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1998 Toyota Sienna

I've never been a van fan but, if my Mercedes wagon were to go kaput, I think Toyota's new Sienna could be my choice.

Gone is the pod-like Previa. In its place has come a stylish front-wheel drive transition from car to minivan with the versatility to function as work, play or family wheels.

Toyota has taken some key manufacturing ingredients and blended them nicely with commonsense safety elements and thoughtful convenience features. The price tag for all this starts at just under $26,000.

Daughter Kara, the prom queen, is attracted to test vehicles like pet hair to upholstery. She immediately ensconced herself up front, adjusting controls and seat to show herself off to best advantage.

It was supposed to be mom, her almost-grown daughter and the pup heading out of town to enjoy a golden day of autumn, sharing special, quiet moments we could recall later with fondness and tissues.

Who was I kidding?

Before we hit the highway I scanned the owner's manual to discover a lot of info and tips on child safety features and anti-lock braking all recommended reading.

"Duh," sniffed the prom queen when I suggested she take a look at the 24 pages in the manual devoted to the stereo system. "Like, it's a stereo. What do I need to, like, read?"

But rave reviews for the surround sound, anyway. And of course, the large windshield was a winner.

"Oh-my-god, it's like, panoramic. You can see like everything!" (Translation: everyone can see her.)

Our test Sienna was the four-door CE model with some factory options. Add about $1,200 for the CE trim package, which includes dual air conditioning with separate controls in the back, rear auxiliary heater, AM/FM cassette and fixed mast antenna. Then tack on another $1,300 for power steering, cruise, power mirrors, illuminated entry, power locks and key lockout protection.

Even more goodies come with the LE and XLE trim.

Later, with a passel of teenagers, assorted baggage and the stereo cranked to the max, we headed to Yorkdale mall to stock up for a teen party.

Yes, you can fit a karaoke machine in the cargo area. You can fit Ann's large cooler, too (sideways), several boxes of foodstuffs and even Shawna's makeup case, with ease.

The spec sheet claims 17.9 cubic feet of capacity behind third-row seats. It felt like more. Actually, the interior of the Sienna is roomy, period. The contoured front low-back bucket seats are firm, yet comfy but without adjustable lumbar support. Do they need it? Probably not. They are multi-adjustable, with plenty of legroom for driver and front and rear passengers. Unless you are Adam, six-foot-five and almost 300 pounds.

He had to commandeer the front seat from the prom queen and found plenty of headroom, but was four to six inches shy in legroom. He did admit that other than riding in a half-ton pickup, the Sienna provides more room for his frame than anything else he's driven lately.

According to Matt (average teen stature) the best passenger seat in the Sienna is the third-row corner "with the kind of legroom you get in a theatre" and when you're the only one back there, the 50/50 split allows you to fold down one side to provide a table of sorts or additional storage space.

While we shopped for party favours, the dog stretched out in the second row and snoozed, with plenty of ventilation from flip-out rear-quarter windows. Manually operated on the CE model, they are power-equipped on the LE. Pity they're not power on all models. It's a clamber to release the catches yourself and they're a bit stiff for little fingers.

The aluminum 194-horsepower V6 engine is the same you'll find in the Camry and, with a perky four-speed automatic, the 3.0litre, DOHC, 24-valve power-plant moves you into high-speed

traffic easily.

The rack-and-pinion steering provides responsive handling (the best I've experienced in a minivan) and the suspension, with redesigned independent MacPherson gas struts in front and gas

shocks and torsion beam in the rear, ensures improved manoeuvrability and control while making the ride smooth and comfortable no matter where you sit.

But you're still not driving a sportscar when taking a highway exit ramp. I found the maximum safe speed to be about 60 km/h.

As for safety, comfort and convenience, some features you'd expect to pay extra for are standard — ABS, side-impact door beams, driver and front-passenger air bags, child protector

side-door locks and anchor points for small-fry car seats.

Air conditioning, digital clock, accessory power outlet and the nifty overhead sunglasses holder make up the package.

All the dashboard features are within arm's reach, clearly marked and easy to use. On the recessed clock, however, you'll find the buttons microsized, so get one of the kidlets to change the time — or use a QTip.

One thoughtful touch is the arrow on the dash pointing to the side of the van where you'll find the fuel filler door. Not a big thing, but it shows the manufacturer is thinking.

The fuel filler itself is hip-to-waist height. No back strain when refuelling, so with the Sienna I went self-serve.

Well, the party went off without a hitch, as did my time with the Sienna. Both turned out to be somewhat more educational than I expected and both were a whole lot of fun. The big difference between the two was the noise level — the Sienna is so quiet you can hear yourself think. Veronica harvey is a Toronto-based

freelance writer.

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