggerating the output of its V-6.
The Chrysler van also has the widest turning circle of the bunch — by a not-small margin: 39.1 feet vs. 37.4 for the Toyota, 36.7 for the Honda and 36.1 for the Nissan.
Gas mileage-wise, the Sienna comes out ok — relative to all the others, which are all gas-guzzlers: It posts 18 city, 25 highway for the FWD version and and 17 city, 23 highway when equipped with the optional AWD system.
Chrysler’s T&C with the standard 3.6 liter V-6 registers 17 city, 25 highway. The ’13 Honda Odyssey with its standard 3.5 liter V-6 and five-speed automatic comes in at 18 city, 27 highway. The Quest gets 19/24.
Though these numbers are a bit better than the Toyota’s, the truth is they all suck.
ON THE ROAD
Time gives perspective — and appreciation — for the engineering Great Leaps Forward made over the past 25 years. The first-generation minivans of the early-mid 1980s (the Chrysler vans) were basically compact-sized economy cars (K-cars) with a box bolted on top of them. They felt cheap, they looked cheap — and they drove cheap. They had just enough power to get where you needed to go — and you weren’t going to have a good time getting there. There was not much to like about them except their cheapness — and their practicality as family-mobiles.
A modern minivan like the Sienna is a completely different animal. It is huge — and ingot-solid. Powerful, quiet and luxurious, too.
Even the formerly available four cylinder was making about as much horsepower as mass-market V-8s were back in the 1980s.
And the V-6 belts out more hp than a V-8 Corvette was putting down back around ’85.
That’s how far — and fast — we’ve come in 25-something years.
Rolling stock provides another barometer of the changes. Even the base model FWD Sienna LE comes standard with 17 inch alloy wheels and if you want, you can order a Sport package that ups that to 19 inches. This minivan offers a more aggressive wheel-tire package than a mid-’80s Corvette!
Of course, stamped steel 16 inch wheels and low-cost all-season tires would seem like the right choice for a utilitarian family-hauler. But minivans like the Sienna and its main rivals aren’t basic transpo family-mobiles anymore. Haven’t been for years. They’re more like custom conversion vans were back in the day: As much for adults touring as for kids hauling. In fact, the buyer demographic for vans like the Sienna has shifted. The typical buyer is older — and more affluent. More likely, in fact, to be an affluent empty-nester and so less worried about how many juice box holders the thing has than what the resolution of the DVD entertainment system is.
People who buy these things expect more — so Toyota gives them more.
The Sienna is big.
200.2 inches long and 78.1 inches wide. It rides on a 119.3 inch wheelbase — two inches longer than a Lincoln Town Car’s. The Sienna’s two chief competitors are similarly plus-sized. The Chrysler T&C is actually two inches longer overall and rides on a Rolls-Royce-like 121.2 inch wheelbase.
But despite its size, the Sienna is very manageable to drive. It doesn’t feel as big as it really is — probably because most of the length is behind you. There’s only about three feet of Sienna from the windshield forward. The front end is very stubby — and that makes it easier to judge how much of a margin you’ve got available during parking maneuvers. The “one-finger” electric power steering helps with close-quarters docking maneuvers, too.
As mentioned above, the Sienna has also has a pretty tight turning circle — nearly two feet tighter than the T&C’s.
So, it’s bulk notwithstanding, the Sienna is — usually — an easy driver.
The Sienna’s Large Marge proportions only become hard not to notice when you’re backing up — and when you slide the thing into your garage. The rearview is pretty occluded due to the high seatbacks and relatively small rear glass area. It’s like peering through a tunnel, with daylight far, far away. The back-up camera helps, but it’s too small, has limited peripheral view and it’s two-D nature is just not as helpful as the three-D perspective provided by a human eye. So, be careful when backing-up — and also when easing it into the garage. The Sienna eats up about as much space as a full-sized SUV.
Speaking of which: The Sienna’s 17 city, 23 highway (with AWD) is exactly the same as the V-6 4WD Jeep Grand Cherokee — and only a smidgen better than the V-8 version of the Grand Cherokee (13 city, 20 highway).
That’s a hungry, hungry hippo!
Back in the day (’80s) K-car based minivans were capable of 35 MPG on the highway — or even better than that. I expect those days to return as a result of Uncle’s 35.5 MPG fuel economy fatwa. Vans like the Sienna are going on a diet. Either in terms of their curb weight — or their hp. They’ll likely get smaller — and slower. Just like the good ol’ days. Either that or they’ll stay as they are — except for price. They’ll become high-dollar, low volume vehicles, which will allow them to not depress their respective manufacturer’s CAFE numbers (which are based on “fleet averages”) so much. Just as I expect will happen with V-8 SUVs.
All these big hawgs are going away — or going to be for rich folks only.
