I grew up in the '90s, which meant I rode around in a minivan a lot. Now, this wasn't a fancy van with rear-seat A/C vents or anything nice. Instead, it was just the typical Dodge Caravan released after Chrysler figured out that putting doors on either side of a van would result in a massive increase in sales.
It was a glorious thing, though. Plenty of room for everyone, and I could stretch out in the third row and listen to music on my Walkman whilst ignoring the rest of the world. And that third row was easy to access because the doors were huge, and there was plenty of space for (a kid) to get around.
Behind that third row was a lot of cargo space, and even more could be acquired by removing the third row entirely (and the second row too, if you needed to relocate a small town for some reason).
That brings us back to the Toyota Sienna, my test van this week. If I were a parent, this would be at the very top of my shopping list, far above comparable SUVs and crossovers. And this new Sienna is even better because it has Toyota's terrific hybrid system installed.
The system is derived from more than two decades of hybrid experience with the Prius and delivers around 36 MPG in all drive modes. That's impressive in any vehicle these days, never mind an enormous minivan that weighs close to 4,800 pounds.
The driving experience is unremarkable, which is precisely what you want in a minivan. It's comfortable. It's roomy. There are power sliding doors and a kick-open rear liftgate. It can tow 3,500 pounds, and there's an optional power inverter so you can plug stuff into a 1,500-watt 120V home power outlet.
The interior has clearly been designed by a company that knows its target market well. Everything has been built for long-term durability, and things seem to have been improved from the prior generation. It's not a revolution by any means. Why mess with success? But it's a solid evolution of what already worked exceptionally well.
The exterior design is much improved, inspired by the iconic Shinkansen bullet train in Japan to, according to Toyota, "appear sleek, speedy and confident." It still looks like a van, but it has curves and nips and tucks that... well, I wouldn't call it exciting, but it's nice-looking.
I asked a friend who has owned a Sienna for the better part of a decade for his thoughts, and he said, "they're not cool, but they're great." This is exactly right, and the perfect summation of the Sienna and the whole crop of minivans available today.
If you have a family and want the most pleasurable vehicle to own, a minivan is a terrific choice whether you opt for the Odyssey, Chrysler Pacifica, or the Sienna.
Toyota is one of the best carmakers when it comes to including standard safety features, and that's true with the Sienna too. The Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 platform has all the essentials, including automatic emergency braking, full-speed adaptive cruise control, lane departure assist, automatic high beams, and blind-spot monitoring.
There's also a new Rear Seat Reminder feature that notes when the rear doors are opened and will prompt drivers with a reminder to check the rear seats for passengers. It's an easy fix for the very real problem of children forgotten in cars that every parent says they'd never do, but it still somehow happens occasionally.
There's also a built-in PA system called Driver Easy Speak that allows the driver to have the voice of God, or that of a fed-up mother, boomed to disruptive rear-seat passengers to quell any disturbances.
It's also worth noting that the hybrid Sienna has an all-wheel-drive option, critical for buyers in colder climes. The system is an "electric on-demand," meaning there's an electric motor (powered by the hybrid battery) that drives the rear wheels when needed.
The Sienna starts at $35,635, though my fully-loaded Platinum trim priced out to $54,138, so there are more than a few options depending on your needs. Want a moonroof or fancier stereo or an ultra-fancy reclining second-row with a built-in ottoman? Toyota has it for you.
I don't know why folks who grew up riding in minivans don't want to drive minivans themselves, but here we are. People will willingly buy an SUV or crossover that is objectively worse for their needs because they're concerned about how their vehicle looks to the outside world. So please, if you have kids, at least consider a minivan.
One Cool Detail: Understated hybridness
We’ve reached the point where a car being a hybrid isn’t a major selling point anymore, it’s simply a feature.
The extent of Toyota’s hybrid branding is this label on the back, next to the trim level (XLE or Platinum, etc). I’m thrilled with this development.
It means whether folks explicitly want a hybrid or just want a nice minivan with good gas mileage, they can do it without needing to advertise it to the world. And a minivan probably should be subtle, don’t you think?
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