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2018 Toyota Sienna Test Drive Review
For the majority of American families, nothing beats a minivan when it comes to hauling kids and cargo. Unless you’re towing lots of weight or you head off-road on a regular basis, these legendary boxes on wheels simply make life easier. Among them, however, the 2018 Toyota Sienna is not the best choice unless you require all-wheel drive.
A friend of mine once owned a T-shirt that said: “Mini-van, mega-fun.” He doesn’t have kids. He wasn’t married at the time. Yet he drove a Chevy Astro, which he used as a surf wagon, a beach hangout, a camper, and more. He has long since swapped it for a vintage Porsche 911 wearing significant patina, but he still recalls that old Astro fondly.
Minivans have a way of making themselves members of your family. You buy one when kids (or grandkids) arrive, you raise children with it, you road-trip in it, and you haul sporting equipment and materials for home-improvement projects in it. It becomes an integral part of your clan’s history, in much the same way that station wagons did back in the 1960s and '70s.
Weirdly, it's this association with family, however, that turns people off to minivan ownership. During the week we evaluated a 2018 Toyota Sienna SE, the woman two doors down told my wife, in relationship to our test vehicle: “I just don’t want to be seen as a mom.” They do have an image problem, that’s for sure, which is why there are just five primary competitors left in the space.
Look and Feel
Car companies know that minivans are not cool. Only Chrysler, Dodge, Honda, Kia, and Toyota continue to offer them, though both the Ford Transit Connect and Mercedes-Benz Metris supply quirky alternatives.
That’s why each minivan maker tries something different to make its version stand out. From the available plug-in hybrid powertrain for the Chrysler Pacifica to the luxurious first-class lounge seating offered in the Kia Sedona, each purveyor of vans adds a handful of unique ingredients to an otherwise simple recipe.
Toyota’s specialties are a standard suite of modern safety systems, optional all-wheel drive (AWD), an available Auto Access Seat for the physically impaired, and a sport-tuned SE trim level.
My test vehicle had the SE trim ($36,990), which includes a mesh grille, darkened headlights, rocker panel skirts, special taillights, and other subtle visual cues to set it apart from other Siennas. Inside, unique instrumentation and black leather seats with white exposed stitching await.
The Sienna SE sits on gunmetal-finish 19-inch aluminum wheels (wrapped in 235/50 Dunlop SP Sport 7000 all-season tires on my test vehicle), and also includes sport-tuned steering and suspension for more lively performance.
In addition to these standard features, the test vehicle included a Preferred Package (blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, Smart Key entry system, power sunroof, Driver Easy Speak system, Entune 3.0 Premium infotainment system with dynamic embedded navigation system) and a set of floor mats. The as-tested price came to $41,110, including $995 in destination charges.
The result is a sporty-looking minivan, especially in Salsa Red Pearl. The revamped front end is a more successful update than other Toyotas have received in recent years, and while the rest of the SE looks pretty much the same as it has since 2011, it has aged gracefully.
Inside, I like SE’s full leather seating with exposed stitching, various metallic accents, striated plastic trim, and the matte-finish instrument panel surfaces with just enough gloss black to make it look a little fancy. Toyota tastefully executes this cabin, and it reflects quality.
Last year, the Sienna gained a new direct-injected 3.5-liter V6 engine making a robust 296 horsepower at 6,600 rpm and 263 lb-ft of torque at 4,700 rpm. It flows to the front wheels through an 8-speed automatic that also debuted for 2017. AWD is an option only for LE, XLE, and Limited trim levels.
Acceleration is quick, the engine sounds great when revved, and the transmission snaps off quick gear changes. Sometimes, you can catch the automatic off-guard, though, such as when I would slow nearly to a stop and then execute a turn. In that situation, a momentary delay in power delivery was evident.
Toyota offers a manual shift gate using the dashboard-mounted gear selector, and when using this methodology during a spirited drive or to hold a lower gear when descending a mountain grade, the chosen gear number shows in a large, oversized presentation to make it easily referenced at a glance.
Believe it or not, the Sienna SE’s sport-tuned steering and suspension, in combination with the larger wheels and more serious tires, legitimately add an extra level of performance to this minivan. I wished for a quicker steering ratio to cut down on the amount of wheel work in tighter curves and corners, but otherwise this setup allows the Sienna to match newer minivans like the Pacifica Limited and Odyssey Elite in terms of driving enjoyment.
One potential dynamic letdown relates to the braking system. During testing, with just a driver aboard, and in 60-degree temperatures, some fade was evident. While the Sienna still executed a panic stop without a problem, I can’t help but wonder how it might have fared with a full load of people and cargo on a hot day.
Many Sienna owners may never experience an issue with this minivan’s brakes. They may, however, discover that their Sienna doesn’t get near the fuel economy they’re expecting. That was my experience, anyway, with the Sienna SE returning 18.9 mpg on my test loop. That’s well short of the EPA estimate of 22 mpg in combined driving.
Form and Function
Boxes are good for moving and storing things for a reason. They offer maximum space within a minimum footprint. And so it is with the 2018 Toyota Sienna.
Up front, my test vehicle had comfortable heated seats with inboard armrests, though it is somewhat aggravating that the front passenger seat lacks a height adjuster. A useful center console with a somewhat small storage bin divides them, and handy dual glove boxes reside in front of the passenger. Outward visibility is excellent thanks in part to front quarter windows and large side mirrors.
The front seats face a dashboard that is arranged for practicality instead of style. For the most part, the controls are easy to see, reach, and use, though my large fingers would prefer bigger stereo knobs. Irritatingly, though, the markings for the fuel gauge are almost invisible during the day. You’d better not wait for the needle to point to the “E,” because by then you’ll be sitting on the side of the road waiting for assistance.
