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Toyota sticks to a plan that works

Published March 13, 2010


VICTORIA—As the first new vehicle launched in Canada since the Toyota recall crisis started in January, let's deal right away with the elephant in the room.

Of the several 2011 Sienna minivans I drove during the course of a one-day media event this week, none accelerated unintentionally, failed to stop when I applied the brake pedal or showed any waywardness in its steering.

In fact, surprises are few and far between in the latest Sienna, the third since 1998.

Although Toyota is proud of the minivan's updated styling and as-expected model change upgrades in refinement, comfort, entertainment and safety, the new Sienna doesn't stray too far from the traditional minivan modus operandi. It has flexible seating for a bunch of people, the ability to haul around a bunch of their stuff, and easy entry and exit via large, sliding doors.

Any radical changes to that formula would result in a crossover, which the Japanese automaker already has (hello Highlander!).

Like the last Sienna (with which this generation shares the same platform) you can get seats for seven or eight passengers and either front-wheel drive or the segment's only available all-wheel drive.

A base model, front-drive, seven-passenger Sienna LE starts at $27,900, a decrease of $1,600 compared to 2010 models, mainly because it's powered by a newly available 187 hp 2.7-litre four-cylinder engine, rated at 10.4 L/100 km city, 7.5 L hwy (27/38 m.p.g.).

Another $1,000 gets a 266 hp V6 (11.5 L/100 km city, 7.5 L hwy; 24/38 m.p.g.). The lineup tops out with the Lexus-like $49,100 Sienna V6 Limited AWD.

Since the new Sienna's auto show debut last fall, the automaker has been pushing the new Sport Edition, a minivan "designed for those who appreciate an aggressive design with responsive performance."

All Siennas get a six-speed automatic transmission, so there's no manual gearbox on the SE. But with its body kit package, a lower, sport-tuned suspension, bigger wheels and tires and smoked tail lamps, the SE could pass as a support vehicle for the next Fast and Furious flick.

Inside, there's some "unique" SE instrumentation and trim that kids will spill juice on just as easily.

Behind the wheel, you won't mistake the Sienna SE for a sports car, let alone a Toyota Venza. The tall centre of gravity and large dimensions can only be reined in so much.

Yes, the SE corners a bit flatter, and responds a bit quicker than the other more luxury-minded Sienna models. And it will be interesting this fall to put a Sienna SE up against the new 2011 Honda Odyssey — the minivan that drives most like a car.

If you must have a fun-to-drive minivan, you'll have to downsize to the compact six-seat Mazda5, also heavily updated for 2011.

Most buyers, though, are looking for a stress-free driving experience when schlepping kids to hockey practice and the Toyota does an excellent job.

Sporty SE notwithstanding, the rest of the range drives much like the last Sienna.

Its long wheelbase delivers a smooth, if sometimes floaty ride, and the cabin is relatively quiet (especially compared to the rattle-prone Chrysler minivans).

With both engines, the autobox's shifts are nearly imperceptible, if a bit slow. And for most minivan drivers, the Sienna's new four-cylinder is probably sufficient for daily use.

Up front, new front seats have more rearward travel, and the steering wheel has a less upright position. And, as expected, there are plenty of storage bins, cup-holders and cargo spaces to lose Barbies, Hot Wheels and whatnot.

In addition, a new sliding centre console on upper-end Siennas can be shared between the front- and second-row occupants.

On eight-passenger Siennas, the second-row centre seat can be removed and stowed in the left side of the rear-storage area. To ramp the comfort options further, standard second-row lounge seating is on the XLE and Limited models.

The all-important 60/40 third-row seating (which has been moved rearward for better comfort) can be folded flat with one hand.

One advantage Toyota has since the last model was introduced in 2004 is less competition.

Ford, Hyundai, General Motors, and Nissan have left the segment, leaving the Chrysler Town & Country/Dodge Caravan/Volkswagen Routan triplets, Kia Sedona, Odyssey and Mazda5.

As competitive as Toyota's latest minivan is, we'll have to wait until the all-new Odyssey and revised Chrysler family haulers show up to gauge its standing in this segment.

Until then, know that the 2011 Sienna offers few surprises. Which for Toyota and loyal Sienna customers, is probably not a bad thing.

Travel for freelance writer John LeBlanc was provided by the

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