By Mark Maynard
Minivans are warhorses hitched to nonstop lifestyles.
There is no vehicle better configured to comfortably carry people and cargo. Yet, these humble machines have wrongly come to represent the driver’s identity: “I drive a minivan, therefore I have no life.”
Actually, the minivan driver is so full of life that it takes a van to carry it all.
When a family signs on for one of these, it is for a life chapter: kids, dogs, school carpool, and, yes, they are ideal for transporting the team to soccer and other events.
Secretly, I expect, most owners enjoy driving them. At least I do when I’m testing one. There is room to spread out and get comfortable, everybody has a good view with cup holders, lights, armrests and plug-ins for every type of electronic entertainment device.
I’ve recently spent time in a Dodge Grand Caravan SXT and the 2011 Toyota Sienna LE.
Because the minivan is an invention of North American needs, the Dodge is easy to like for its flip-fold, stash, stow and plug-in capacities. It has home-away-from-home accommodation.
If only it were as refined, quiet and quick as the new Sienna, which was not among the Toyotas recalled for unintended acceleration.
This is the third generation of Sienna, which launched in 1997. Each generation has brought more refinement and functional features. The 2011 model drives like a car, not a seven-passenger transport vehicle. I enjoyed the well-boosted power steering and its handy turning circle — 37.9 feet — gives an advantage in parking lots.
Where the Dodge Caravan wallows around corners, the Sienna is tight and smooth, which is always good to help settle sensitive stomachs.
Toyota seems to be covering all price ranges and preferences with the new model, which is sold in five trim levels, a choice of four-cylinder or V-6 engines and front- or all-wheel drive.
Pricing ranges from $25,060 for the base Sienna with 187-horsepower, four-cylinder engine to $39,770 for the Sienna Limited all-wheel-drive V-6 and up to almost $46,000 with the Premium option package.
And in a desperate reach to appeal to those (men) who won’t resist the minivan image, there is a sport-tuned and sculpted SE model. For $31,550, it adds side skirting, smoked headlights and taillights, 19-inch alloy wheels and a lower ride height. Inside, there is special instrumentation, colors and trim.
Mazda tried a sporty van model several years ago and gave up. Minivans are many things, but, as my mother said, “No matter how thin you slice it, it’s still baloney.”
Styled in Southern California, Sienna is not a bad-looking minivan. It’s just not baaad. There is much depth and detail to the angles and lines, which met and matched perfectly on the test vehicle. That’s a testament to the factory at Princeton, Ind. But in the end, it’s a minivan.
Chrysler gave up on trying to style cool with dabs of makeup and made a square, functional box. By folding the second- and third-row seats flat into the floor, the Grand Caravan will carry a sheet of plywood — the universal test unit for the American minivan. The Sienna cargo area has the 4-foot width, but not the length to carry plywood, even with the seats removed.
I tested a Sienna LE V-6, which has a base price of $29,700 and was $30,429 with a few options. The standard equipment is notable, including dual power-sliding doors, eight-way power driver seat with power lumbar support, rear window sunshades and a full array of connectivity, such as MP3 CD audio system with XM satellite radio (subscription required), auxiliary audio jack, USB port with iPod connectivity, and hands-free Bluetooth phone and streaming music with steering wheel audio controls.
The V-6 power is stunningly quick. Fuel economy ratings are 18 mpg city and 25 highway on 87 octane. The six-speed transmission was always on point to be in the right gear for power and efficiency. Braking was strong and secure.
Not available on the LE is a power-folding third row or a power tailgate. That keeps the price point lower for young families on a tight budget, but I’m of the mind that if I have to drive a minivan, I want the deluxe treatment. Power features can pose a maintenance issue down the road, but they are welcome devices that act as third arms for busy parents. If in doubt, get the extended warranty.
The sliding second row and tilt-fold function works cleanly, but it takes some muscle. So does folding the third row into the floor and then unfolding. Only the top-line Limited has a power third row.
The interior design puts some flair into the styling of the instrument panel, but some controls seemed placed too far toward the center — but within easy reach of the front passenger, which may be intended. The standard rearview camera is small and in a cove at the center of the dashboard top. Upgrading to the navigation system also adds a bigger, more centrally located camera screen.
Of course, there are more cup holders and storage space than anybody can use. Tri-zone air conditioning puts fan and temp controls in the second row.
Interior colors are limited to light gray or bisque (light tan) in “Easy Clean” fabric or leather. The gray plastic and gray fabric in the test vehicle was monotonous, and the light color also seemed prone to showing dirt and grime very quickly. Minivan interiors need to have dirt-disguising colors and patterns — with fabrics and materials that are easy to clean.
You will like this minivan if you want to disguise the minivan experience. You won’t like it if you want to use it as a part-time pickup truck and carry things that are 8-feet long.
2011 Toyota Sienna LE
Body style: front- or all-wheel drive, seven- to eight-passenger minivan
Engine: aluminum, DOHC, 265-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6
Transmission: six-speed automatic with manual shifting
EPA fuel economy estimates: 18 mpg city, 24 highway; 87 octane recommended
Fuel capacity: 20 gallons
Tow capacity: 3,500 pounds
Cargo space: 39.1 cubic feet behind third row
Front head/leg/shoulder room: 41/40.5/65 inches
Length/width/wheelbase: 200.2/78.2/119.3 inches
Curb weight: 4.365 pounds
Turning circle: 36.9 feet (37.3 AWD)
Tow capacity: 3,500 pounds with prep package
Standard equipment includes: remote keyless entry, projector-beam headlights with auto off, power sliding side doors with power windows, privacy glass, roof rails, 17-inch alloy wheels on all-season tires (run flats on AWD), rear bumper protector.
Safety features include: seven air bags (including driver’s knee air bag), enhanced stability control, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, brake assist, electronic brake-force distribution.
LE base: $29,700, including $800 freight charge; price as tested $30,429
Options on test vehicle: towing prep package $220; roof rack cross bars $185; carpeted floor mat/door sill protector $324
Where assembled: Princeton, Ind.
Mark Maynard is driving in cyberspace at Mark.Maynard@uniontrib.com.
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