2011 Sienna puts sexy back in van

So what do you think of the new Sienna? Will it finally sway you into the minivan camp? A quick glance is all it takes to see styling influences, from its own Camry sedan to various Lexus products, the grille is broad and blunt, headlight clusters long, lean and shapely, and sporty front fascia with its deep lower grille opening and round fog lamps, a nice look that’s clean and uncluttered. Down the sides there’s no escaping its minivan persona, but from the rear it should be combined with the new Venza for an IDEA (Industrial Design Excellence Award). Really, its LED taillights and the sheetmetal that surround them take automotive styling to new heights. The Venza is drop-dead gorgeous from the tail end, however the new Sienna is not only attractive, but the way Toyota’s design team sculpted the D-pillar is truly artistic. Yes, I can read your mail in my inbox now… Trevor, you’ve really got to get out more often! True, I couldn’t agree more. A few trips to my local art gallery might have me reconsidering my verbiage here, but just the same let’s give credit where credit is due. This is a really fabulous looking taillight treatment that combines with some truly graceful creases and cut lines to form what is easily the best looking rear end design in the minivan segment, and the intelligent way Toyota has hidden the high-mounted rear wiper should be noted too. Overall the van’s elegant shape combines for a Cd of 0.306, impressive for this class.

Inside, the design is equally fresh and modern, although Toyota might want to make sure it has secured branding rights to use Puma’s trademarked stripe across its dash panel. Hey, that’s what its trim embellishment looked like to me when I first climbed in, made even more apparent in the photos Toyota supplied since. Overall it looks good, enough so that most buyers won’t mind that Toyota has dropped its soft-touch plastic dash and door trim for the less appealing stuff, but the grains are nice and fit and finish excellent. The seats are very good, which is always the case with Toyota products, and those in the second can enjoy especially comfortable lounge buckets with first-in-class integrated extending ottomans, mimicking the ottoman in Lexus’ top-line LS 460 L and 600h L models, plus the widest of widescreen entertainment monitor’s ever offered as an OEM option… a full sixteen point four inches of dual view LCD happiness.

Back in the driver’s seat, the new 2011 Sienna should be familiar territory for current Toyota minivan owners, in that it’s set up similarly from an ergonomic standpoint. The Steering wheel buttons are new and look intuitively placed, while stalk controls are situated identically and the gear shift lever continues to be set up high on the centre stack, just below the radio controls or beautifully detailed optional nav system and right next to a creatively designed automatic HVAC interface, within easy reach for quick shifts of its manual mode selector.

Yes, Toyota is really trying to make a point about its new Sienna. It’s not just for hauling kids, but for hauling its derriere down the highway no matter the curves that twist between you and your destination. I just gave back a 2010 model and it’s at least as good a performer as the Highlander, and the new 2011 will inherit the outgoing model’s fabulous 3.5-litre V6. In Sienna trim this engine makes the same 266hp at 6,200 rpm and 245 lb-ft of torque at 4,700 rpm that the current 2010 model makes, but the big mechanical change for 2011 is the adaptation of a 6-speed automatic, replacing the old 5-speed unit. This improves efficiency, of course, allowing a converted US imperial to metric EPA-estimated 13.1L/100km in the city and 9.8L/100km on the highway in front-wheel drive trim and 14.7L/100km in the city and 10.7 on the highway with all-wheel drive (take into account that these numbers will look less efficient than Canadian EnerGuide estimates because US EPA estimates are more realistic).

Yes, the Sienna remains the only minivan to offer all-wheel drive, a niche that separates it from the rest of the pack, while a new four-cylinder engine is another class exclusive (Mazda’s tiny 5, aside). When minivans began they were all powered by four-cylinder engines, and I was there working for a Toyota retailer in 1987 when the original Toyota Van was still being sold, a model that came out the same year Chrysler’s segment originator did, in 1984. Yes, Chrysler gets all the credit for being first, but it should be remembered that the minivan market exploded immediately thereafter with a competitive Toyota variant marketed as the “Wonderwagon,” plus a Nissan model that looked almost identical, but sold poorly and actually had so many problems due to fires of the larger engine installed for the North American market that the automaker had to buy many back! The latest version of this van, now called the Quest, has quietly slipped off of Nissan Canada’s retail site, incidentally. Ford came along two years later with its Aerostar and the minivan market was in full bloom. Still, it’s good to remember that Toyota was a close second into this segment within North America in 1984, and in 1987 with a four-wheel drive off-road capable version of its Van, selling well alongside the much revered, market-leading Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth Magic Wagons.

