This year marks the Toyota Sienna’s seventh and final model year before a next-generation version arrives, so the current van understandably is showing signs of age. Compared with fresher competitors, it offers fewer ways for the kids to stay connected, fewer clever bins, and 100 percent fewer options for a vacuum cleaner than you’ll find in a Honda Odyssey or a Chrysler Pacifica. And its styling does little to disguise its minivan-ness for those who’d rather be seen driving anything else.
Note, however, that “antiquated powertrain” was not listed among its ills. The Sienna’s V-6 and six-speed automatic have delivered praiseworthy power over the years, lending it class-leading acceleration. Perhaps it was a bit coarse at high rpm and fuel economy could’ve been better, but those were minor grievances. And yet the Toyota minivan enters its swan-song year boasting a new engine. Its displacement is the same, but this aluminum 3.5-liter V-6 shared with the 2017 Toyota Highlander produces 296 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque, up from 266 and 245.
Only about 50 pounds has been added to the curb weight, so it’s easy to expect the 2017 Sienna to outdo the 2016 edition’s best-in-class zero-to-60-mph time of 7.3 seconds (a dead heat with the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Limited) that was recorded in our test of the heaviest, all-wheel-drive version. Also helping the cause is a new, smooth-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission that doesn’t draw much attention to itself.
The engine is a bit silkier than the outgoing V-6, and its extra power should be appreciated during fully loaded road trips. Unfortunately, Toyota has quite obviously retarded throttle response to reduce the possibility of bumps causing small, unintended throttle applications. You can tap the throttle and nothing will happen; only if you hold it down long enough for the car to recognize you’re serious will an actual reaction occur. It can irritate.
The lazy pedal may help real-world fuel economy, though, and the Sienna’s new engine has a few other tricks up its sleeve to maximize efficiency and power. Depending on the driving scenario, it can use direct fuel injection, port fuel injection, or both, while also alternating between the standard Otto cycle for ideal performance and the more efficient Atkinson cycle more often found in hybrids.
Combine that with the additional ratios of the eight-speed automatic, and the results are EPA ratings of 19 mpg city, 27 highway, and 22 combined with front-wheel drive. All-wheel drive lowers those numbers to 18/24/20 mpg. The combined ratings represent 1-mpg improvements over 2016’s numbers, but more important is that the Toyota now ties the Honda and the Chrysler on combined fuel economy—the big number on the window sticker. A new Odyssey is due soon, however, and it may jump back ahead.
As for the raison d’être of minivandom—the interior—the Sienna’s new engine can do nothing to make up for this van’s dated feature set. There is still only one USB port regardless of trim level, and onboard Wi-Fi isn’t available at all, meaning the kids may regard these environs as the rough equivalent of a cave dwelling. In most trim levels, the front center console remains just an unimaginatively fixed box, and there’s no ideal place to park a smartphone.
The second-row seats can’t be heated, the front ones can’t be ventilated, and the side doors can’t be opened by waving your foot under them. A backup camera, parking sensors, and blind-spot monitoring are available, but no other advanced safety tech is offered (although the Highlander SUV built on this platform has a full complement of active safety tech as standard equipment).
But before you cross the Toyota off your list in favor of the Chrysler or the Honda, know that those competitors’ more advanced features come only on the highest trim levels priced deep into the $40,000 zone. For shoppers with tighter budgets, that levels the playing field considerably for the Sienna, which finished first in our2015 minivan comparison test on the strength of its mechanicals and interior layout.
In particular, the Sienna’s seating still stands out. Compared with the Odyssey, its second row slides farther forward for additional cargo space and farther rearward to create unparalleled sprawl-out legroom. The seats are comfier than those in the Odyssey as well as in the Chrysler Pacifica, while the small seat between them that allows eight-person capacity is easier to remove than a similar one in the Odyssey (although we prefer sitting on the Honda’s). Just be mindful that the optional dual sunroof cuts into headroom. Tall teens or adults may find their heads grazing the hard plastic trim surrounding the sunroof.
As before, Toyota’s Entune touchscreen infotainment system is relatively intuitive, but the screen is a long reach away and not as sensitive to inputs as that in the Highlander, making it more likely that you’ll choose the wrong virtual button. Despite the minivan’s lack of advanced safety features, the government still gives the Sienna its top, five-star overall crash rating. It earns the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s best rating of Good in all but the new small-overlap frontal crash test, in which it scored the second-best Acceptable rating. Expect the next-generation model to correct that minor blemish.
It also will be interesting to see where that next-generation Sienna falls on the dynamic spectrum. Toyota currently offers two disparate suspension/steering options. Most trim levels include a suspension that can feel nautical over bumps and undulations. The SE trim level’s “sport-tuned” suspension provides road feel more reminiscent of older Honda Odyssey models. Its higher-effort steering is more precise, too, and imparts a greater sense of control than the overboosted standard setup. Only one in 10 Sienna buyers opts for the SE—it’s definitely worth a back-to-back test drive.
The 11th-hour powertrain update certainly improves the Sienna, but it isn’t enough to make a move against the competition. Then again, the Toyota’s appeal depends on how much money you want to spend—it’s much more competitive at the lower end of the price spectrum—and whether the SE’s sharper driving dynamics hold sway. The sun hasn’t quite set on this trusty minivan, but for those determined to go Toyota, the one lurking over the horizon may be worth the wait.