Road Trip: Toyota Sienna not a van to strike out
How does this Toyota minivan hold up in a shrinking segment? Stephanie put it to the test with a road trip to see the Jays’ farm team play in Buffalo.
THE PROS & CONS
- WHAT’S BEST: Great interior space and segment-exclusive all-wheel drive
- WHAT’S WORST: Not a convenient vehicle for city living
- MOST INTERESTING: In a segment that’s shrinking, Sienna sales are trending upward over the long term
For many people, Buffalo is nothing more than a pass-through city known for its airport or access to the I-90. It’s doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being a road trip destination on its own.
But a 90-minute drive and quick hop across the border can net a fun and very affordable afternoon out for even large families.
Between my family of three and friends of ours — a family of four — we packed a Toyota Sienna minivan to the hilt and headed south to take in a classic afternoon of some of the best this underappreciated border town has to offer.
On deck would be some junk food, Buffalo chicken wings — and baseball with a connection to the Toronto Blue Jays.
There’s a glaring spotlight on minivans these days. With Chrysler’s new Pacifica, will the segment see some much-needed rejuvenation?
A more interesting question is: Did the Toyota Sienna actually need Chrysler’s help with that?
In a segment that’s shrinking, sales of the Sienna have been trending upward over the past couple of years.
Part of that growth can be chalked up to attrition as several competitors have kicked their own minivans to the curb.
But of the choices that are left, there are a few things that the Sienna is doing better than the others — yes, even the shiny new Pacifica
What does it do well?
- All-wheel drive. Though my tester wasn’t equipped with it, the Sienna’s key selling point for Canadian minivan buyers is that it’s still the only one in our market that can deliver power to all four wheels.
- Cargo space. You need to work harder to free it up than in an FCA minivan, but the Sienna holds the title for the most cargo space in the segment at 4,250 L behind the first row. This translates to more than cargo, though: our rearward passengers greatly enjoyed the palatial amount of space.
- Power. It’s not what one would call a modern or efficient powertrain, but Toyota’s 3.5-litre V6 paired with its six-speed automatic transmission hauls the Sienna around nicely. It doesn’t feel sluggish at all, even when it’s full of people. The SE trim’s sport-tuned suspension and steering improve on-road drive feel.
What could it improve?
- Manoeuvering. Unlike the new Pacifica, which is sleeker and moves with more car-like ease, the Sienna is still unmistakably a minivan. It’s downright portly, which means it can be tough to get around in urban settings. The turning circle is wide enough that I had to swing it back and forth Austin Powers style to squeeze it into my downtown condo parking spot, and it was a very snug fit once it was there.
- Infotainment. I’m no great fan of Toyota’s infotainment system at the best of times, but I find it especially frustrating that all of the buttons and knobs for changing radio stations are well outside my reach from the Sienna’s driver’s seat. Between that and the lack of an equivalent steering wheel button, I had to program every single radio station I might want to listen to in the presets, which creates an annoying lack of flexibility. I couldn’t even go to my own music library for respite because the USB port is the outdated kind that some phones don’t play well with — mine included.
- Seating position. This is one of those vehicles that completely hides the speedometer and tachometer from my view when I have the steering wheel and my seat in the most comfortable position. With no option to display speed digitally in the centre of the dashboard, whenever I wasn’t ducking down to check or fiddling with the cruise control stalk, I was flying blind.
Would I choose this over its competition? I’d think hard about it — all-wheel drive is worth hesitating for — but I would ultimately look elsewhere. I do too much city driving to fight with the Sienna’s girth when other vans fit into urban life more easily, plus tech usability is important to me.
But I can definitely see how confirmed minivan drivers who like lots of space in their lives, both outdoors and inside their vehicles, would enjoy the Sienna a great deal — which might explain why sales of it are climbing in this vast country of ours.
TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME
We started with lunch at the original Anchor Bar, the birthplace of the classic Buffalo chicken wing.
