1998 Toyota Sienna
Wouldn't it be great if Chrysler designed minivans and Toyota
built them? With Toyota's new Sienna, that wish may have been
Sienna replaces the Previa, which was almost perverse in its
weirdness. Mid-mounted engine under the front seat? Sure. It was
outrageously expensive too.
Beautifully built, though, and that's the point. If Toyota
would just do something normal, like it does with its passenger
cars, and build it to the same standard, you'd have well,
you'd have the Sienna.
It would be hard to imagine more normal and more
beautifully-built mechanicals than the Camry-derived Sienna's.
The 3.0-litre V6 engine is mounted up front, where God
intended, and drives the front wheels — which God also intended,
at least for minivans.
A four-speed automatic is the sole transmission offered.
Toyota has retained a hint of weirdness in Sienna's styling.
On first glance it appears conventional. But from certain angles
there are facets, planes, that don't seem to mesh. Not much to
put a finger on, just enough to worry the eye.
The taillights look Mazda MPVish, while the wide triangular
central pillars remind me a bit of Ford's Aerostar they also
can get in the way of a quick sideways glance while manoeuvring
The two-tone look is accomplished with plastic lower body
cladding, which also helps prevent parking lot dings.
The Sienna seems small from the outside, notably in its low
height. That stems from the low floor, which eases entry and
Only one wheel-base is offered — at 2,900 mm, it falls between
the Chryslers' short and long versions.
Step inside, however, and, sans measuring tape, you'd be
hard-pressed to complain about interior room.
Indeed, with its positioning of the middle seating row, Sienna
offers better passenger accommodation there than the
considerably larger Ford Windstar.
If you don't like that position, you can slide the seat fore
and aft. Or fold the seat back down. Or take it out. Or order
the optional captain's chairs.
The middle and rear seats are also higher off the floor than
on the knee-elevating General Motors' Chev Venture/Pontiac Trans
Sport/Oldsmobile Silhouette triplets.
As on Previa, the Sienna's threeseat rear bench is split
50-50 (unlike Previa, you can tumblefold or remove these
halves, rather than fold the seats laterally and attach them to
the walls of the van).
My question: when would you want one-and-a-half seats? You
might want one, you might want two, but you'd never want one and
a half. A 6040 split or, better still, individual removable
seats, makes more sense.
Some so-called safety crusaders have campaigned for rear seat
head restraints in minivans to protect the little darlings in a
The first thing I did when getting into the Sienna was remove
the blessed things.
Face it, the only time head restraints are effective are, (a)
when there are people in the rear tall enough that their heads
stick up above the seatback, and, (b) when you have the sort of
crash where a head restraint can provide any protection.
The rest of the time like, 99 per cent of the time you
can't see a darned thing out the back of the van, thereby
increasing the chances that you'll have exactly that sort of
True, you can't predict when you'll have what sort of crash,
but you must play the odds. There will always be a driver who
needs to see where she is going.
One can't blame Toyota for offering the headrests, and they
are easily removable. But van owners should think about this
issue more clearly than the misguided safety crusaders have.
Sienna is offered with one or two sliding rear side doors,
depending on trim level. The market has spoken, and four doors
are what it wants. Our 10-year-old Patrick noted that the
Sienna's slid open more easily than most.
An interlock prevents them from sliding closed when the van is
parked on a slope. The inside door handle overrides the
interlock. The left-side door opens only partway when the fuel
filler door is open.
Neat touches abound inside. Cup holders, mesh nets, cubby
bins, even rear-seat heater and air conditioning controls. This
is nothing you won't find on the competition, but proof that
Toyota has done its homework this time.
The Millennium Falcon spacecraft dash of the Previa, which I
rather liked, has been replaced by a thoroughly conventional
instrument panel, with easily reached (if small-buttoned, in
time-honoured Japanese tradition) radio and convenient dial-type
heating and ventilation controls.
As in Mazda's MPV, the steering column shift lever is long
enough to pry rocks out of your garden. With the windshield
wiper and cruise control stalks, the right side of the column is
a busy place.
The ignition key slot is right there too. I never failed to
switch the wipers on when starting the van.
Putting the shifter on the floor would hinder the desirable
Maybe it's time for someone to copy the Fiat/Peugeot/Cirtroen
minivan (OK, some late'50s Chryslers too) and put gear
selection on the dashboard.
The Camry engine does a fine job of propelling the
Sienna down the road
As you would expect, the Camry engine does a fine job of
propelling the Sienna down the road. Acceleration is
dead-competitive with other minivans, and the 194-horse Toyota V6
beats them all for smoothness and quietness.
The four-speed automatic also does its job well, exhibiting
only the occasional hiccup on upshifts.
As noticed in other Toys with this powertrain, a slight and
apparently random hesitation under constant throttle may, I
suspect, be the air conditioning compressor cycling on and off
it'll do that even in winter when the defroster is on. The
overall smoothness of the motor is probably to blame you'd
never notice it with anyone else's engine.
Likewise with wind noise, the only exterior intrusion on an
otherwise commendably silent interior.
Toyota has never been a world-beater in brakes, and the Sienna
is no exception.
In Automobile Journalists Association of Canada Car of the
Year testing (Sienna won the minivan class, by the way) a Sienna
took nearly 12 metres more to stop from 100 km/h than a
Windstar. That's about 40 feet, over two car lengths, which
could be the difference between a miss and a nearmiss (i.e. a
hit) in an emergency stop. The brake pedal on my tester was also
quite firm, needing a strong push to scrub off speed.
Four-wheel anti-lock control is standard, so you will have
steering at your command when you throw the anchors out.
The ride is on the soft side, leading to a fair amount of
heeling in hard cornering.
Sienna starts at $25,628 about five grand more than the
cheapest, four-cylinder, short-wheelbase Caravan.
My tester had the $1,180 fourth-door package which also
bundles in dual A/C and heater plus an AM/FM four-speaker radio,
and a $1,330 power windows/locks/mirrors/cruise control group,
bringing the final sticker to $28,138.
A feature-by-feature comparison with your particular deal will
be needed to determine what that means on a comparably-equipped
But you may not have much bargaining room. Toyota's
Georgetown, Ky., plant, which also builds Camrys, is scheduled
to build fewer than 100,000 Siennas in its first year.
With its combination of features, comfort and Toyota build
quality, Sienna should have no trouble attracting full retail
Despite that, it might still be your best minivan buy.
Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on
driving experiences with a Sienna provided by Toyota Canada.
You can catch Kenzie each Saturday on Talk 640 Radio at noon.