Despite the disparagement to which they are subjected, minivans remain the single best way to transport a family and all the paraphernalia that goes along with it. Without question, one of the best of the breed is the Toyota Sienna.
While America can lay claim to the invention of the minivan (in 1936), the Japanese build the most competitive iterations of the genre today. Introduced in 1997 for the 1998 model year, the Toyota Sienna has been redesigned twice since then. Its most current update debuted for the 2011 model year.
Used Toyota Sienna: 2004 – 2010
Toyota is rarely an innovator, rather, the company usually waits to see what the competition comes up with and improves upon it. In the case of the second-generation Sienna, features like the 60/40 split folding rear bench seat was cribbed from Honda’s Odyssey — with the split added to make it more useful. Similarly, Senna’s power side windows, and their ability to roll down into the sliding doors was first seen on Mazda’s MPV. Still, regardless of its innovation quotient, the second-generation Sienna has garnered lots of praise.
At introduction, power came from a 230-horsepower, 3.3-liter V-6. This output number was revised to 215 in 2006, because of new SAE testing procedures. A five-speed automatic transmission conducted power to either the front wheels, or all four in Sienna models with all-wheel drive. A new 3.5-liter V-6 was fitted to the minivan in 2007, which gave the Sienna 266 horsepower.
Nicely equipped, the second-generation Sienna offered remote keyless entry, run-flat tires with all-wheel drive, a rear climate control system, heat absorbing glass for the windshield and front windows, and a factory tow package good for 3,500 pounds. These were all standard features. Options included smart cruise control, proximity sensors, voice activated navigation, a high-powered ten-speaker JBL audio system, and a rear-seat DVD-based video system with a flip-down screen.
On the safety front, ABS, brake assist, electronic brakeforce distribution, traction control, and a tire pressure monitoring system were standard features. Stability control was an option on the lower-priced models at introduction, but was made standard in 2008. On the airbag front, up until 2006, side torso and side curtain airbags were optional on cheaper Siennas. Used-car buyers concerned about the airbag count, but looking for a lower trim level, should focus on Sienna CE and LE models built from 2006 forward.
On the subject of trim levels, this generation Sienna was offered in CE (base), LE, XLE and XLE Limited. CE and LE models seat eight, as they use second- and third-row benches. The XLE models run “captain’s chairs” in the second row so they only seat seven. You can spot an XLE Limited from the outside by the chrome bar above the rear license plate. The “Lexus” of minivans, Sienna XLE Limited is one of the most luxurious examples of a family hauler you’ll run across.
Used Toyota Sienna: 1998 – 2003
The first Sienna was introduced to North America in 1997, as a 1998 model. Its V-6 powerplant displaced 3.0-liters and produced 194 horsepower. A four-speed automatic transmission fed the front wheels only; all-wheel drive would have to wait until the debut of the second-generation Sienna. This first Sienna managed to seat seven, but was a bit cramped in so doing.
Rather than fold-flat seats, the first-generation Sienna’s third row bench-seat was removable. It was fairly light (considering) and easy to remove. However, once removed, you were faced with the question of where to store it.
Trim levels included CE, LE, and XLE. The second row was a bench built for two in the LE, while both of the other models got captain’s chairs. At introduction, other differentiators included a driver-side sliding door and a roof rack as standard equipment for LE and XLE. These could be had as options on LE Siennas. If the presence of leather and wood are your thing, you’ll want to seek the XLE.
With the inevitable mid-cycle refresh in 2001, CE was granted a sliding door on the driver’s side as well. Other changes included a new grille and bumper, updated taillights and the center console was reworked. Additionally, the engine got variable valve timing, enabling an output increase to 210 horsepower — without a change in displacement.
The first-generation Sienna’s safety features were considered pretty substantial for its time. It was one of only a few minivans offering side torso airbags in the front seats and stability control — although only as options, not standard equipment. ABS was a standard feature though and Sienna was rated good in crash testing by the Insurance Institute.
Toyota Sienna: Current Model
Introduced in 2010 as a 2011 model, the current Sienna is the only minivan in its class offering all-wheel drive. Two engines are offered, a 266-horsepower V-6 and a 187-hp 2.7-liter inline-four (the first such engine ever offered for Sienna). A six-speed transmission transfers power from the engine to the drive wheels.
A sporty SE model was added to the usual CE, LE, XLE, Limited mix, making Sienna, ironically, the sportiest minivan going these days. We say “ironically” because currently Toyota has no true sport-oriented vehicle in its lineup. The sportiest Toyota for 2011 is arguably the Sienna SE. The SE model runs a slightly lowered suspension and its steering is calibrated to deliver more accurate feel as well as sharper turn-in.
Used Toyota Sienna: Summary
Throughout its lifetime, Toyota’s Sienna has been one of the best minivans available. Solidly reflecting Toyota’s values of fuel efficiency, reliability and utility, you could do a lot worse by your family than buying a pre-owned Toyota Sienna for its transportation needs.
Of course, Sienna is a mechanical device, and like all other vehicles there have been recalls issued for it over the years. To find out which apply to the model you’re considering, run an Internet search for “Toyota Sienna recall” incorporating the model year(s) you’re considering. Once you determine what updates were recommended, make sure your mechanic confirms they were done during your pre-purchase inspection.