Pros: Appealing design, refined ride, excellent use of space, plenty of room.
Cons: Option packages are expensive and confusing. No spare tire on the AWD version.
I can make excuses...
Like I was having an out-of-body experience when I actually said "We have a deal" to the salesman, so I it really wasn't "me"...
Or that, viewing it from a distance (and in heavy fog) it appeared to be an SUV...
But when it came right down to it, something I swore I would never do became a reality. I bought a ... gag ... minivan.
Now before you all start your chants of "Say it ain't so, John... Say it ain't so..." allow me to at least explain myself...
3 years ago, after the birth of my son (our second child) I went out and purchased a Toyota Highlander SUV (See: http://www.epinions.com/content_104646872708) It was (and is) a great car for a growing family. Perfectly sized for two adults and two kids strapped into their car seats, with plenty of cargo space and room to grow.
But the moment my wife told me she was pregnant with our third child during the 2004 Christmas season, I knew things were going to change in more ways than one.
Instantly, before we even had time to celebrate, I remember walking out to the Highlander, opening up the back doors and peering into the tightly arranged back seat with its two car seat arrangement.
"Going to be tight getting another car seat in there..." I thought to myself.
Fast-forward nine months later, our daughter Emma was born and it was time to make a decision. Fight to get 3 cars seats into the Highlander or just cave and buy something more convenient.
I didn't cave. I refused. I held up to my manhood (figuratively, not literally...) and reiterated my war cry: "No Minivans!"
And so I squeezed in the 3 cars seats and all was good in the world...at least, for a short while.
But when you're driving around with 3 kids under 5 years of age all strapped far to close to each other, things tend to happen.
Like the screaming "He touched me!"
And the slapping "She hit me!"
And the pinching "Someone pinched me!"
And the moaning "Will you guys PLEASE be quiet back there!"
And the crying...
So after an especially grueling drive on Mother's day, I decided enough was enough. I'd start to entertain the idea of a bigger 'car'.
It didn't take long for my wife to start dropping the 'Minivan' word all over the place...and leaving newspaper ads with sales prices on Sienna's and Odyssey's here and there.
Swallowing hard one day, I began my research on many vehicles; SUVs, full-sized sedans and, yes, Minivans. It didn't take long until I realized that the most practical solution from a variety of angles and based on our needs was to ... it's hard to even say it now ... buy a Minivan.
Once I was relegated to this unavoidable fact, I focused my attention on which Minivan would grace (I use that term oh so lightly) our garage...
Right off the bat, the Toyota Sienna and the Honda Odyssey were the top choices. Both are critically acclaimed, both offer loads of options and configurations, and both come with a fairly hefty price tag.
After reading and re-reading reviews of both, most of which picked the Odyssey as the slight winner over the Sienna for the 2006 model year, I decided to test drive both of them.
They were remarkably similar in their size, handling, acceleration and braking attributes, but the Sienna felt more refined and was noticeably quieter at highway speeds. Further, only the Sienna offers an AWD version and the interior details of the Sienna were a little more pleasing to the eye. That, coupled with the renowned Toyota dependability and incentives sealed the deal.
The Toyota Sienna would be the first (and I swear, the LAST) Minivan I would purchase.
But lets get to the Minivan itself now, shall we? This is, after all, supposed to be a review on the car, not my loss of pride.
There are many things I like about the 2006 Sienna.
First, while there's no denying that this is, indeed, a minivan when you look at it, it does have some atypical curves and angles that give it a somewhat sporty look and feel. However this generation of Sienna's which were introduced a couple years back have, in my opinion, had a poorly designed and aesthetically unappealing front ends. Fortunately the '06 model has made some nice improvements on the looks of both the front end and rear tailgate.
The standard 3.3L 24-valve V6 engine is as powerful as it is refined. It effortlessly moves the nearly 2-ton Sienna with ease and, on the AWD version that I ended up purchasing, it seems to evenly control each of the wheels under normal conditions. I'll wait for this winter to see how well it does in the snow.
