There once was a time when the species known as the minivan ruled the North American landscape, or just about. Every major auto manufacturer produced one, including brands like Oldsmobile and Mercury. But we all know that story by now, the one about how younger consumers gradually and then en masse moved towards SUVs, especially those of the 7-seat kind. The automakers were forced to scale back on the production of 7-seat minivans.
These days there is still a market for this type of vehicle, and it’s dominated in large part by FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles), maker of the affordable Dodge Caravan and the new Chrysler Pacifica (available in hybrid version as well – check out our review here), as wel las Honda with its Odyssey, Kia and its Sedona, and of course Toyota with its very trusty Sienna, which also happens ot be the only vehicle in the segment available with all-wheel drive.
The passenger minivan
The principle of the passenger minivan was first advanced by Volkswagen back in the 1950s, but it really took off as a transportation choice in the 1980s. Lee Iacocca, formerly of Ford where he had overseen the creation of the legendary Mustang, was now installed at Chrysler, and he convinced the company’s engineers that plonking the frame of a van onto the front-wheel-drive platform of Chrysler’s K cars of the era was a good idea.
Thus came into being possibly the most versatile vehicle type ever produced by an auto manufacturer. Iacocca had actually pitched the idea when he was president at Ford, but he was let go by Henry Ford II before the plan could be implemented.
In addition to being able to transport between five and seven passengers, the Magic Wagon, as it was then known, was equally well suited to daily commuting as it was to long roads trips. The format was also popular with builders and small entrepreneurs because of its ample cargo space.
It would take a lot of years for the minivan to be displaced by the SUV, but today the former is outnumbered by the latter on the market by a huge margin. Still, enough of a demand remains for some manufacturers to continue to retain at least one on their roster.
La Sienna SE
Of those minivans that do remain, the Toyota Sienna SE AWD is one of the most accomplished. Sitting on a platform very similar to the Camry’s (though of the previous generation of that model), the Sienna is available in four trims: the base model, LE, SE and XLE.
The product offering includes only one engine, Chrysler having dropped the 4-cylinder that used to be available. The 296-hp D4-S V6 unit is combined with an 8-speed automatic transmission and a default front-wheel drive system. The all-wheel drive system (which sends part of the engine’s power to the rear wheels when it detects skidding of the front wheels) is available on all trims beyond the base model.
The Sienna SE AWD comes out of the factory with P235/55R18 tires, though in our tester these had been switched out for Bridgestone Blizzak LM60 tires better suited to Quebec winter driving (and highly effective when used together with the AWD).
Van or crossover or even… SUV?
The current Sienna got its most recent updates in 2018, when it received a redesigned front grille that conferred on it a more aggressive look. The rest of the design now dates back a few years, which could handicap the model versus rivals, and here I’m thinking especially of the fresh and modern Chrysler Pacifica.
As for the interior, it’s rather welcoming as you would expect. The Sienna has no problem comfortably welcoming seven occupants, while the front-wheel-drive version can handle up to eight people because of the bench it gets in the second row in place of bucket seats. The split third row, meanwhile, can be folded down into the floor to create a flat surface for a hugely practical cargo space.
Note that the middle bucket seats are also fold-down, but not enough to create a fully flat floor. If you want to transform your Sienna into a true cargo van, you can, but you’ll need to remove the two seats. The reward for your efforts in that case is 4,250 litres of total cargo space, which is substantially better than what any midsize SUV will offer you. It’s possible to slide in 4x8s fully flat, like in a real live big pickup! The rear power tailgate can be closed by the mere push of a button under the door.
All of that’s fine and dandy, but the Sienna was created first and foremost to move people, let’s not forget. And at that task, it is very, very good. Access to the third row of seats is easy thanks to the big sliding doors in the centre of the vehicle, which is fantastic and if you’re getting kids in and out of there often! The middle bucket seats are as comfortable as the front ones, which is to say very. In the SE AWD version, those front seats are also heated.
And while the front occupants are enjoying their comfy and toasty seats, they’re also benefiting from outstanding visibility out the front, thanks to the absence of the typical SUV’s big long hood. The dashboard, which got a redesign last year, is wonderfully simple and well-laid out for maximum user friendliness, right down to the Entune 3.0 infotainment system and several USB ports. And even if the quality of the materials used for the cabin are not anywhere in the vicinity of luxurious, the environment is as well constructed and put-together as you would expect from a Toyota.
On the road
Let’s be clear: driving a Sienna in no way, shape or form approximates the experience of driving a sporty car. The van can accelerate from a stop to 100 km/h in under 8 seconds, which is serviceable, and highway passing is done without effort or anxiety. The steering seemed to me a little tender at times, and the braking a tad laborious, but as its centre of gravity is lower than the typical SUV the Sienna is more stable on the road. Engine noise at cruising speed is virtually non-existent, helping make the cabin a peacefully quiet place that allows for gaining full appreciation for the JBL audio system.
In terms of fuel consumption, the big minivan racked up, in our week of driving it, an average of 11.7L/100 km in a combination of city and highway driving. That falls easily within the averages for a vehicle of this type during wintertime.
The 2019 Sienna SE AWD starts at $45,405 CAD. Our test vehicle featured the Tech package (Entune system, navigation, 7-inch screen, DVD player in back, JBL audio with 11 speakers, blind spot monitor, push-button start and so on), which adds another $5,815 to the bill.
Then there are the multiple taxes to be applied – including the unfathomable $100 A/C surcharge, which was first applied in the mid-60s to cars with big V8s whose A/C systems that required an enormous compressor that gobbled up 5-6 hp from the engine, and so more gas. This is simply not the reality today! Lastly, add the $1,815 transport and prep fees, and the final price tag for the Sienna SE AWD is $53,162.
Which is, when you think about it, the cost of a typical luxury midsize SUV, one of those that calls itself an all-terrain vehicle but that no one actually takes very far from the pavement. The Sienna, meanwhile, offers more space, more safety and more versatility, without looking like a truck. And then of course there’s that Toyota reliability...
The Sienna AWD has a ton of reasons why it should appeal to others than just your grandparents. Anyone who likes to hit the road for extended treks or who needs to move a gaggle of kids or piles of material will find that the Sienna is more practical than an SUV or a midsize pickup. Did you know it can pull up to 3,500 lbs?
This is my experience with the Sienna SE AWD – and I’m an inveterate lover of pickup and SUVs! I feel anything but silly at the wheel of this minivan, quite the contrary. It makes me wonder just how we took a left turn from minivans to SUVs. Maybe, if the Sienna AWD had existed at the time…?