Test Drive: 2015 Toyota Sienna SE

Tiny, Ontario – It’s the annual trip to a rented cottage with friends, and though the drive itself doesn’t usually surpass two hours, the headaches that result often do. And often the ultimate litmus test for the family vehicle, the one in which you decide you really need – or could use for such trips – a larger vehicle.

Granted, calling it the sportiest minivan is like crowning it Miss Congeniality in a jailhouse beauty pageant.

In years past, our two boys managed to find holes in a purposely laid wall of rolled up sleeping bags, structural pillows from the cargo area stacked to the roof, and football field-sized Costco muffin packs on previous one-week adventures. This despite an armful of individual devices to help keep them electronically sedated. With mid- to full-size SUVs theoretically large enough to comfortably accommodate a seven-day outing for two adults and two grade-school children, not being able to see out behind you becomes very tiring very quickly.

It’s also when back-up cameras become worth their weight in gold.

This year’s steed for the trip was the Toyota Sienna SE, and once again, the family marveled at how much more cargo room and people space a minivan provided compared to nearly every single other type of SUV or crossover on the market. And this one here just happens to be the sportiest of all minivans.

Granted, calling it the sportiest minivan is like crowning it Miss Congeniality in a jailhouse beauty pageant – even the nicest performing minivan places responsive dynamics well down the list of priorities. And so it was here, with a ride that heavily favoured cushy over all else, though the SE is the only Sienna to receive a sport-tuned suspension that drops its overall height by a modest five millimetres. But at least some degree of sportiness is on the list, which you can’t say for some minivans, or many crossovers/SUVs for that matter.

This particularly dashing SE model featured at least an attempt at a more sporting style, with its aggressively tapered lower body cladding all around, rear roof spoiler, and clear tail lamps bringing a more youthful vibe to the class. Pushing too hard to be cool? Perhaps, but any attempt at coolness in the minivan class is a bonus, where (some) folks pay big bucks for an integrated vacuum cleaner.

Interior updated for practicality, not style

On the other hand, once you climb into the seven- or eight-seat Toyota Sienna, the program is flipped mightily: flashy style takes a far back seat to plain-Jane practicality. Yes, the SE’s standard leather seats are nice and comfortable, but there’s not much here in the way of colour variation or immediately notable luxury, in part because this is the sportier SE model, or because the apparently less sleek woodgrain dash and cubby covers are only available on pricier Limited and XLE all-wheel-drive models.

The 2015 Regatta: Comparison Test: Honda Odyssey vs Kia Sedona vs Toyota Sienna

Speaking of all-wheel drive, it’s worth noting here that the Sienna is the only minivan to offer all-wheel drive anymore, so if that’s a feature important to you, the base LE AWD model starts at $37,125, or roughly $3,000 higher than the similarly equipped front-wheel-drive LE model, though the higher priced LE AWD does come standard with 18-inch wheels versus 17s, plus two captain’s chairs in the rear instead of the three-person bench seat.

Personally, I’d invest money in good winter tires and rims instead of all-wheel drive, unless I really needed the additional capability – say on slippery boat ramps in the summer, though front-wheel drive will usually put your drive wheels out of the mossy trouble spots regardless. Plus there will be a fuel consumption penalty all year long for the all-wheel drive system, but only a slight one with the winter tires, in cold weather where you’re likely to use more fuel regardless, and only for a season.

The official overall combined city and highway average rises from 12.4 L/100 km for the front-wheel drive Sienna to 13.1 for the more rare AWD model, according to the EPA. Compared to other minivans, the regular Sienna uses just barely less regular octane fuel than the market-leading Dodge Grand Caravan, significantly less than the new Kia Sedona, which averages 13.1 L/100 km, but notably more than the fuel efficiency minivan champion Honda Odyssey, at 11.2 L/100 km.

