2004 Toyota Sienna Photo
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Excuse me while I indulge in a really long and convoluted introduction to a look at the new 2004 Toyota Sienna. They don’t pay me enough to bother editing out my own crusades.

“They tend to people who are insecure and vain,” The New York Times’ Keith Bradsher wrote summarizing manufacturers’ market research about SUV owners in his 464-page scream High and Mighty: The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way. “They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors.”

But Gregg Easterbrook, in an extended, almost ecstatic, bizarre, and totally unwarranted paean to Bradsher’s book in The New Republic wrote that minivans are “marketed with an emphasis on positive values: caring for children, arriving safely, offering rides to the softball game.” It’s nice to know that “offering rides to the softball game” has been elevated to the status of a “positive value” alongside, well, honesty, diligence, faithfulness, and compassion.

So does that mean minivan drivers are secure, self-deprecating, confidently married, comfortably raising their kids and above all, other-centered and other-absorbed with a deep concern for their neighbors? If they are, they’re the best people on Earth! Maybe Bradsher’s next book will be a scalding hosanna in praise of minivans — Boxy and Boring: The World’s Safest Vehicles and How They Got That Way.

When you’re up there sitting atop Abraham Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs, what you really want is a minivan. And the all-new 2004 Toyota Sienna promises to be the most self-actualized minivan of them all — edging past the Honda Odyssey in meeting physiological, safety, belonging and esteem needs.

Wholeness and a sense of well-being will start (in base CE trim) at $22,955 at Toyota dealers this March.

Bigger, better, bolder but maybe overanalyzed

2004 Toyota Sienna LE

2004 Toyota Sienna LE

Enlarge Photo
The original Sienna was too small. This new one isn’t. Fully as large as the Odyssey or Dodge Grand Caravan, the new Sienna rides on a five-inch longer wheelbase and is four inches wider than before. Seven or eight people aboard (depending on seating options) will be comfortable in the new Sienna — even in the rearmost seat. Drop the rear seat into its well, pull out the second row of seats and the Sienna will swallow not just the proverbial, but an actual 4x8 sheet of plywood. In fact if you use the arcane loading tactic known as “stacking” you could even carry more than one 4x8 sheet of plywood.

While the size has increased, the chassis itself is similar to the old Sienna’s. There’s still a set of MacPherson struts up front to keep the nose off the ground, and there’s still a torsion beam in the back keeping the butt from dragging. Front-drive Siennas carry ABS-controlled disc brakes up front with drums in the back, while those equipped with optional all-wheel drive get a set of discs for the back too. All grades (base CE, mainstream LE, luxo-loaded XLE, and trimmed-with-a-full-cord-of-faux-wood XLE Limited) ride on standard 16-inch wheels wrapped in all-season radial tires if the van is front drive. Run-flat tires on 17-inch wheels are standard with all-wheel drive.

To contend with the Sienna’s new size, a more robust drivetrain is aboard — the same 3.3-liter, DOHC, 24-valve V-6 and unflappable five-speed automatic transmission as in the also-new Lexus RX330 crossover SUV. The engine uses Toyota’s VVT-I variable valve timing system to make 230 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 242 lb-ft of peak torque at 3600 rpm. In fact the all-wheel-drive system is also virtually identical to the RX330’s and nearly all of Toyota’s various traction control, stability control, and electronic braking systems are also used on the Sienna at some trim level or other.

A “Dynamic Laser Cruise Control System” that modifies the vehicle’s speed as it senses slower vehicles in front of it is standard on Limited models. But the system operates disconcertingly and is apparently vulnerable to damage. If it wasn’t there, it wouldn’t be missed.

It’s tough to make a minivan exciting to look at, and the Sienna isn’t sleek. Still with its prominent nose and neat details like side door tracks integrated into the bottom edge of the rearward windows (like Chrysler’s minivans) it’s clearly bolder than before. Still what matters about a minivan isn’t its outside, but its inside.

Shamelessly stealing from every other van

Toyota has simplified the minivan buying process by simply cramming all the best ideas from all the other vans. Rear sliding door side windows that roll down are part of the Mazda MPV, and now they’re part of the Sienna too. Chrysler added a power-operated rear hatch to the power operated side doors, and now all those doors can be powered on the Sienna as well. To monitor children in the rear two-thirds of the van Ford put a neat flip-down convex mirror in the Windstar’s roof console — yup, the Sienna has one two and it’s more adjustable.

