Unless you've been living under a floor mat for the last six months, you know times have been tough for Toyota.
Global recalls, congressional hearings and public apologies have created an onerous climate in which to introduce a completely redesigned vehicle. Yet that is what the company is doing with the introduction of the 2011 Sienna minivan, which is trickling into dealerships now.
This version is a nearly bow-to-stern makeover of Toyota's family hauler, and it's a good one. True, there's no disguising a minivan as anything else. But if you have to drive a vehicle with such an inescapable social stigma, you might as well do it in one that looks good.
And the Sienna does.
While the previous Sienna was a mash-up that looked like Toyota forgot to style the exterior until the eleventh hour, the 2011 version has some pizzazz to it. The van's horizontal symmetry is clean and handsome. Every model comes standard with alloy wheels and LED taillights.
Inside, the dashboard is functional without being utilitarian in the base models (Sienna, LE) and sophisticated without being congested on the higher-end models (XLE, Limited). Radio and climate controls are well laid-out and intuitive.
Speaking of seats, Toyota's engineers got clever with theirs. The removable middle seats on all Siennas now slide on a nearly 2-foot-long track. Have an attention-hungry (or just plain hungry) toddler sitting behind you? Slide the seat all the way forward to reach her while you stay seated up front. A leggy soccer player more interested in a nap than a shower? Slide the seat all the way back. (Maybe roll down the windows on the sliding doors too.)
Seating for eight passengers is available only with the LE, SE and XLE trim lines. Toyota achieves this by adding an impossibly narrow seat (think celery stalk) that can be wedged between the two captain's chairs in the middle row. Stick a normal-size adult in this seat and you might have trouble extricating him. Kids only please.
Passengers in the rear seats will notice one of the Sienna's biggest shortcomings. Any contact with the plastic panels that make up the interior of the vehicle reveals them to be surprisingly thin, cheap and poorly held in place.
The best place to sit is the driver's seat. Maybe I stayed in the garage too long with the engine running, but this thing is actually enjoyable to drive. Those of you waiting for the "for a minivan" qualifier better pull up a chair. It's not coming.
It's the result of a three-pronged effort by the transmission, the electric power steering and either of the two available engines.
The V-6 engine is basically the same one that's been in the Sienna for a couple of years, and it carries plenty of punch. The 3.5L, 266-horsepower, 245-pound-feet unit with VVT-i is smooth off the line, emits a pleasing purr upon acceleration and allows the Sienna to tow up to 3,500 pounds of diapers and water wings. It's optional on the Sienna and LE and standard on SE, XLE and Limited.
If fuel economy is more important to you than towing or drag racing other parents, consider the four-cylinder engine available with the Sienna and LE trim lines. This 2.7L inline unit puts out 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet, and Toyota expects it to get around 19/26 mpg. While the four-cylinder's acceleration and sound is no match for its V-6 brethren, it's certainly capable of moving the Sienna around town and even on the highway, especially with the help of the six-speed transmission. Its biggest draw will undoubtedly be the price advantage. The base Sienna with the four-cylinder starts at $24,260, with the LE heading out the door for $25,345.
New this year is Sienna's six-speed automatic transmission with manual mode. It's simultaneously crisp and tranquil and is well-mated to either engine. A lusty rendezvous with some curvy Malibu hills demonstrated the unit's intelligence at both upshifts and downshifts, as there was rarely a difference between what the driver wanted and what the transmission had chosen. The additional gear also yields a bump in gas mileage for the V-6, with an estimated 18/24 versus the previous model's 17/23.
Also new to the 2011 Sienna is the electric power steering, which is standard on all models. It's wonderfully smooth, light and balanced and you don't feel like Columbus coming about at the helm of the Santa Maria every time you execute a K-turn.
On the heavy end of the pricing spectrum is the Limited model, which starts at $38,500 and can top out at more than $48,000 with the fully-loaded AWD model. Yes, that's a lot of clams for a minivan. Yes, I do know what else you can buy for nearly $50,000. Yes, that's an expletive-eliciting price for a glorified shuttle bus full of crayons and B.O.