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Executive wheels: Finding the ultimate – Solo or family-friendly car

Does the Toyota Sienna have it all?


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I have had many happy connections with cars over the years, getting to drive, for test-drive and review purposes, something wonderful, and these occasions are only enhanced when they coincide with the need for a road trip. To have it happen in back-to-back years with the same vehicle – last fall the 2016 Toyota Sienna Limited Premium, and this May the 2017 Toyota Sienna Limited Premium – was pure luck. And, as luck would have it, both road trips involved going to the same place from Denver, Flagstaff, Arizona, although this time I altered the route to return through Utah for some sight-seeing through Monument Valley, Moab, and the adjacent Canyonlands National Park.

And let me exclaim: Luck doesn’t describe the half it, as the pleasure of driving this excellent Toyota minivan goes way beyond any other driving wonder. There is simply no better road trip vehicle available anywhere. Period.

Also, I am happy to report, that as much as I liked the 2016 model on the trip last September, getting into the 2017 model for this trip proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that when it comes to the minivan market, Toyota is at the top of not only its game, but the entire minivan game itself.

I suppose you can keep that kind of competitive edge when you sell in excess of 120,000 units in the U.S. alone year after year after year. So much for the minivan stigma – obviously hundreds of thousands of people out there are singing the praises of the Toyota Sienna in the one way that votes count the most:

they bought one.   

Oh, and the cool thing is – I discovered more about this on the latest week-long test drive – the Toyota Sienna is not just a road-trip beauty, but a great around town vehicle as well. Yeah, it’s big, and sometimes a challenge for those pseudo parking spaces in many places these days, especially downtown, but the Sienna is nimble on the streets.

The big reason for the nimble-ness in this newer version is the upgrade Toyota did for the 2017 model year. It is has pretty much the same engine – a 3.5-liter V6 – but they boosted the horsepower from 266 hp to 296 hp, and those 30 horses just enough extra zip to quiet the acceleration boost required on the highway for passing, and to make it somewhat quicker off the line for zippy city driving. Also, they changed the gearbox from a 6-speed automatic to an 8-speed, an while I sometimes don’t understand all of these gearing changes so ubiquitous in cars these days, I have to say that this 2017 Sienna drove smoothly, with effortless movement from one gear to the next. Plus, they somehow boosted the gas mileage – from 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway, combined 23 mpg, to this year’s 18 mpg city/24 mpg highway, combined 20 mpg, for the all-wheel-drive (AWD) models. There was also an increase in torque, which I suppose added to the zip, but I don’t do torque.

Oh, yes, and AWD. Toyota remains the only maker of a minivan in the American market with an AWD option, which in my opinion makes it the clear choice in Colorado for those looking at the minivan market. I don’t really understand the retreat from AWD in the minivan market. Chrysler, which more or less invented the minivan market, used to offer AWD, and there are rumors that its new and impressive minivan, the Chrysler Pacifica, will soon feature the ultimate safety option, but until then the Toyota Sienna it is.

I realize there is a stigma about minivans, and many people I ran into during my test drive week winced at the thought of driving one, but I am a committed minivan guy. Since this Sienna is built on the Camry sedan platform, with some obvious beefing, it is a smooth ride and surprisingly fun to drive. The vision, with large outside and rearview mirrors and plenty of glass, is exceptional, and the handling superb. Minivans used to be lumbering sorts, with not enough extra suspension to handle the added weight over the sedan platforms they share, so they used to sort of bounce or float around a lot. Not anymore. The suspension here is tight, and even loaded with passengers and gear there is no drop in nimble-ness.

Plus, of course, the luxury and convenience. The Sienna is an extremely quiet vehicle, with little or no road noise, so on our trip we listened to an excellent David McCullough history book on CD, 1776, with little need to adjust the sound for the highway noise. What a pleasure. We were seated, of course, in very nice leather seats, and the sound system – wonderful! – handled the book CD, my son’s playlist off his phone, and AM, FM and satellite radio with ease. Also, we used the navigation system, tried the voice command system with no problems, and the integrated Driver Easy Speak includes a speaker that picks up the driver’s voice and plays it through the 10 speakers in the vehicle, so you can talk to your kids in the “way back” without screaming. This is particularly useful when they are engrossed in a movie or a game on the 16.4-inch screen of the dual-view Blu-ray disc entertainment system for the rear seat passengers (dual view because it will display, for instance, one movie on the entire wide screen, or two smaller images from separate sources at the same time. What will they think of next?)

The convenience is also special. Sliding and pushbutton automatic wide van doors on each side – both with regular up-and-down power windows – make getting in and out a breeze, and the automatic liftgate in the back makes storing gear easy. Plus, we easily, and with no consultation with the manual, folded the third-row 64/40 split rear bench seat into the floor to give us the enormous cargo space we needed to bring out son home from college with all of his dorm room stuff. It should be said that the very comfortable captain’s seats in the second row featured fold-up seat cushions so you can easily slide them forward for extra cargo space and for easy access for third-row passengers. We used all of these features, and found them easy and well thought out.  

Oh, and did I mention the dual moonroof? One over the front seats, and another over the second row, which offer air and plenty of light no matter where you’re sitting.

The good news is that you can get a 2017 Toyota Sienna at a starting base price of $29,750, the Model L, which features the same engine and drivetrain as the more-expensive of the five available trims. The Limited Premium edition I drove, however, isn’t inexpensive, though. Of course, it’s all tricked out, with all of the safety technology – blind spot monitoring, dynamic radar cruise control, brake assist, smart stop tech, pre-collision system – and all of the high-tech stuff, too, but with AWD the base price on the model I drove was $47,310.  They added a few little things – e.g. remote engine start for $499, a glass breakage sensor for $299 – and with handling fees the bottom line is $50,769. Now, I realize that is expensive, but I have to say that I have driven many luxury vehicles over the years that cost more than this and aren’t this nice. The price didn’t in the least bother me. For all that‘s here, it’s worth it.

I used to think this was the ultimate road vehicle. Now I think the Toyota Sienna is simply the ultimate vehicle for families. I would even drive one if it was just for me. I liked it that much.

RATING: 4 WHEELS PLUS THE SPARE AND AN EXTRA WHEEL FOR GOOD MEASURE (OUT OF FOUR)

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Jeff Rundles

Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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