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Second-hand: 2004-2008 Toyota Sienna

All in all, a solid if pricey used-minivan pick, but do yourself a favour and avoid the fancy electric doors and AWD powertrain.

His assignment exacted a terrible toll “ an unhealthy addiction to square hamburgers “ but Toyota project engineer Yuji Yokoya learned first hand why minivans appeal, or used to appeal, to North Americans when it came to developing the 2004 version of the Sienna.

Having driven 85,000 kilometres across America, Canada and Mexico in the previous-generation Sienna, he discovered that the old van was cramped, handled poorly and didn’t offer the levels of comfort and luxury its competitors did.

He also probably noticed all the Honda Odysseys during his travels.

So the front-drive Sienna went back to the drawing board.

Like Yokoya’s favourite fries, it got super-sized to the point where the new Sienna likely wouldn’t fit in the streets of the picturesque Italian town from which it took its name.

CONFIGURATION

Released in mid-2003 as an ’04, the second-generation Sienna grew wider than its predecessor by 10 cm, longer at the wheelbase by 13 cm, and 15 cm lengthier bumper to bumper.

While it had the same exterior dimensions as the bestselling Dodge Grand Caravan, Toyota’s designers carved out more space inside, filling it with family-friendly cupholders, cubbyholes and enough electrical sockets to power the Griswold’s Christmas lights.

The new Sienna bristled with clever touches – mostly borrowed from other manufacturers. The windows in the sliding doors rolled down and could be ordered with optional sunshades. The middle-row seats slid fore and aft and offered room for eight (captain’s chairs reduced capacity by one).

The neat “Front and Centre” middle-bucket feature brought a toddler forward to within wiping reach of mom and dad.

The 60/40-split third row bench collapsed into the floor without the need to remove the headrests and was assisted by springs to make hoisting easier – a marked improvement over the Odyssey.

Engineers spent a lot of time tuning the chassis to yield an exceptional ride, despite the fact the hardware was unremarkable: struts in front, a trailing-arm twist beam in back.

The shocks used new valving that provided better damping at low speeds and more linear damping at higher speeds. The Sienna sported the smallest turning radius available in a front-drive minivan.

“This van’s turning circle is the same as a Honda Civic: easy in and out of tight spots,” posted the owner of an ’05 model. All Siennas had antilock brakes and a 1,587-kg tow capacity.

A 230-hp DOHC 3.3 L V6 was the lone engine choice, mated to a smooth five-speed automatic. Premium fuel was specified, though Toyota noted regular could be used with slight decreases in power and fuel economy.

Optional all-wheel drive came with mandatory run-flat tires, due to the fact that the rear driveshaft left no room for a spare tire. Many owners disliked the tires because they don’t last long, are horrendously expensive to replace and can leave you stranded far from home since few tire dealers stock them.

The Sienna benefitted from some styling tweaks for 2006. The only substantial mechanical change came in 2007 when the 3.3 L engine was replaced by a stouter 266 hp 3.5 L V6.

ON THE ROAD

In a major magazine test of 2004 model minivans, the Sienna performed well with strong acceleration (0-to-96 km/h in 7.6 seconds), good road grip (0.76 g on a circular skidpad) and decent braking (112 km/h to a standstill in 60 metres).

Unfortunately, the Odyssey matched or beat each of those numbers to win the comparo, placing the Sienna second in the ranking.

In a rematch three years later, the 2007 Sienna was slightly swifter – 0-to-96 km/h in 7.2 seconds, thanks to the larger V6 – but required more real estate to stop. Once again, the Odyssey was preferred, mostly for its livelier driver feedback.

The Indiana-built Sienna is coveted by owners for its ability to isolate occupants from broken asphalt and road noise. It’s earned a reputation as the Lexus of minivans due to its well-sorted ride and quiet demeanour.

“Never say never, minivan haters!” one owner posted, referring to slurs by SUV drivers saying they wouldn’t be caught dead in a minivan. More than a few Sienna drivers confessed to thinking that way before, too.

At 12 L/100 km, urban fuel economy is considered best in class.

WHAT OWNERS REPORTED

The Sienna won fans for its large, comfortable living room of a cabin, its multitude of features and safety equipment, and its talent for eating up long stretches of highway with ease. It’s also admired for its reliability.

“It’s a great minivan; smooth ride, reliable,” posted a New York City taxi fleet operator, who runs a Sienna 20 hours a day, six days a week.

It’s not easy building a durable minivan. The domestic vans were notorious for barfing up their transmissions in the past (the 1999-2002 Odyssey did it, too), and even the previous Sienna had a problem with oil sludge choking the 3.0 L V6.

The 2004-08 Sienna appears to be a more hard-wearing van. Its engine and transmission are robust, with complaints mostly centred on a slow-shifting autobox that needs reprogramming by the dealer. Ditto the electronic throttle.

Common gripes included failed power sliding doors, leaky radiators and gas tanks (both recall items), faulty air conditioners, weak tailgate struts and some interior rattles.

Many owners warned the battery could run down quickly (make sure the doors are closed properly), frequently requiring a parking-lot boost.

All in all, a solid if pricey used-minivan pick, but do yourself a favour and avoid the fancy electric doors and AWD powertrain.

We would like to know about your ownership experience with these models: Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute, Nissan Titan and Chevrolet Epica. Email: toljagic@ca.inter.net.

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