AT THE CURB
Well, it’s a minivan. What are you gonna do?
Even though several major car companies — Ford and GM — have entirely dropped traditional minivans from their product portfolios, they weren’t dropped because the concept is unsound. The GM and Ford vans were just crappy vans. The Sienna isn’t (neither is the Odyssey — or the new Quest). Sure, it’s basically a family bus. But it can also be a luxury bus, if you move up the trim line.
The standard Sienna is family-ready as it sits: Dual sliding doors, three-zone AC/heat, power windows, locks, cruise control and a better-than-decent AM/FM stereo with CD player and MP3 hook-up. At about $26.5k, sticker, this version of the Sienna is affordable compared with the Odyssey, Chrysler T&C and even the much-touted value leader in this segment, the Kia Sedona — which is priced about the same but which is also an older design that looks — and feels — more Blue Light Special than the upmarket, uptown Sienna. (The Sedona’s getting ready to wide the white canoe, too. Kia announced recently that 2012 will be the final year for this model.)
And for a minivan, it’s not a bad looker. In fact, if you look at it from a certain angle (like above) you’ll see at least a few interesting angles — more like sweeps and scallops, actually.
It’s trying, at least.
But what makes the new Sienna really shine is that you can upgrade to eight-passenger seating, order AWD (both unavailable in the otherwise appealing and affordably priced Quest) toss in some very nice luxury/convenience features on top of that — and still come in well below the pushing $40k (and over $40k) price of an equivalently fitted-out but still FWD-only Odyssey or T&C.
There are some other things to note about the Sienna, too.
One is the available SE Sport package — which in addition to huge 19 inch wheels also includes a snarkier-looking front clip with fog lights, clear plastic tail-lights and mesh grille inserts. The package gives would-be Odyssey and T&C buyers another Sienna “plus” they can’t find in the Honda and Chrysler vans.
You can also get a pair of super-nice second row captain’s chairs in the Sienna that have their own fold-out footrests — just like your favorite TV-watching chair at home. These ride in long-travel tracks that allow the chairs to be pushed back so far that you can’t touch the backs of the front seats with your feet. On Limited trims, the third row seats power fold themselves into the floor at the touch of a button.
And there’s that factory Mobility/Access package which preps the Sienna to handle a wheelchair or scooter.
The optional rear-seat DVD system has an unusual (maybe unique) and definitely useful split screen display monitor that lets users watch two different things at the same time. You can order Lexus-esque features such as rain-sensing wipers and Adaptive Cruise Control that automatically adjust the Sienna’s following speed in relation to the ebb and flow of traffic, keeps it from going faster than your dialed-in speed when going down a steep grade — and so on.
The Chrysler T&C and Odyssey also offer similar high-end luxury amenities, but they cost more when comparably equipped — and remember: AWD isn’t available in those two at any price.
Sienna wins on cargo space, too: 150 cubic feet (with the second row seats out and the third row folded) vs. 148.5 in the Honda and — surprisingly — 143.8 in the T&C. That’s surprising, because the T&C is physically a little bigger than both the Sienna and the Odyssey. Another surprise is how little space you get in the new Nissan Quest — which is also larger overall than the Sienna (200.8 inches, stem to stern, vs. 200.2) but which has much less cargo capacity: a mere 108.4 cubic feet.
It’s odd that Nissan upsized the Quest — ostensibly to make it more competitive with the Sienna, Odyssey and T&C — but ended up with a van that’s still a lot smaller on the inside. On top of that, the new Quest has lost its formerly sporty personality. Well, its sportier-than-other-vans personality. Now it’s just a big van with less space than other big vans.
It’s strange that — so far — no one has built a hybrid minivan. The platform — and mission — would seem to be ideal. Here you have a large vehicle (plenty of room for batteries/motors) that’s generally used for lower-speed, A to B driving. Vans make for great taxis, too. People who buy vans are probably more concerned about gas mileage than performance — or at least, they’re probably as concerned as people who buy crossover SUVs — of which there a dozen hybrid versions currently on the market.
But so far — nothing. Other than heavy gas bills.
A diesel engine would seem like the ticket, too. But again, no joy.
Something — anything — to crutch the god-awful gas mileage of these things. Even leaving aside the CAFE issue. I mean, if you get to have a rumbly V-8 truck or SUV or muscle car — and the ability to lay down a pair of stripes on the pavement whenever the urge arises — then maybe 17 MPGs isn’t so bad.
But 17 MPG in a . . . minivan?
That’s my main beef with the Sienna — with all of them. For what they are — and what they’re for — they’re far too hungry.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Its appetite aside, the Sienna still holds a winning hand: Eight-passenger capacity – and available AWD. If you’ve got to have those things, then the Sienna’s the van you’ve got to have.