The new four-cylinder is 2.7 litres in displacement compared to the 2.0-litre original, and now makes a V6-like 187hp at 5,800 rpm and 186 lb-ft of torque. It’s the same engine that powers the new four-cylinder Highlander, and it works very well with this large and heavy crossover. It’s even got enough pull to tow a 1,588-kilo (3,500-lb) trailer, while without the extra baggage it’s good for the equivalent of an estimated 12.4L/100km in the city and 9.0 on the highway on the US EPA-cycle. This engine gets mated to the 6-speed auto too, making the most of its output.

Siennas have always been good in the corners, for this class at least, and this newest iteration should continue this tradition of athleticism. MacPherson struts can be found up front, whereas Electronic Power Steering (EPS) enhances the rack and pinion setup for what Toyota calls “smooth, linear steering feel.”

Handling in mind, Toyota has something special up its collective sleeve in April, two months after the regular 2011 Sienna starts showing up in dealerships in February. A special SE trim level can’t be compared to the SE of the past, in that this new one won’t merely offer a sporty badge with a few racy trim details. No, the new van will boast 19-inch six-spoke alloy rims plus a stiffer suspension and, get this, remapped transmission programming to add a little more flair, or should I say flare to the driving experience. It will include a unique grille treatment too, plus clear taillight lenses. Toyota hasn’t taxed its TRD division to supercharge the engine or added any other aftermarket upgrades to give it more clout off the line, but nevertheless the new van should be seen as a sign Toyota is serious about luring van buyers away from Honda’s Odyssey and Chrysler’s Town & Country, Dodge Grand Caravan duo.

And it’s the ideal van to give that customized look too. Not only does its styling deliver more sport per inch than any previous minivan, but it’s slightly wider, lower and a bit shorter than its predecessor, yet it rides on a modified version of the same architecture. Toyota will offer a wide variety of model choices, with base, LE, SE, XLE and Limited trim levels available for its US launch, while the all-wheel drive system will be available with the V6 models only, on LE, XLE and Limited models in the US. It can be configured for seven or eight occupants, depending on the centre row, while standard features will include cruise control, tri-zone air conditioning, a six-way-adjustable driver’s captain’s chair, power windows with auto up/down and jam protection, AM/FM CD audio system with four speakers, XM compatibility and an auxiliary jack, plus power door locks, remote keyless entry, etc. Toyota’s Star Safety System will include Anti-lock Brakes (ABS), Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), Brake Assist (BA), Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), and Traction Control (TRAC) will be standard across the line as well, while seven airbags, including a new driver’s side knee airbag and side-curtain bags for all three rows, come standard as well.

Optional features will include dual power-sliding side doors and a powered rear door, a power driver seat with power lumbar support, electrochromatic rearview mirror with Homelink, a backup camera, rear window sunshades, an upgraded stereo with USB port with iPod connectivity plus hands-free phone capability and music streaming via Bluetooth wireless technology and steering wheel audio controls. Other options will include leather-trimmed seats, a moonroof, heated front seats, a 10-speaker JBL premium sound system with voice-activated DVD Navigation and Panorama rear camera with integrated back-up guides, XM NavTraffic (subscription required), the aforementioned rear-seat Dual View Entertainment system, the second-row Lounge Seating mentioned earlier, a powered 60/40 Split & Stow third-row seat, front and rear parking sonar, a dual moonroof option, Smart Key proximity sensing remote access and push-button start, Toyota’s Safety Connect telematics system for communicating in case of an emergency via Automatic Collision Notification or by pushing an SOS button for roadside assistance, etc (think OnStar), HID auto high-beam headlamps, rain-sensing wipers, a Pre-Collision System (PCS) with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, and more.

Yes, the new 2011 Sienna will set new standards for the minivan class, and while it might still struggle to unseat Chrysler from its overall sales dominance it should nevertheless shake up the segment nicely when it becomes available in February of next year. Will it finally be the cool minivan we’ve all be waiting for? That’s highly unlikely, stigmas being what they are and crossovers still ruling the family hauling roost, but those in the know will continue to understand that there’s nothing cooler than total functionality, and the new Sienna has this in spades.