2012 Toyota Sienna Review

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Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
February 22, 2012

It's not as flexible as some minivans, but the 2012 Toyota Sienna is large, safe, and still has options for four-cylinder power and all-wheel drive.

One of the Big Four among minivans, the Toyota Sienna was revamped last year to give families more choice in drivetrains and in features. The Sienna's now the most diverse minivan, in terms of power and features, but it's not quite the most flexible big box in the parking lot.

You won't encounter any flash mobs thronging around the Sienna for its looks alone, but it's a little more dynamic-looking than the domestic and Korean minivans. Honda's gone astray with a lightning-bolt motif and Nissan's mimicking the Ford Flex, but Toyota was satisfied finessing the Sienna's details, adding some more pronounced forms on the nose and down its side windows. It's not quintessentially boxy like the Chrysler vans or the Quest, and the Sienna tapers softly from windshield to tail. The dash wears a big, dramatic arc like other new Toyotas, one that divides driver controls from secondary knobs and switches. The swoopy theme gives the impression of greater interior space, and seats and trim pieces have been slimmed down for the same effect. Unlike other Toyotas, the Sienna's interior looks a bit better than in the last-generation minivan, but there's still grainy plastic on the dash. Some plastic trim is swapped out in higher grades for woodgrain trim, and gauges go electroluminescent, like those on a Lexus.

The Sienna's four-cylinder base engine is good enough to give buyers pause when considering the more expensive V-6 versions. The 2.7-liter four produces 187 horsepower and teams with a six-speed automatic for acceleration times of less than 10 seconds, and fuel economy of up to 19/26 mpg. The usual four-cylinder noise isn't all that loud, though it is almost always present in even commuter-style driving, since the engine has to work to keep up with the Sienna's significant curb weight, but the automatic keeps up its side of the bargain so well, we'd think twice before spending up to the 3.5-liter V-6. It has 266 horsepower and a six-speed automatic, too, but gas-mileage ratings slip to 16/22 mpg when all-wheel drive is ordered. The power is ample, even luxurious, and some drivers will believe the extra swiftness is something of a safety feature.

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All Siennas ride atop a front strut and rear multi-link suspension. Electric power steering was new last year, and it works particularly well in such a big vehicle with such little emphasis on cornering performance. That's not to say the Sienna is sloppy: its steering tucks in the front end quickly, and body roll isn't excessive for this kind of vehicle. It's no sports car, but the smooth ride motions and steering feel make the Sienna feel maneuverable beyond its dimensions on city streets. There's an SE version for drivers who demand a little more direct feel: it comes with 19-inch wheels and tighter suspension tuning, but it's a subtle difference that could be lost on most minivan drivers.

At more than 200 inches long, and more than 78 inches wide, the Sienna's a big van. There's space everywhere, even in the third row. The front seats get a regal seating position, and even in the second row, a pair of airline-style reclining bucket seats are available. The basic bench is comfortable, with expanses of head and leg room--and it slides on an elongated track so that either second- or third-row leg room can be expanded. It also aids in loading passengers into the third row. The second-row seat can be removed entirely, but does not fold away into the floor--the Chrysler minivans' special trick. The third-row seat does fold flat, and with it stowed and the middle seats pushed forward, the Sienna has 150 cubic feet of cargo space.

Standard features include curtain airbags and stability control, and a rearview camera and Bluetooth are available, but there are no blind-spot monitors. All Siennas come with dual sliding side doors; power windows, locks and mirrors; cruise control; a CD player and aux jack; a tilt/telescoping steering wheel; and three-zone climate control. Upscale versions add a power tailgate and power sliding side doors; steering-wheel audio controls; leather upholstery; heated front seats; a dual sunroof; and a huge 16.4-inch-wide LCD screen and a DVD player to keep the two back rows of passengers entertained. The screen even splits so that side can be dedicated to gaming, one to movies. A word of warning: one viewing of Pirates of the Caribbean, and you'll be hooked, or on the hook.

