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Swiss army minivan: Toyota Sienna is practiced in practicality, but with a catch

The 2022 Toyota Sienna goes up against the newcomer Kia Carnival and fellow stalwart Honda Odyssey in this fall's minivan battle.

The 2022 Toyota Sienna is in its second year as a hybrid-only minivan, and has the fuel economy numbers to show for it. Power, however, is only slightly disappointing.
The 2022 Toyota Sienna is in its second year as a hybrid-only minivan, and has the fuel economy numbers to show for it. Power, however, is only slightly disappointing.Read moreToyota

2022 Kia Carnival SX Prestige vs. 2022 Toyota Sienna PLT AWD vs. 2022 Honda Odyssey Elite: The best way to haul a big family?

This week: Toyota Sienna

Price: $53,770 as tested. Rear seat entertainment system, $1,415; 1500W inverter, $300; digital mirror with Homelink, $200; floor mats, $220.

Conventional wisdom: Car and Driver likes the “handsome styling, smooth ride, gas-sipping hybrid setup,” but not that it’s “slower than other non-hybrid vans, interior isn’t as configurable as rivals’, only offered as a hybrid.”

Marketer’s pitch: “More than enough.”

Reality: Can anything out-practical a hybrid, all-wheel-drive rolling family room?

Catching up: Last week we took a long ride in the new Kia Carnival and found it not quite meeting expectations. This week we test out old stalwart Toyota Sienna, which has become stalwartier.

» READ MORE: Newcomer Kia Carnival takes on minivan favorites Sienna and Odyssey | Scott Sturgis

What’s new: In addition to some design updates, as of 2021, the Toyota Sienna comes exclusively with a hybrid power train (sans plug-in) and is the only hybrid minivan to offer all-wheel drive. (The Chrysler Pacifica, not available for this comparison, offers either AWD or hybrid, but not together.)

Up to speed: I don’t really expect any minivan to be a rocket, and the Sienna lived down to my expectations. The 2.5-liter four creates 189 horsepower; the motors boost that to a total 245 horsepower, just about 10% less than the Honda Odyssey.

Acceleration times are not bad — I did some foot-stomping starts at the bottom of a hill and didn’t feel annoyed by turtlosity. The Sienna gets to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds, according to Motor Trend. This compares to 7.5 for the Carnival (catch us next week for the Odyssey report), and 7.1 for the 2020 Sienna gasoline-powered version previously tested.

» READ MORE: Toyota Sienna AWD: It’s all the SUV most of us need | Scott Sturgis

The Sienna sounds so much like a four-cylinder, though. When the engine kicks in, it just emits a sad whine. Still, I doubt a cooler sound would make the other kids in the high school parking lot welcome you to their little clique.

Shiftless: The CVT probably doesn’t help with the sonic effects, either, as the gearless transmission tends to give a golf-cartlike vibe to vehicles. But power for hills didn’t seem to be lacking, even with five of us riding around the hills and dales of Chester County.

Fuel economy: It all pays off in this department, though. Really, who would have expected a minivan that pulls this category up from the bottom of a Driver’s Seat review? But Mr. Driver’s Seat averaged a whopping 33 mpg in the Sienna around Chester County country roads, although I confess I mostly left it in Eco mode. And on the highway, it started heading further up.

On the road: Toyota has long since designed out the lumbering elephant feel of the Sienna since the Sturgis family’s 2011 model. But the 2021 felt less enthusiastic on the curves than I recall of the 2020 model.

Sport mode does tighten up the steering a bit but doesn’t seem to have much effect on the lean or the actual handling.

Highway handling is nice. The ride is comfortable and bumps are smoothed out. I even took it on a rough, washed-out dirt road and was not jostled around.

Driver’s Seat: The Lovely Mrs. Passenger Seat and I agreed that the heated and ventilated leather-trimmed front seats in the test model offered tremendous comfort for the two of us. Even our old 2011 is a comfortable long-trip companion.

Friends and stuff: Surprisingly, the real down side to the Sienna came where I least expected it. The minivan does not have a removable or foldable second row.

One of the brightest spots of the family Sienna has been throwing everything back there — 4 by 8 panels, a couple couches, entire dorm rooms. Granted, the seats in the 2011 model are heavy, but out they go when needed. But cargo numbers have diminished significantly to 101 cubic feet behind the first row (and squashed-up second row). The other dimensions are of 33.5 cubic feet behind row 3 and 75.2 cubic feet behind row 2.

Still, the Sienna is the most spacious of the three for passengers. And the rear row is especially good for headroom.

Play some tunes: The stereo sound is Toyota pitiful, as it was in 2011. Too much treble, and everything sounds tinny and annoying. I give it a B-.

Knobs control volume and tuning, and the simple touchscreen handles almost everything else. Buttons on the outside get you from mode to mode.

Keeping warm and cool: Like most minivans, cooling on even moderately hot days can be challenging — there’s a lot of territory to cover. An additional vent on the dashboard would help immensely — the raked windshield collects a lot of hot air.

A row of toggles controls everything and the individual pieces can be hard to see.

Night shift: The lights shine a little low, but at least the interior lights don’t interfere with the road.

Where it’s built: Princeton, Ind.

How it’s built: Consumer Reports gives the Sienna a reliability rating of 3 out of 5. It’s been middling for a few years now.

Next week: Honda Odyssey.