Minivans are typically the most depressing category of cars. Nothing says “we’ve settled” like one. They’ve been boxy and uninspiring on the outside, and — at least until recently — would drive horribly, feeling like barges on a rough sea when plying through any turn. The thing is, they’ve quietly gotten significantly better in every way, and they’re still so very good at what they do — hauling your family and all your stuff (so much stuff) comfortably and safely. If only they could be… more fun.
Guess what? That’s exactly what’s happened to Toyota’s Woodland Edition Sienna. First know that the ’Yota micro-doses gas; its 35mpg combined city and highway is a good 50 percent better than any crossover you might buy that can seat seven passengers. Not to mention, only this rig seats five passengers and STILL has 75.2 cubic feet of storage in the way back. For comparison, a Kia Telluride, a seven-passenger hauler Fatherly has praised, can only manage 46 cubes when you stow the third row.
Safety simply must be top of mind when you’re buying any car. The Sienna’s standard suite of tech includes automated emergency braking, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, pedestrian/cyclist detection, full-speed adaptive cruise control, auto high-beams and road sign recognition. Plus it scrapes the dang paint off the safety scale ceiling, with an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ crash score. Again, that’s better than that other hybrid minivan you might be considering, the Chrysler Pacifica, which simply doesn’t score as highly.
The nitty gritty from our week-long test-drive starts right now.
Where We Tested
On dirt roads, country lanes, and long highway hauls.
The Biggest Thing Going For the Sienna
You’re still wondering what makes this minivan un-minivan like. First, it’s a hybrid. But not a conventional one. The Sienna’s electric rear motor enables the Toyota to rail corners by sending its instantaneous torque to either (or both) of the rear wheels, and that helps it hold a tighter line. As you throw it through a curve, downshift the six-speed autobox, point it toward an apex and keep slight pressure on the throttle. Now prepare to have your mind blown by how well the Sienna carves. Ahem. Of course you would never try this with kids in tow. But when they’re not, reasonably taut steering and an ultra smooth drivetrain feel a lot sportier than they have any right to be. Shhh! Don’t tell the neighbors it’s fun to drive.
Plus it’s been lifted for off-road duty. It has 6.9 inches of ground clearance, which practically towers over a Honda Odyssey’s meager 4.5 inches. Yeah, okay, you wouldn’t take it on the Baja Ten Billion (don’t Google that), but its slightly beefier suspension and higher ride height allowed it to easily and safely ply a washed out, muddy fire road during a driving rainstorm.
Minivans have distinct advantages over SUVs. One of them is a totally flat floor. That config enabled Toyota to make a unique, double-decker console between the two front passengers. The top half has a wireless charger, traditional USB plug, dual cup holders, the shifter and other controls. Underneath there’s a soft, grippy rubber matt that adheres better to a purse or backpack. Behind that there’s a closable bin that can also swallow a smaller purse or anything else you want out of site. Toyota includes a parabolic mirror behind the rearview, the better to see all the action behind you, and a function called Driver Easy Speak. That pipes in mom or dad’s voice to all three rows, so you can Voice-of-God your brood to take a survey of where they want to go for dinner. That also means you could subject your kiddos to the entire Backstreet Boys “oeuvre” during a transcontinental road trip, but there may be footnotes in the Geneva Convention that bar that sort of behavior.
View from the Backseat
Should your children want to drown out your sound stylings, you can get your Sienna with an HD, ceiling mounted screen that takes HDMI inputs and has two remotes and wireless headphones. But because Toyota knows that could just mean war between a pair of pre-adolescents, they also include dual 120V (1500W) power outlets, which is enough juice to charge a full-fledged laptop, and there are seven (!) USB ports nestled from stem to stern. Oh, not to mention beverage-accommodating cubbies wherever you look. For the little ones, that means both inboard and outboard, so even a kid in a carseat could reach her juice box. If your kids are a bit older, get the long-sliding captain’s chairs for row 2. These have 25 inches of fore-aft range, which is also great for flexibility (think: more room behind the second row for strollers or kids’ bikes).
There’s no way around it: The Sienna is still a minivan, and looks like one. If you have two or more kids, you probably need a larger ride. The rub is that usually means getting, at best, a middling 20-ish miles per gallon from a large SUV. That’s painful at the pump and horrible for the planet. If your soul hurts over the Toyota’s curvy body, one alternative would be to get the Kia Carnival instead. It’s a minivan disguised as an SUV. However, its combined 22mpg is almost 40% worse than the Toyota’s 35mpg, and with gas prices increasing more than a buck a gallon just since this past fall, that’s a difference that’s impossible to ignore.
The Bottom Line
There are no reasonably affordable seven-passenger EVs with anything remotely approaching the Sienna’s capacity and capabilities. The extras like AWD and hybrid tech as well as the added ground clearance make a van we already love even better, and if you’ve already lived the headache of a cramped, jacked, gas-guzzling SUV you already know the truth: You need a minivan. This one ticks all the boxes and then some.