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2012 Toyota Sienna

Styling

There's no evading the typical minivan one-box shape.

Minivans will not be the vehicles that inspire styling revolutions. The Toyota Sienna sticks with the rules of the game, its one-box shape sporting a touch or two of style, without touching off any flash mobs or civil disobedience. There's a tad more personality than in the prior version: from the side, the Sienna's growing ever closer to the Honda Odyssey, in the way its rear pillars boomerang into the tailgate, and the front end has something more like the Venza crossover's good looks. The Sienna SE gets its own front-end treatment and it does send a few subtle cues about its more sporty steering.

Inside, the Sienna has adopted the latest Toyota styling theme, with a dramatic arc separating driving controls from secondary and passenger-shared controls. The dash is styled to give the impression of more passenger space, and Toyota says slimmer seats and controls add to the feeling of roominess in the new Sienna. The interior looks less expensive than before, though. Plastic trim is replaced on some versions by matte wood-grain trim; pricier versions get Optitron gauges like those in some Lexus models.
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2012 Toyota Sienna

Performance

We've been pleasantly surprised by the four-cylinder's performance, but most Sienna buyers will opt into the strong V-6.

As minivans have grown in size, most have axed their former four-cylinder engines and have uprated their stock-and-trade six-cylinders. The Sienna takes another tack: in its 2011 revamp, it carried over its V-6 engine and brought back a four-cylinder that gives bargain a budget-minded choice that won't feel too much like bargain hunters.

The four-cylinder displaces 2.4 liters and makes 187 horsepower, compared to the 3.5-liter V-6's 266 hp. With either, a six-speed automatic is the only transmission offered. While the EPA ratings don't make much distinction between the two, your checkbook might--and with a passenger two on board, the four-cylinder Sienna performs reasonably well, and reasonably smoothly. It's powerful enough to carry a carpool's worth of kids, and thousands less than the strong V-6.

The latest Sienna carries over a straightforward MacPherson front strut and independent rear suspension. Electronic power steering is a new arrival, and it's fine in a vehicle like the Sienna, in which handling is a lower priority than space and fuel economy. While it's no sportscar, the Sienna has smooth ride motions and quick steering, making it nicely maneuverable in city driving.

A special SE edition gets tighter suspension tuning, big 19-inch wheels, and a lower body; it's a gamble that may not register with average minivan buyer, especially as it's a subtle difference from the XLE or Limited feel.

The Sienna is rated to tow up to 3,500 pounds, and itself weighs from 4,275 to 4,750 pounds.

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2012 Toyota Sienna

Comfort & Quality

The Sienna has excellent chairs for the front two rows of passengers, but they're not as flexible as those in some other minivans.

The Sienna is a large minivan, at 200.2 inches long, riding on a 119.3-inch wheelbase and sitting at 78.2 inches wide. It's marginally bigger than the prior version, and roughly tied with the Honda Odyssey in overall interior volume.

The size translates directly into lots of room for all three rows of seats. The front seats offer plenty of room in all directions, but the second row takes things a step further. The standard bench is fine, and slides on a track to make limo-like leg room available when needed. It comes into its own when the bench is swapped out for a pair of captain's chairs that offer airline-style first-class accommodations; they have leg-cushion extenders and footrests that give new status to backseat drivers.

It's possible to remove the second-row seats, but the Sienna is a reskin of the former model, and it wasn't designed to allow the middle seats to stow away in the floor--a nifty trick formerly available on the Nissan Quest, and still offered in the utility champions, the Chrysler minivans. The Chrysler way is a better way, though Toyota responds that fold-away second-row seats aren't as comfortable as their chairs.

The third-row seat actually has adult-sized room in all directions. It isn't that difficult to enter-and they fold almost flat into a deep well in the cargo area. With the second-row seats moved as far front as possible, the 2011 Sienna has 117.8 cubic feet of cargo room; with the second row removed and the third row folded, it will hold 150 cubic feet of cargo. Even behind the upright third-row seat, there's 39.1 cubic feet of space, almost twice as much storage room as the 2010 Ford Taurus' trunk. The Sienna also can carry an actual 4x8 sheet of plywood.