The second-row seats are comfortable, and they slide to maximize comfort or to add extra third-row legroom. The middle section between the two captain’s chairs allows the Sienna to carry eight people, and it can be removed to create a pass-thru to the third-row seat. Just be sure passengers step over the low, floor-mounted console between the seats.
You can’t tilt the right rear captain’s chair to access the third-row seat when a child safety seat is installed there, which is a reflection of the Sienna’s age. That could be a deal-breaker for parents of kids who still require that type of seating.
Adults fit into the third-row seat with no trouble, especially if the people in the second row are willing to slide forward a bit. The seat itself is decent enough for shorter trips. The lack of thigh support would bother me on longer jaunts.
Cargo space behind the third-row seat measures 39.1 cubic feet, assuming you stack things to the roof. Fold the 50/50-split third-row seats into the floor and you’ve got room for five people plus 87.1 cubic feet of cargo.
To put that into perspective, that’s more than a Toyota Highlander can handle with both rear rows of seats folded down. Trouble is, in the Sienna, when you travel over speed bumps, they bounce and thump in their storage wells.
Maximum cargo capacity is 150 cubic feet. For comparison purposes, a Sequoia can hold 120.1 cubes with both rear rows of seats folded. Unfortunately, to reach that number, you need to remove the heavy second-row seats and store them somewhere. Most people are unlikely to make that effort. The alternative is to tilt and slide them forward and accept less space for your stuff.
This year, Toyota makes a few changes as far as the Sienna’s technology is concerned.
Every version of this minivan has upgraded infotainment systems. Even the base L trim level gets a Scout connected navigation system and more USB ports, and all trims except the L have Safety Connect subscription services and a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot. A premium JBL sound system is available only for the Sienna Limited, while a split-screen rear-seat entertainment system that can stream Android content can be added to the SE, XLE, and Limited.
My test vehicle had an upgraded Entune 3.0 Premium setup with an embedded “dynamic” navigation system. It has dynamic updates, dynamic point-of-interest (POI) search, and dynamic voice recognition, all with three free years of dynamic service. Unfortunately, I was not dynamically impressed. Each time I tried to use the system to find a specific place for which I did know the specific address, it attempted to direct me to something that sounded similar in a different state.
Thanks to sophisticated voice-search systems ranging from Alexa to Siri, modern consumers have a much lower threshold of tolerance for this kind of thing. If I ask for directions to Huntington Gardens in Pasadena, I expect to get directions to Huntington Gardens in Pasadena. And if Toyota offered Apple CarPlay or Android Auto in the Sienna, this wouldn’t be as big a deal, because when Entune 3.0 failed us, my wife whipped out her iPhone and we received directions nearly instantaneously. Too bad those smartphone integration technologies still are not offered in Toyota products (Apple CarPlay is coming for 2019).
Other technology improvements for 2018 include a new 4.2-inch driver information display and, exclusive to the Limited with the Premium Package, a 360-degree top-down surround-view monitoring system.
Another big change for 2018 is the inclusion of Toyota Safety Sense as standard equipment. This is a suite of driver-assistance and collision-avoidance systems, and Toyota says the 2018 Sienna is the only vehicle in its class to include adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning and lane-keeping assist, and automatic high-beam headlights as standard equipment.
In addition to Toyota Safety Sense, most versions of the 2018 Sienna include a free one-year subscription to Safety Connect, which supplies automatic collision notification, emergency assistance, roadside assistance, and more. A blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert system is available for the SE trim and standard for XLE and Limited trims.
It’s a good thing Toyota offers so much safety tech as standard equipment, because the Sienna is the only minivan aside from the positively geriatric Dodge Grand Caravan that does not get a Top Safety Pick rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). In the driver’s side, small overlap, frontal impact test, this van gets an Acceptable rather than Good rating. The Chrysler Pacifica, Honda Odyssey, and Kia Sedona all score better.
Furthermore, in federal government testing, the Sienna earns a 4-star frontal-impact rating instead of 5 stars. That’s because this minivan doesn’t do a top-notch job of protecting the front-seat passenger. Also, the NHTSA hasn’t rated the Sienna for side-impact protection, leaving a gap in knowledge that is essential.
As far as the Toyota Safety Sense technologies are concerned, for the most part they are helpful and relatively refined in terms of their operation. For example, I never felt like I was fighting the lane-keeping assist system, mainly because it doesn’t try to center the Sienna in its lane. Rather, it works simply to prevent lane departure. As a result, I was inclined to keep it engaged rather than encouraged to shut it off.
At one point during my driving, though, while rounding a curve, the forward-collision warning system falsely identified two cyclists as a potential obstacle ahead, and the van momentarily braked even though braking was not necessary. Thankfully, nobody was following the Sienna closely at the time.
In terms of value, minivans typically offer more than do crossover SUVs. You get more space for people. You get more space for things. And you typically get more stuff for less money.
Among minivans, the Toyota Sienna’s free scheduled maintenance for the first 2 years or 25,000 miles of ownership helps to make it more cost effective. So do lengthy trials of its connected services, Wi-Fi hotspot, and dynamic navigation functions. A deserved reputation for dependability helps, and because the Sienna is one of the oldest designs in a mature segment, dealers are usually dealing.
To some degree, however, the Sienna’s value equation erodes due to its lower crash-test rating, which, in theory, could result in higher medical bills and lost wages in the event of a collision.
Can its exclusive AWD system, sport-tuned SE trim, standard Toyota Safety Sense technologies, and other unique features overcome concerns about safety?
Not in my opinion. I like the Sienna, and I have since its most recent redesign for the 2011 model year. But safety is one of the most important things that a parent must consider when choosing a family vehicle, and in 2018, other minivans simply do a better job in terms of crash protection.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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