But it’s the Sienna’s third row rear seat that’s particularly trick. As in the Honda Odyssey (and Mazda MPV), the Sienna’s rearmost seat now folds flush into the floor. But where the Honda’s seat folds in one big piece, the Sienna’s is split 60/40 so that long objects and one or two passengers can be accommodated back there. It’s neat, it’s better and it ups the challenge Honda has when it redesigns the Odyssey.

The Sienna’s interior is however more than merely a feature thief. Beyond those swipes from other minivans, the eight-passenger version of the Sienna has a third second-row seat that can be shifted forward so that a child in a car seat is placed almost between the driver and front passenger, and side curtain airbags are available for all three rows of passengers. There are also scads of cup holders and hooks for carrying grocery bags.

2004 Toyota Sienna LE

2004 Toyota Sienna LE

Enlarge Photo
Gadgetry can be ladled into the Sienna in big chunks off the option list. There’s a DVD player with drop-down screen, a sonar range-finding parking assist system, a three-zone climate control system on higher end models, and up to 10 speakers pounding out sound. Get the navigation system and a rear-view video camera is included. The camera itself is in the rear door, is aimed low to scan for tykes and plays through the nav system’s dash-mounted display screen whenever the transmission is put in reverse. But the deal clincher for many buyers will be Toyota’s ergonomic competence, quality materials and impeccable assembly. But it could be better.

The CE interior is surprisingly pleasant, the LE is dang nice, and XLE is luxurious without too much fussiness and just a touch of fake woodgrain. But the number of phony trees that must be fake felled to decorate every XLE Limited’s doors, dash and steering wheel would make the CEO of Georgia-Pacific gasp. Beyond that, the right second-row seat has a built-in shoulder harness that’s won’t wrap around an adult comfortably, and the transmission’s electronic shifter has a silly gate to navigate through and emerges bizarrely the dashboard. But those oddities don’t change the fact that this is the best and most versatile minivan interior yet devised.

Lexus-like you expect

There’s no reason to think that the Sienna will be any quicker than the Odyssey, but who drag races minivans anyhow? And in smoothness and quiet, the 3.3-liter Toyota V-6 surpasses the Honda 3.5-liter V-6 by a slim margin and each manufacturer’s five-speed automatic transaxle works as well as the other’s.

The chassis does an excellent job of isolating out road noise, the body generates little wind noise and the suspension motions are well controlled and comfortable. There’s nothing exciting in how the new Sienna steers, brakes, goes and corners, but if a buyer wants excitement there’s always Toyota’s five (Or is it six?) SUVs along beside it in the showroom.

However none of those SUVs can match the Sienna as a value. That $22,955 base price for the Sienna CE undercuts Toyota’s own Highlander SUV base price by a hefty $925. And that stripped CE has a V-6 and room for seven in comparison to the cheapest, front-drive Highlander’s four and room for just five. It’s $36,930 for the line-topping XLE Limited with all-wheel drive

The current Honda Odyssey has been atop the minivan heap since its introduction in 1999 and now, after that solid run as the standard setter, it’s finally met its match — from the only minivan maker that can match Honda’s reputation for quality.

Beyond all that, buy one and Keith Bradsher and Gregg Easterbrook will think the world of you.

2004 Toyota Sienna
Base Price: CE - $22,955; LE - $24,260; XLE - $28,260; XLE Limited - $34,480
Engine: 3.3-liter V-6, 230 hp
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, front- or all-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 119.3 in
Length: 200.0 in
Width: 77.4 in
Height: 68.9 in
Weight: 4120-4365 lb
Fuel economy (estimated):  19/27 (2WD); 18/24 (AWD)
Standard safety equipment: Anti-lock brakes, child seat LATCH system, dual, multi-stage front airbags, three-point seatbelts and adjustable head restraints for all passengers
Major standard equipment: Dual sliding doors with power windows and door locks, 60/40-split fold-flat third-row seat
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles; five years/60,000 miles powertrain




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