There's also plenty of small-item storage inside in the Sienna's console, twin gloveboxes, map and side pockets, and available cargo organizer.

The revamped interior suffers a bit in richness; interior materials and appointments feel a bit less refined compared to those of its competitors, in particular the horizontal grain on the dash and door caps. You won't open a vein, but you will notice a difference if you compare it to Aunt Barb's '96 Camry.

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2012 Toyota Sienna

Safety

Crash tests prove the Sienna's a great choice for safety.

The Sienna performs well in crash tests, and has some advanced safety technology that doesn't quite match that offered on its rivals, the Chrysler minivans.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gives the Sienna an overall rating of four stars. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) calls the Sienna a Top Safety Pick.

All models come with side curtain airbags that offer protection for all three rows of seating, as well as a driver-side knee airbag. A pre-collision protection system that preps the car for an imminent accident is offered on higher-level trims, as is dynamic cruise control. However, the Sienna doesn't have the latest blind-spot monitors offered on other minivans and many crossover vehicles.

Visibility is excellent in the Sienna, and its available rearview camera offers a 180-degree view.

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2012 Toyota Sienna

Features

It lacks some of the ultimate minivan features found over at Chrysler, but we're big fans of the Sienna's big LCD screen and its first-class, second-row seats.

Toyota's made a conscious decision to steer clear of the least profitable end of the minivan market, which means all versions are priced from at least the high-$20,000 range, and offer a good deal of standard equipment.

That equipment list includes a folding third-row seat and sliding side doors; power features and cruise control; three-zone climate control; a tilt/telescoping steering wheel; remote keyless entry; and an AM/FM/CD player with an auxiliary jack. Stepping up to LE models adds on sunshades; a center console; steering-wheel audio and phone controls; and power sliding side doors. SE Siennas have 19-inch wheels; LED taillights; sport trim; and a leather-trimmed steering wheel. The well-trimmed XLE gets a power front passenger seat; a sunroof; a power tailgate; heated front seats; and second-row captain's chairs that we rave about in the Quality section.

The Sienna Limited is the top of the lineup, and it gets a dual sunroof; overhead console; a sliding center console; second-row "lounge seats" and a power-folding third-row seat, as well as a JBL audio system with USB connectivity, Bluetooth stereo audio and a six-disc CD changer. We've had trouble connecting iPhones to the various Bluetooth stereo-equipped vehicles just hitting the market, but ran into no problems with the Sienna.

Options on various models include DVD navigation; a Dual View rear-seat DVD entertainment system with an immense 16.4-inch wide pair of screens; and premium audio. Toyota demonstrated the widescreen effect with the latest Star Trek movie; trust us, you'll want it.

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2012 Toyota Sienna

Fuel Economy

The four-cylinder isn't as clearly frugal as we'd hoped, but the Sienna still earns some of the best minivan gas-mileage ratings.

Toyota stands alone in offering a four-cylinder engine in its Sienna minivan, and it's not an unreasonable choice, despite its gas-mileage numbers and the van's 4,500 pounds of curb weight.

For those on the budget, the base Sienna with its 2.7-liter four-cylinder and six-speed automatic won't feel like a penalty box. As we've observed under the Performance section, the four-cylinder Sienna's admittedly slower, but not sluggish--and it's priced well below V-6 versions. Its EPA rating of 19/24 mpg, however, is bracketed by the V-6, front-drive Sienna's 18/25-mpg rating, which means you may get slightly better mileage with the four-cylinder in mixed driving, while interstate cruisers will do better with the V-6. With either, the Sienna sits at the top of minivan fuel economy rankings, alongside the most expensive versions of the Honda Odyssey.

Opt for all-wheel drive, and the Sienna's mileage ratings fall to 17/23 mpg.

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