Toyota Sienna (2004)

"The Sienna is definitely a sleek-looking van."
Good: spacious, all-wheel drive, well-made interior, reliability
Bad: a bit lumbering, pricey, parking assist

When people ask us to recommend a minivan, the Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey are always at the top of our list. And the newest revision of the Sienna has done nothing to change that. Most noticeably, it's bigger in several directions. But the addition of all-wheel drive, and Chrysler's decision to drop all-wheel drive, has made the Sienna the only option for those who want superior snow traction in a minivan - albeit an expensive option!

A lot changed when the newest Sienna was introduced for the 2004 model year. It has more power, a longer wheelbase and a wider track - but, surprisingly, the new Sienna also has a tighter turning radius, which you'll be grateful for every time you enter a parking garage.

The Sienna is available in a number of trim levels and, as we mentioned, all-wheel drive. We drove the top-of-the-line, front-wheel drive XLE Limited model, with a list price of $37,150. There's a very wide range of prices and option packages. The base XE Sienna lists for only $22,955, though we wouldn't be surprised if you had to personally appeal to Prime Minister Kozumi to get your hands on one of those. Dealers tend to stock vehicles that have good profit margins for them, so base models can be hard to find.

The driving experience is smooth and Lexus-like, which is exactly what we'd expect from an high-end Toyota. Even though it's smooth, and easy for any driver to operate, the van still feels a bit lumbering. The truth is, minivans have gotten less mini with every revision, so this is now a fairly large vehicle - you'll have to be aware of your starboard and your aft as you navigate one of these babies.

Don't get us wrong, the Sienna is not hard to drive, but you may be surprised at how big it's gotten. All that wonderful interior room comes at a price. You may even want to double-check your garage for width and length before you sign the papers. Here in our citified test-drive environment, we loved the superb turning radius, which is more than three feet tighter than 2003's smaller Sienna!

The 3.3-liter, V-6 engine is so quiet, it sounds like a little sewing machine. The transmission operates in a similarly seamless way, shifting virtually unnoticed while you drive. Toyota has really figured this stuff out.

The ride itself is smooth, making it a comfortable car for a long drive. Cornering is perfectly acceptable. Going over bumps and pot holes when the rear of the vehicle is empty, it exhibits the typical minivan slightly slappy suspension. That's because there's not much back there, except the rear wheels. Of course, a mother-in-law in the back would correct this problem. (And, if you're buying a minivan, chances are good you've got one of those readily available.) Steering is fairly agile, while being somewhat numb in terms of road feel compared to the Honda.

Our test van, the Sienna XLE Limited, came with lots of airbags, including the requisite front airbags, side airbags and curtain airbags for all three rows of passengers. That's wonderful. But the airbags are not standard on all trim levels. We recommend them. We also strongly recommend Electronic Stability Control. Although standard on the XLE Limited, it is optional on most other models. These safety options can add thousands of dollars to the sticker price, but with them you've got one of the safest minivans on the road. You'll also find other safety features listed as optional add-ons on the lower-priced Siennas. So be aware that the lower priced models come without disc brakes in the back and without ABS.

The interior quality borders on stupendous. The insides of the Sienna almost have the feel of a Lexus. The doors are very heavy and substantial, and they open beautifully. There are some useful, well-positioned nooks and crannies. Even the cup holder opens beautifully - nice and slow, just like on a Lexus. Hey, you wouldn't want to wake up your sleeping baby with a jarring spasm of a cheap cup holder, would you?

The insides of the Sienna are very well thought out. The leather front seats are comfortable and supportive on the XLE Limited. There are individual seats in the second row and a bench is available. The third row consists of seats that fold into the floor - a bright idea that Toyota heisted from the Honda Odyssey.

There are electric sliding doors on both sides in the XLE Limited. In our opinion, these are a little odd and they do take some getting used to. There are times when you just want to like throw open the door... and instead, you have to press a button and wait for it to slowly open. To open the doors, you also need to have the transmission in "Park," which is certainly safer than letting someone out with the vehicle in gear, but we found it to be a bit of an annoyance. Apparently, the days of pulling up to school and pushing your kid out the door are over. (Who knew?) Overall, we suppose the electric doors are an improvement over the traditional, manual doors. At least until the door motors break, and they cost you a thousand bucks each to replace.

The Sienna we drove came with Xenon headlights, which are standard on the XLE Limited. There are dual controls for heating and cooling up front, and a third set for the kids in the back. Like we said, this is a luxury minivan. There are separate adjustments for heating and cooling the rear passengers, so you can try to freeze out your mother-in-law back there. There are cup holders galore - a cup holder for everybody, including a larger water bottle holder in each of the doors.

The Sienna XLE Limited comes with a great sounding JBL stereo system, with speakers everywhere. If you buy a lower trim level, you'll have to make do with what they give you or upgrade.

Being a Toyota, the controls are all where you'd expect them to be. The Sienna we test drove was equipped with an optional sonar parking control on all four corners of the vehicle. It beeps faster and faster when you're closing in on any kind of reasonably substantial object, like a Scottish terrier or your neighbor's award-winning rose bushes. Personally, we found it somewhat annoying once the novelty wore off, but we know that lots of people love this feature. And with the increased size of the Sienna, it only gets more useful. Fortunately, unlike some other manufacturers, Toyota has made the Parking Assist easy to turn off.

Visibility is about average for a minivan. It's actually pretty good on the sides and the front, but it gets worse towards the back, as the side panels rise and the height of the windows decreases. In fairness to Toyota, this visibility challenge is typical of vehicles of this sort. The back window, though, is reasonably large. We found it easy to see out of.

The Sienna is definitely a sleek-looking van. We don't know how Toyota does it, but the Sienna manages not to look like a tall vehicle, even though it's really quite large. In fact, the term "minivan" may be a stretch for this vehicle. Toyota's on the verge of losing the "mini" - the Sienna is more like a van.

There's plenty of room under the hood of the Sienna, which means repairs are going to be easier to effect and, therefore, reasonably priced. Design-wise, there's nothing exceptionally complex here, so even your local corner garage should be able to tackle most of the routine services and repairs.

The reliability of the Sienna is unquestionable. Toyota, of course, is famous for its high quality, and the Sienna has been around long enough to prove that it's meeting everyone's expectations for Toyota reliability. In short, this is as good as it gets.

This is one of the best two minivans on the market. And if you need all-wheel drive, it's the only one. You can dress it up anywhere from pretty basic to near-Lexus style. And the near-Lexus trim makes it a luxury car, with room for five kids.

Toyota's reliability is exceptional, and the ease of driving is up there with Honda, too. If you're comparing the Sienna with the Honda Odyssey, the biggest difference you're going to find is the availability of all-wheel drive, and the slightly numb road feel of the Toyota. The Honda is somehow a little more fun to drive, though not quite as cushy and silent inside.

If you're comparing the Sienna with the Chrysler and Dodge minivans, you'll find the Chrysler products a bit less expensive in real life because of rebates and discounts, which Toyota doesn't seem to need. Chrysler and Dodge offer the "Stow 'n Go" seating, in which the second row of seats also folds into the floor. That's handy if you also use your van for cargo. But Chrysler can't match Toyota's quality and reliability, and that's what you're paying for.

But Chrysler still sells a lot of minivans. And price is probably the reason. The fact is, when you load up the Sienna with all of the safety you need and luxury you desire, you may find yourself north of $30,000. Even more with all-wheel drive.

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