It’s a spot worth checking out, not only for the food, but also for the decor. Gearheads will delight in the classic bikes and motoring memorabilia adorning the walls.
The seven of us had a bucket of 50 wings, a large pizza, and soft drinks for everyone plus pints for the two guys for just over $80 U.S., and we had food to spare.
Amazingly, at noon on a beautiful spring Saturday afternoon, there was no wait at all for a table.
This left us time for those most Canadian of cross-border pastimes, a stroll through a Tops supermarket to ogle at all the junk foods we don’t get at home — there was even a Tim Horton’s inside with a “Welcome Canadians” sign — and a stop at the pumps to fill up our tank on the cheap.
The big event was downtown at Coca-Cola Field where we took in a Buffalo Bisons game.
This activity was our friends’ suggestion, and I’m grateful they thought of us. I had no idea it was still possible to find such an authentic, old-fashioned ball game experience around these parts.
This is no trip to the Rogers Centre, which feels like a monolith in comparison. Here, we parked less than a block from the park, bought ball caps, popcorn, and peanuts, and found our seats a few rows up from the left-field foul line, all within 15 minutes of getting out of the van.
The Bisons are the AAA affiliate of our own Toronto Blue Jays, so we had a chance to watch some young stars in action with a legitimate shot at playing for our home team in the big leagues someday.
Our kids filled their faces with cotton candy, danced with mascots Chip and Celery (yes, as in the vegetable that comes with your Buffalo wings), and did their best to catch the balls the players tossed into our section at the end of each inning.
And the best part? Our premium tickets cost a whopping $7.00 each. And within 10 minutes of leaving the park, we were already crossing the Peace Bridge and heading home.
2016 Toyota Sienna SE
PRICE: From $31,675; $43,640 as tested
ADD-ONS: Freight and PDI $1,760
TYPE: Seven- or eight-seat minivan (eight as tested)
PROPULSION: Front-engine, front-wheel drive as tested (all-wheel drive available)
CARGO: 1,110 L behind third row; 2,470 L behind second row; 4,250 L behind first row
ENGINE: 3.5 L V6
TRANSMISSION: Six-speed automatic
POWER: 266 hp @ 6,200 rpm; 245 lb-ft. @ 4,700 rpm
FUEL CONSUMPTION (L/100 km): FWD 13.0 city, 9.5 hwy.; AWD: 14.4 city, 10.2 hwy. (regular fuel)
BRAKES: Ventilated front discs, solid rear discs
TIRES: SE FWD., as tested, comes with 19” aluminum alloy wheels (P235/50R19 tires); lower trims come with 17” (P235/60R17), higher trims come with 18” (P235/55R18; run-flats with AWD)
STANDARD FEATURES: 6.1-inch infotainment system, Bluetooth, Siri Eyes Free, backup camera, three-zone climate control, cruise control, split-and-stow third row seats, heated exterior side mirrors, windshield wiper de-icer, tire pressure monitoring
ACCESSIBILITY: Bit of a climb but overall very good; third row access is excellent
LOOKS: Pretty much like a minivan
INTERIOR: Very spacious; long sliding tracks on second-row seats and foldaway eighth seat allow great flexibility
PERFORMANCE: Enough grunt to get around, even when fully loaded; on-road drive feel is good with SE trim’s performance enhancements, but manoeuvring in urban settings and tight spaces is a challenge
TECHNOLOGY: Infotainment system is a disappointment; USB port is outdated
RATING: It’s definitely a minivan, but those who know that’s what they want will appreciate many of the Sienna’s unique offerings
- The new Chrysler Pacifica has less cargo space but it’s easier to use, and it has a more car-like drive feel (starts at $43,995).
- The Honda Odyssey doesn’t come with all-wheel drive, but it was the first to include the built-in vacuum that parents appreciate (starts at $30,790).
Stephanie Wallcraft is a frequent contributor to Toronto Star Wheels. The vehicle for this review was provided by the manufacturer. To provide feedback, email email@example.com .