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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

granted.

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

in traffic.

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

egress.

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

rearend crash.

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

crash.

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

walk-through feature.

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

basis.

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

pop.

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.

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