On the inside, the Sienna really shines. Available in 7-seat and 8-seat configurations across 3 rows, the Sienna should easily meet the needs of most families. On the 7-seat version that we purchased, the driver and front-passenger sit in nicely detailed and very comfortable bucket seats. The middle row in the 7-seat configuration are also bucket seats (or captain chairs as they are sometimes referred to). These seats can be folded forward to allow for additional cargo room, or they can be removed altogether. Further, they can be repositioned to allow for a center aisle to the back row, or a side aisle. The final row is made up of a 3-person bench seat with a 60/40 split down feature. What's great about the third row is not only the ability of the seats to fold down in the 60/40 configuration, but that they fold flat into the floor of the Sienna - allowing for some great storage room.
But with all the seats fully utilized and in their upright position, the Sienna still offers a very large cargo area behind the third-row. It's more than enough room to fit a folded 2-child stroller or a ton of groceries.
But there is a payoff for all of this room. The size of the Sienna, which is comparable to the Honda Odyssey, is huge. Measuring in at 200 inches long by 77.5 inches wide by 68.9 inches high, this van is hardly 'mini'. Despite its size, and as mentioned above, the Sienna behaves very much like a well refined sedan which made the transition from Highlander to Sienna a nearly effortless one.
Though due to its width, it's a bit of a chore parking it in a garage with a standard sized one-car garage door. You'll have just 4 inches of total clearance so be prepared to fold in the side-view mirrors when pulling her in.
The dash board and instrument cluster are very appealing on the LE and XLE versions, with a more pedestrian version available in the base CE version. Controls on the steering wheel come in handy as the arm reach to get to the radio and climate controls on the center-dash is a bit far. More than once I found myself pulling (or pushing) the Sienna to the right as I reached to change the climate settings or to load a CD in the stereo, so make use of any steering-wheel based controls if you have them.
Another nice feature of the Sienna is the plethora of cup holders and storage areas. There are two - yes, two - glove boxes, storage bins all over the place and, at last count, 16 cup holders. Further conveniences include power-opening doors rear (one of the LE version, three including the tailgate on the XLE versions).
An important option which became standard for the 2006 model year is full front, side and curtain airbags for all three rows. This, coupled with the standard antilock breaking system and available traction and stability control systems makes the Sienna unquestionably one of the safest minivans available from any car maker. And, yes, crash test results are extremely impressive as well.
The Sienna, which comes in three trim lines; CE (base), LE and XLE and two drive-trains; Front-Wheel Drive or All-time All Wheel Drive also offers up a host of varying options. From several different stereo options which include an in-dash 6 or 10 CD system, to on-board navigation, rear-DVD players, back up sensors and front-loaded sonar sensors, this Sienna will sufficiently appease the gadget geek in all of us.
But it's this point that I found some issues with the Sienna. Yes, you can get one with a nice assortment of bells and whistles, but none of the features are available ala carte. One of Toyota's failings is its decision to bundle options together in confusing ... and expensive ... option packages. Want a rear DVD? You'll have to get traction control, stability control and a 10-speaker stereo. Want leather? Let's throw in a host of other features. So while a base Sienna can start around a very reasonably $21,000, a fully loaded model easily approaches a staggering $40,000. While I realize that having accessory options is better for the manufacturer, the cost of all the features you don't want, but need to get in order to get the features you do want adds incredible expense to the buyer.
That being the case, I was careful to identify things we wanted in the van and things we could live without. Cross referencing those items on the Toyota website to see which option packages satisfied all our needs, and then finding a Sienna with those options, in a color we liked and in our area was another chore. But in the end it all worked out.
Another issue I have is directed at the AWD version that we purchased. It comes with Run-Flat tires which are extremely expensive to replace, deceptive to use and wear out quickly. The reason the AWD version comes with run-flats is simple; there's no spare tire. With all the room the Sienna has to offer, I'm a bit dismayed that they couldn't sacrifice something to allow for a donut-spare. In the non-AWD versions, the spare sits underneath and behind the passenger seat - on the outside of the van. The AWD drivetrain and replacement of the exhaust system prevents this configuration. I may just go buy a small donut spare that's rated for the Sienna and opt away from the run-flats when the time comes.
In closing, as Minivans go, the Sienna is clearly a winner. It offers intelligent design, nice styling, a myriad of options and configurations and, most importantly, exceptional safety.
I truly never expected to own a minivan in my lifetime, but having little choice, I couldn't see owning anything other than a Sienna.
Of course, to offset the 'Minivan' I'm now shopping for a Corvette. Just don't tell my wife.
Thanks, as always, for reading.