Sunday, August 12, 2007

Auto Rieview: 2007 Toyota Sienna

Soccer-Mom-Mobile extraordinaire

Our family vehicles for shuttling kids and groceries in the ‘90’s were those ugly ducklings from GM, the Safari/Astro-series of mini-vans.

In those days, your choices were somewhat limited to full-size vans with individual zip codes, mini-vans like the Safari/Astro’s, or the front-wheel drive Caravans from Plymouth, or their wannabe competitors from Toyota and Nissan. Ford’s forgettable Aero and Windstar were also players…but take a look around at what’s still on the road today for clues as to who won that battle.

Toyota’s 2007 Sienna is comfortably in the middle of the pack of what I describe as today’s family UPC's (urban personnel carriers), with a few features that are unique to Toyota, and others that are stamped into the DNA that defines this vehicle genre.

Generally, a family van isn’t designed to inspire passion in its owners. Instead, you’re looking for safety, efficiency, and convenience. I’d tag dependability up there in my top tier of criteria (after having replaced alternators and starters on each of my GM vehicles within the first 30k-miles.)

Both of our heirs are now responsible for their own transportation. Our son terrorizes the Beltway in a Mazda RX-8; our daughter sensibly commutes to work in a Honda Accord. Both cars were purchased used. We no longer need or use mini-vans.

So it was with a somewhat detached sense of curiosity that I took the keys of a new Sienna for a week, just to see what the new generation of Soccer-mom-Mobiles were like. I was pleasantly surprised, though not moved enough to swap my present vehicle for one of these!

The ’07 Sienna boasts four trim lines, three of which also offer the all-wheel-drive configuration. Our test vehicle was the standard front-wheel-drive configuration, but with the larger, improved 266-hp 3.5-litre V-6 engine. For a mom-car, this rig can move!

What I like about the new Sienna: electrically-operated side and rear deck doors. The remote entry device will open or close those doors from across the parking garage. There’s also a command center cluster of buttons on the interior ceiling that will operate these doors. The side doors also feature glass windows that roll down (an nice improvement from the stodgy pop-out glass that GM’s Astro vans never improved upon!)

One of the litmus tests when I was shopping for a family vehicle back in the day was whether you could put sheets of 4 X 8 plywood in the back. The Sienna passes this exam, and has a few other neat ideas—like a split third seat in the rear that stows into the floor. Another silly qualifier--but important to me--is how well you can transport groceries without unloading instant goulash when you arrive home. The split third row configuration was very effective in preventing watermellons from becoming projectiles, stowed securely in that bottom compartment!

The model we drove had smaller rims than I would have preferred. The AWD versions feature 17-inch rims on run flat tires. (Note—those are way cool when the car is new, but replacing one run-flat tire is like buying an entire set of conventional tires. Caveat emptor!)

While the standard 16-inch rims were effective, I imagine the improved geometry with larger rims would be a noticeable improvement in Sienna's handling characteristics. As it is, the standard version maneuvers very well for a 119+ inch wheelbase--which also creates a very smooth ride.

Road trip, anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
Just wanted to see if you were paying attention.

One other interesting note about this Toyota—despite the nameplate, it’s for all intents and purposes a domestic automobile. Toyota builds the Sienna’s in Princeton, Indiana, with engines and transmissions that are assembled at their power train facility in West Virginia.

If I had it to do over again, I would consider the Sienna a worthy competitor for my dollar. Frankly, I’m glad I don’t have to make the choice!

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