For comparison purposes, a seven-seat Toyota Highlander crossover equipped with front-wheel drive and the same V6 as the Sienna averages 11.8 L/100 km, with two tiny rear seats and significantly less cargo room. Plus it offers an even more efficient four-cylinder engine, though strangely its overall EPA average just matches that of the larger and heavier V6 Odyssey.

Functionality and technology oohs and ahhs

As one may expect on a $45,000 Toyota, there are some interesting toys to play with at this machine’s near luxury price, both from a functionality standpoint and technology-wise as well. You won’t have to raise your voice to make yourself heard to children sitting in the third row, thanks to the available Easy Speak system, which uses microphones up front to amplify the driver’s voice through the rear speakers.

This was especially useful with the second row captain’s chairs, because our two boys occasionally liked to bypass the empty rear seats, especially after we had moved them forward along their handy tracks, and head straight to the third row, keeping the second row seats as a parental buffer zone for more clandestine trouble-making. It’s still tough to hear any responses from folks back there, so it’s really more of a ‘warning amplifier’ than anything else.

Taking our boys with their friends to the park also drew wide admiration for the extra wide 16.4-inch screen that’s very likely wider and than the one in our kitchen. This BluRay/DVD player is the highlight of the available Technology package, a hefty $5,355 option. It gave each of them a pair of wireless headphones to watch their movie while us adults enjoyed our own choices in satellite and regular radio options.

Plus it also helped our youngest not stare at his device’s bouncing screen in his lap for long periods of time. For some reason, staring at a higher-mounted screen doesn’t seem to induce the stomach queasiness of a tablet or device screen, at least in his lap.

Safety always key, driving performance not so much

This Tech package also offered useful safety aids such as a blind spot monitor and rear cross traffic alerts, GPS navigation and a system that can read out texts and emails to you, though it never quite read out messages consistently in my 10 days with it.

On top of the full complement of side curtain airbags, front side and a driver’s knee airbag, the Sienna offers four ISOFIX child seat anchors, and separate high-seat anchors, to make sure there’s always plenty of safe ways to mount a child seat. The Sienna also received top marks for crash protection from both the IIHS and NHTSA.

No matter what the exterior looks like, few minivan buyers will choose their minivan based on performance, but the Sienna provided generally responsive if unexciting acceleration, combined with a similarly competent if unenthusiastic acceptance of highway ramp challenges. The body leans notably in corners, and all the weight of the Sienna means its response is a little laggardly from a stop, but its V6’s 266 hp and 245 lb-ft of torque move it along smartly for the most part once moving.

Zero to 100 km/h comes in at under eight seconds, which is fairly quick for a minivan. But dynamically, there are certainly more crossovers that provide similar acceleration and a lower, flatter stance in cornering for a similar amount of money.

That said, those crossovers won’t offer the Sienna’s easily disappearing third row seat, nor the 1,107 litres of space back there even with all seats in place. This expands to a lofty 2,466 litres with the third row stowed, but the second row seats don’t disappear into the floor, a magic trick that only the Dodge Grand Caravan accomplishes.

The Windsor-built Grand Caravan owns the minivan market, and its much higher sales volumes translate to much lower real-world prices at the dealer level. It’s very true that the Dodge can’t offer the refinement, reliability record, driving performance and good looks of the Toyota Sienna, which is right at the top of its class, especially in SE mode. But in the minivan market, one has to look at those two and the Honda Odyssey to truly pick the best deal according to their key priorities.

3 years/60,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 3 years/60,000 km roadside assistance

Chrysler Town & Country
Ford Flex
Honda Odyssey
Kia Sedona

2015 Toyota Sienna SE
articles_PricingType 2015 Toyota Sienna SE
Base Price $37,845
Optional Equipment Technology Package (wireless headphones, dual-screen rear seat entertainment, 16.4-inch overhead monitor, navigation, SMS-speech, EasySpeak, blind-spot monitor, rear cross traffic alert, smart key with power back door button, power moonroof) – $5,355
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,690
Price as Tested $45,023
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 6.8
8 Exterior Styling
4 Performance
7 Interior
9 Comfort
6 Fuel Economy