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Life With Toyota’s Sienna

by Ron CoganDecember 2, 2021
The Swiss Army Knife of mobility, the minivan was a family staple before its legions of buyers began moving on to trendy and more exciting SUVs. Now there’s a resurgence as advanced features and style are making minivans cool again.

Toyota’s Sienna minivan is a winner…literally. Introduced as an all-new generation last year, the Sienna has continued into the 2022 model year with few changes other than the notable addition of an adventure-focused Woodland Edition, because honestly, no changes were needed. Sienna is a standout, distinguished as Green Car Journal’s 2021 Family Green Car of the Year™ in its launch year with a back-to-back win as 2022 Family Green Car of the Year™ this year. Green Car Journal had the opportunity to live with the Sienna over the course of a long-term test and found this vehicle indispensable for daily activities.

A look back at the van field’s interesting history lends some perspective on the Sienna’s accomplishment. Green Car Journal editors have a long relationship with vans, from the very beginning of the custom van era in the 1970s to the introduction of the minivan in 1984, then onward as the van field evolved. Stylistically, vans were often boxes on wheels since their mission was function rather than form. Full-size vans were made for work, though many found alternative lives as wild customs or camper vans over the years.

Compared to full-size vans, minivans have a more streamlined purpose. Since the minivan’s introduction, its job has been to conveniently transport families for whatever need, from everyday trips to school, weekend games, or the supermarket to long-distance road trips and quick-weekend getaways. Offering versatile two- or three-row seating to provide options for families of all sizes, minivans also deliver a comfortable riding experience since they feature passenger car-like unibody construction.

While changing exterior designs have been explored over the years and there were some notably futuristic-looking ones that didn’t catch on, most minivans have been predictably straightforward. Their makers focused on elements like family-friendly features, loads of seating, and convenient pass-through access between the seats so parents could tend to the needs of their small passengers in the second or third rows. Designers didn’t devote a lot of attention to soul-stirring style. Over time, families in increasing numbers moved on to sportier SUVs.

Segue ahead and you’ll see how things have changed, with this change no more striking than the image presented by Toyota’s fourth-generation Sienna minivan. Toyota designers aimed high, giving the all-new minivan crisply-chiseled features with well-placed angles and curves, along the way creating a shape and a feel that’s pleasingly aggressive, sporty, and sophisticated for a minivan.

At the front, a large signature grille is striking but not overdone, complemented by angled, wrap-around headlights and a hard-edged lower air dam with LED lights. This sculpted design continues along the sides with angled rocker panels and a distinctive shoulder line. At the rear, there’s an artful blending of curves and angles with a distinctive and integrated spoiler. Matte black accents and darkly-tinted windows add to the Sienna’s sporty persona.

Inside is a spacious and accommodating interior great for daily family duties or longer-distance cruising. The driver is treated to an 8-way adjustable seat with lumbar control while the passenger gets a 4-way adjustable seat. An array of pushbutton controls along the dash complement controls within the vehicle’s 9-inch infotainment touch screen, which is compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The instrument panel includes a 7-inch color multi-information display that shows hybrid system output and encourages efficiency driving. A whopping 14 cupholders are strategically placed throughout with eight accessible to the driver and passenger – two always present and visible in the center console, two beneath a lift-up console panel ahead of the gear shift, and two each in the driver and passenger doors.

All the latest safety and driver assist systems are provided with Toyota’s Safety Sense 2.0 suite of active safety features. Among these are dynamic radar cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assist, pre-collision system with pedestrian and low-light detection, lane trace assist, and road sign assist. Also included as standard equipment is Toyota’s Star Safety System offering brake assist and smart stop, enhanced stability control, traction control, and more.

Seating and storage configurations and options are impressive with seven or eight passenger seating available. Second row seats can slide forward and back or recline, with either folding forward to allow access to the third row through powered sliding doors at either side. Privacy screens lift up at each sliding side door window as needed. Rear air conditioning controls are conveniently located on a ceiling panel at the mid-row. While not in our tester, there’s the option for heated second row captain’s chairs with ottomans and super-long slide adjustment, a real luxury feature for minivans. Recognizing that today’s minivan passengers want to be connected, an array of mini-USB and other power ports are located strategically throughout the interior.

Stowing family gear and transporting requisite necessities from home improvement centers is easy. When additional seating isn’t needed, the third row can fold down for more stowage behind the second row, or fold forward vertically to offer storage on the seatback with a deep rear storage well in the floor behind. For large or bulky items, Sienna’s second and third row seats can fold to deliver a flat load floor from behind the front seats to the rear liftgate.

The Sienna is a joy to drive. It’s quiet, offers confident handling, and all the power you need courtesy of its Toyota Hybrid System II powerplant that integrates a 2.5-liter engine and a pair of electric motors energized by a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack. This 243 horsepower hybrid system, the exclusive powertrain in the Sienna, connects to a constantly variable transmission with sequential shift mode. This delivers an EPA estimated 36 combined mpg in front-wheel drive Siennas, dropping slightly to 35 combined mpg on electronic all-wheel drive models. Three driving modes – Normal, Eco, and Sport – are driver selectable to tailer the driving experience.

This power enables additional functionality like the Sienna’s ability to tow up to 3500 pounds when equipped with an available tow hitch. Also available is a factory optional 120-volt AC outlet and 1500 watt inverter for power at campsites or other uses.

Our thousands of miles behind the wheel of the Toyota Sienna illustrated that this is no mere minivan. Sienna is a champion of family transport, a minivan presented in the guise of a long and low – and might we say quite stylish – luxury sedan that happens to feature three-row seating and a pair of power sliding side doors. Not once did we feel our sporting image challenged during our drives . In fact, along our travels we received many compliments on the Sienna's styling and also its distinctive Sunset Bronze Mica exterior.

In the not-so-distant past, if you were driving a minivan of any kind then you pretty much felt like you were driving…a minivan. Your role was clear: parent, family man, soccer mom, a person whose identity was defined by responsibility and not by your cool or sporty nature. Remember that time-worn adage, “You are what you drive?” By that measure, every time we carved a crisp turn, drove in welcome comfort, monitored our impressive mpg, or pulled up to any venue in our stylish Sienna we were driving in high style and feeling mighty sporty, indeed.