With the arrival of our second child and the subsequent grandparent visits, we realized that our 5-person seating vehicle was no longer big enough. It was time to step it up to a bigger car, particularly for the need to transport people AND stuff all at the same time.
We considered the Honda Pilot (comes with third-row seating), Honda Odyssey, and Toyota Sienna. The Pilot mostly appealed to both my wife and I for hanging on to any semblance of still being exciting, fun people now well into our parenting years.
We test-drove all three as well. I'll mention, too, that we looked at the Toyota Highlander, which has an optional third row. The Highlander was too small for our needs, as it felt quite smaller than the Pilot inside.
By the time we looked at the numbers, we just couldn't justify spending many thousands more on the Honda vehicles, when the Toyota Sienna seemed only 1% less perfectly designed.
We purchased a 2006 Sienna LE model on December 29, 2006. At the time, Toyota was offering 0% interest for 60 months (0% vs. 6% is a savings of nearly $4,000 in interest over 5 years). The dealer also wanted to move its 2006 inventory prior to end of year. Our Sienna was $6,000 less than our best price on a comparable Odyssey, not to mention the 0% loan savings. Smokin'!
POWER AND PERFORMANCE
The 3.3 liter engine with 215 horsepower provides plenty of pep in this car with a five-speed automatic transmission. It's front-wheel drive (AWD is also optional, but not reviewed here). This is a far cry from the minivans of yesteryear. I saw specifications putting this car's 0-60mph time at near 8 seconds (comparable to the Honda). I was quite surprised at the zip contained in this van, and it likewise does extremely well on the highway. Push down the pedal when needing immediate power for passing, and the engine punches it. Its manual states that it can tow up to 3500 pounds (I'm still trying to convince my wife that the fine print on the Sienna paperwork requires us to buy a boat now). I've only tracked gas mileage on family trips (my wife is the one who drives the car around town), when cruising at 70mph delivered 24 mpg. Not bad!
THE DRIVING EXPERIENCE
The ride is relatively smooth. It's not as quiet and buttery-smooth as a nice sedan, but it's not as noisy or bouncy as an average SUV. At highway speeds, it does take a loud voice for the driver to talk with the third-row passengers. Handling feels surprisingly spritely for a car this size-- it takes turns much like an average car. Braking seems quite fine, coupled with the standard ABS on the LE. The transmission shifter lever isn't as carefully designed to be as intuitive as others I've used, as it requires the driver to watch which notch the lever falls into.
INTERIOR SEATING POSITION AND COMFORT
Our LE has the 8-passenger seating package. The 7-passenger seating has two captain chairs in the middle, and the same third row bench. We were hoping for the 7-passenger seating, but the dealer wanted to move other models. I find the front seats a bit better than adequate, but nothing terrific. The LE #2 (or higher) package comes with power adjustments. Though there is plenty of headroom for me (I'm 6'2"), it feels like the driver's seat doesn't move back far enough for me. I wish I had just a couple extra inches of leg room to be ideal. That said, I don't feel cramped. The middle-passenger seating is less comfortable in the 8-passenger set-up than in the 7-passenger arrangement. In the latter, the captain chairs are a little bit wider and have individual arm rests. In the former, there are three removable seats in the middle row, but the extra seat comes at the expense of losing a bit of width on each one. However, again, comfort is adequate but nothing amazing. The third row is a bit less cushioned than the other seats, as they can fold flat into the floor. The third row is adequately comfortable with enough space for adults (unlike some SUVs). The middle row seats can slide fore-and-aft for legroom adjusting. Because of the nice wide sliding doors and the middle seats flipping and folding all the way forward, it's relatively easy to get into any seat in the van... even for grandparents. For longer trips, it's nice that ALL seats in the car can recline. On the LE, rear privacy glass is standard.
This is where the WOW factor really enters the picture. With all three seating rows set up, there is still plenty of space behind the third seat for a stroller and a week of groceries from Costco. When the third row seats are up, there is a deep cargo well where the seats are stored when not needed-- I fit all the pieces of a full-size crib (including the long railing sides) all behind the third row seat-- WOW! When the third row seats are folded into the floor (and note, the third row is a 60/40 split, and they can independently be folded), the floor is flat from behind the second row all the way back to the tailgate... enough cargo room for a cross-country trip. For major hauling, the second row seats come out, but prepare to wrestle with them. I'm a 6'2" guy, and getting the second row seats out was no walk in the park, and then you have to be left in the garage-- they do not fold into the floor). If all that room isn't enough, a roof rack is standard on the LE model.
It's a minivan, no getting around it. My mother said to always say something nice so... next to a 1982 Ford Econoline van, the Sienna looks like one sweet ride.
The side mirrors are nice and big, remotely controlled on the driver's control panel. The interior mirror is fine. I've discovered that if the headrests are pulled up on the rear second and third seating rows, it really obstructs the driver's view out the rear window. Other than that, visibility is very good, particular given the slightly higher seating position than the average car.
GADGETS, GIZMOES, AND THE LITTLE THINGS
For lack of a better heading, it's worthwhile to point out many little things that Toyota built into this vehicle:
-Stereo controls on the steering wheel, cruise control, and flat eating/playing surface on fold-flat seat backs.
-There are very large powered up/down windows in the sliding side doors, for up to hurricane-force fresh air.
-The automatic sliding side door(s) is way handier than I ever would have thought. Many things activate it: a yank on the outside handle, a button on the remote, a button at the driver's panel, or a button inside the door. When arms are full, it's awesome. Additionally, our seven year old can open/close it on her own (whereas she might not have the strength to slide and latch a manual sliding door). There is a sensor on the door, in the event that something blocks its path.
-It's extremely easy to stash away the third row seats-- literally a few seconds, and it's done.
-Rear air control comes standard on the LE, which is handy for separate climate control in the front vs. rear.
-The dashboard is very easy to read in day or night.
-There are at least a dozen bottle/cup holders throughout the vehicle, and many other pockets and little storage areas too.
ONE SAFETY WARNING
The rear quarter windows (for the third row seating) are the "flip out" kind (i.e., the trailing edge of the window moves out 1-2 inches, and the leading edge is hinged). These windows are only controlled by the driver-- there is no window lever in the third row. Shortly after getting the car, my 7 year old was sitting in the third row. The rear quarter window was open. As we turned into the driveway, I closed the windows. Unbenownst to me, my daughter had her fingers stuck out in the small opening to feel the breeze. It gave her a heck of a pinch, enough to bruise her skin. Unlike normal up/down windows, there isn't enough warning to see those flip-out windows start to move. And unlike up/down windows that are far away from kids' fingers when almost closed (at the top), the flip-out window openings are right next to the seat. We now never use those windows.
The exterior was flawless. The interior feels high quality too.
REVIEW UPDATE - ONE ANNOYANCE
We have a standard-size garage. However, if we ever need to open the tailgate of the Sienna, we have to open our garage door because there isn't enough clearance behind the vehicle with the garage door shut. If it's late at night, and you realize you left your laptop or diaper bag in the rear of the Sienna, you need to open the garage door, open the tailgate, get what you need, then close everything up. Annoying. But that would probably be the case with any minivan.
As I started out saying, the Toyota Sienna does seem maybe 1% less "perfect" than the Honda. But it's much like comparing the bodies of men or women who are all finalists in a swimsuit competition. At the end of the day, we'd all be very happy with any of those finalists being in our... ummm.... garage.