Executive wheels: Toyota redux

2015 TOYOTA SIENNA LTD 3.5L AWD 7 PASSENGER

2015 TOYOTA HIGHLANDER LIMITED V6 AWD

I drove and reviewed these two vehicles just last fall, and I mentioned that to the Toyota people when we were discussing what was available. They seemed to think that the 2015 models were somehow different.

Aside from a couple of minor design changes, the only change that really matters is the base price: The exact same Limited 3.5-liter, seven-passenger Sienna with AWD carried a base price last year of $41,700; this year they upped it to $42,780. So for almost everything I think about the Sienna I direct you to my earlier review, which you can find here. And, yes, I loved it then and still love it and wish I had one.

The difference worth mentioning is the time of year and the recent weather pattern. Last fall I took the Sienna up into the mountains in search of autumn color. This time around I was able to put the 2015 model through its All Wheel Drive (AWD) paces here in Denver because of all the snow we had in February. I can attest, first hand, that the AWD Sienna is a beast in the snow.

First, I encountered some relatively deep snow and I was impressed with the clearance of the Sienna, and this isn’t something normally discussed with a minivan. Second, I also encountered some very slippery, very icy spots and whole side streets and two things stood out: 1), the Toyota AWD, with what they call Active Torque Control, figures out the best traction and sends it there, so even when the slippery conditions were at their worst, this vehicle moved forward safely; and, 2) the anti-lock brakes on this Sienna were excellent. There were a couple of times when I got nervous that I wouldn’t be able to stop or that I would spin out of my lane, but it never happened. The more I drove the Sienna in bad conditions, the more confidence I had in the vehicle.   

I can say the same thing about the 2015 Highlander. This new one was, as far as I could ascertain, exactly the same as the one I drove last fall, reviewed here. The price seems to have held. The base price on the Limited edition is $41,300, and for the 2015 model they added on a BluRay Entertainment system – pretty cool with a sharp 9” display screen – for $1,810, and a technology package for $1,400, which includes a pre-collision system with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, Lane departure alert and automatic high bean headlights.

Once again, this time around I had the opportunity to utilize the AWD system that really didn’t come into play last fall, and, like the Sienna, I was duly impressed. Toyota does an exceptional job on its AWD systems, and in this Highlander I felt very safe and in control in some of the worst winter conditions that February in Denver meted out.

But I had a slightly different reaction to the Highlander on this occasion – and I think it was because of the Sienna. The Sienna was “refreshed” for 2015 over 2014, and it wasn’t all that much, but it did continue to impress me.  The Highlander could use an update.

Part of this impression could be the back-to-back nature of the test drives. I drove the Sienna for a week first, then immediately drove the Highlander. The very first thing I noticed when I hopped into the Highlander driver’s seat was hat the doors on the SUV felt much less substantial than those on the minivan; indeed, the Highlander’s doors felt flimsy by comparison. Plus, and probably because of the door-weight difference, the Highlander was a much noisier ride than the Sienna, and that further dampened my impression.

Both vehicles, of course, feature three rows of seating and seats for seven people in the Highlander and eight in the minivan – it’s important in this day and age when young mothers dislike the impression that a minivan conveys so they go for the SUV with three rows of seats. But the seating doesn’t come close to being comparable. The rear seat, the third row, in the Highlander is little more than a jump seat, and while it may be a roomy ride for the under-12 set, bigger people will find it lacking.

Also, getting into the third row in the SUV is much more of a chore than simply walking through in the minivan. I really like the automatic doors on the minivan – the sliders on each side and the rear liftgate; so easy and smart. (The Highlander has a power rear liftgate as well). And on these newer vans the windows in the sliding doors actually act like any other car window; they go up and down with the power button instead of just slightly popping open on a hinge. There are also dual moon roofs on the minivan, which gives each seat a great view of the stars, and the third row stores easily in the floor when not needed, providing a great gear/cargo area.

The 2015 Sienna carries a base price of $42,780 and in the Limited package comes with all kinds of technology and luxury features. Destination charges and some small stuff like roof rack stow bars, remote engine start and floor mats brought the bottom line to $44,824, which is very good for an AWD vehicle of this quality.

The 2015 Highlander Limited carried a base price of $41,300, which includes a ton of technology and luxury standards. Adding in the BluRay, tech package, remote start, tow hitch, running boards, floor mats, paint protection film and destination charge brought it up to $47,812.

As I have often said, I am a minivan man, so make mine the Sienna.

RATINGS:

2015 TOYOTA SIENNA LIMITED AWD:  FOUR WHEELS PLUS THE SPARE.

2015 TOYOTA HIGHLANDER LIMITED AWD: TWO AND A HALF WHEELS.