Minivans, once the king of the middle-school playground, have been overthrown by larger crossovers like the Chevrolet Traverse, Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander. Still, with almost 500,000 sales annually, there's a solid market for the ultimate family haulers. Minivans make a lot of sense for families on the go. They maximize passenger and cargo space with the "box on wheels" design and favor ride comfort and fuel economy over performance.
While the Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Pacifica grab the lion's share of minivan sales month-over month, the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna quietly rack up about than 100,000 buyers each annually. The only other player in the field is the Kia Sedona, which notches about 16,000 sales.
For its part, the Sienna has been around in its current guise since 2011. It shares engine, chassis and under-the-skin components with Toyota's Highlander. Sienna offers seating for 7 or 8 passsengers -- depending on trim -- and is offered with front- or all-wheel drive. Changes for 2019 are minimal and include the addition of available all-wheel drive on the SE model and the integration of Amazon Alexa and Apple Car Play into the infotainment system.
Five trim levels are offered: L, LE, SE, XLE and Limited. The SE, XLE and Limited are also offered with a Premium package. Two seating configurations are offered. Seven-passenger models have twin second-row captain's chairs while 8-passenger models get a three-place second-row bench. Prices range from low $30s to $45,000 on the Limited Premium.
All Siennas are powered by a 3.5-liter V6 engine that makes 295 horsepower and 263 pounds-feet of torque. The engine pairs with an 8-speed automatic transmission. Front-wheel drive is standard on all models. All-wheel drive, a class exclusive for Sienna, is available on the SE, XLE and Limited. Towing capacity is 3500 pounds.
Toyota Safety Sense is standard across the board. It includes pre-collision warning, lane-departure alert, brake assist, stability control, automatic high beams and adaptive cruise control. Also available are blind-spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert.
Sienna's 3.5-liter V6 is a gem of an engine. It provides enough motivation to keep pace with fast moving traffic regardless of passenger load and is smooth and silent in all situations. With a 0 to 60 MPH time of less than 8 seconds, the engine provides solid low speed grunt and good passing punch. The 8-speed automatic goes mostly unnoticed, but can be hesitant to downshift in passing situations.
EPA estimates for the front-drive Sienna are 19 MPG city and 27 MPG highway. Those numbers are similar to others in the class. Note, all-wheel-drive versions see a slight drop in EPA numbers. In routine suburban commuting, Sienna is likely to average close to 22 MPG overall, perhaps 25 MPG if your commute includes some highway driving. The large 20-gallon fuel tank extendes Sienna's driving range beyond 400 miles per fill up.
It is important to note that Sienna is the only minivan to offer available all-wheel drive. Like most all-wheel-drive systems, it does not have a low range and is not intended to be used in severe off-road conditions. Still, it gives Sienna a notable leg up, especially if you occasionally have to trek off the beaten path.
The Sienna drives very much as you might expect, after all it is a large box on wheels that's intended to ride smoothly and run quietly. In general, the Sienna is softly sprung with lots of suspension travel to soak up pavement imperfections. That leads to a smooth ride that's only mildly interrupted by badly broken roads. At the same time, there's a bit more bouncing and bounding than some might like, but Sienna never loses its composure. Body roll can be a problem at times. Still, there's a small silver lining in SE trim with its slightly stiffer suspension and 18-inch rubber.
Steering effort is minimal and there's a lifeless and uninspired feel to the wheel. Yet, highway tracking is good and the steering is quick enough at parking speeds. A soft-feeling pedal masks solid brakes that provide good stopping power. Interior noise levels are appreciably low and there's a handy feature that boosts the driver's voice through the sound system to help rear-seat occupants hear conversations.
The true test of a minivan is on the inside and Sienna tries very hard to be as pleasing as possible. Interior trim and materials ratchet up from basic to luxurious as you climb the L to Limited. However, the design remains the same across trims. All of the hallmark minivan boxes are checked: upright driving position, excellent outward visibility and easy egress.
Drivers face a twin-dial setup from behind a meaty three-spoke steering wheel. Gauges are analog and simple to see, day or night. In typical minivan fashion, there's a wide array of buttons and knobs ranging across the dashboard. Overall the layout can be a bit confusing and takes some time to master. Especially frustrating are the seat heater and rear climate control switches.
It's clear that Toyota's a bit behind in the infotainment space with a small and slow-responding touch screen. The addition of Amazon Alexa and Apple Car play support is a step in the right direction, but until Toyota gives the Sienna dashboard a refresh, it will trail the newer Chrysler Pacifica and Honda Pilot in overall infotainment functionality.
The driver's seat is very chair like and the driving position is upright. That said, it is nicely bolstered and offers plenty of head and leg room. Unfortunately, the tilt-telescope steering wheel doesn't have much range, meaning that extra large or small driver's might be a bit uncomfortable.
Sienna can seat seven passengers, or eight via a detachable second-row jumpseat that can be stored in the cargo area when not in use. The second-row captain's chairs can slide fore or aft up to 23 inches to benefit passenger or cargo room. The second-row seat cushions can also tip up, so the seats can slide closer to the 1st row to benefit cargo space. Limiteds and AWD XLEs offer "Lounge Seating" second-row captain's chairs with reclining seatbacks and flip-up footrests. These seats do not include the tip-up-cushion feature or detachable jumpseat.
Comfort in the second-row is quite good, though taller folk might want a bit more head room. The third-row seat is best left to children, though two adults will find enough space to get comfortable if the second-row seats a pushed forward a bit. Getting into the third row is made easier by the sliding second row seats.
Minivans are all about versatility and the Sienna boasts ample cargo space. There's a deep well behind the third-row seats (a feature of all minivans) for daily use. The third-row folds into that well when not in use, creating a long and flat load floor. The second-row seats are removable to expand cargo space further. Interior storage abounds. There are twin glove boxes and the column-mounted shifter nicely opens up space in the center console.
Bottom Line - Discounting the mostly fleet Dodge Grand Caravan, Sienna is the oldest minivan design on the market. That's its biggest downfall. It lags behind competitors in overall interior functionality and in general road manners. Still, it has a great powertrain, is quiet and smooth riding and has an impeccable reputation for quality and reliability. Prices grow steep as you climb the trim ladder. The best bet might be the SE with its slightly firmer ride. All-wheel-drive is another Sienna advantage if you are so inclined.