Toyota takes a chance

To be a minivan these days could mean fading into the sunset with few people giving a second look. Or ... this could happen.

Rather than turning tail on the category, the new Toyota Sienna will show that, while wagons seem to be today's cool conveyance, minivans can still kick some tailgate.

There are only three distinct full-size minivan body styles wearing five different labels to choose from these days, while a decade ago there were an even dozen. The holdouts cater to a loyal group of true believers who see these vehicles for what they really are: the most practical blend of versatility, comfort, cargo capacity, safety and affordability around.

Toyota's California-based art studio has managed to inject some styling zip into what would likely be a real challenge for any design team: to make a box on wheels look cool and desirable. The new Sienna looks less benign and more purposeful when viewed from just about every angle. The stubbier hood and prominent grille and air intake present a sportier image (admittedly, an odd adjective to use when describing a minivan), augmented by more aggressive-looking flared fenders. As well, the rear end and taillight treatment avoids the slablike presence from the previous model.

The interior also abounds with good taste, along with the requisite number of storage bins and cupholders. Noted too are the extra-spacious dual gloveboxes that form part of a particularly attractive dashboard and instrument panel.

As before, there's seating for up to eight passengers, or seven if the optional second-row highback chairs are selected to replace the three-person bench. On the top-level Sienna Limited, those chairs turn into reclining lounge seats that also feature swing-up foot rests for the maximum self-indulgent travel (just try to pry the kids out of them).

The front- and middle-row seats have more rearward travel for added leg room. As well, the middle seat cushions from the second-row bench can be stowed in back, revealing an extra cup holder and storage tray. The third-row bench folds flat into the load floor when not needed.

Along with being the only minivan available in North America with optional all-wheel-drive (front-wheel-drive is standard), the Sienna now features a segment-exclusive four-cylinder base engine. This 2.7-liter powerplant earns an estimated city/highway fuel-economy rating of 19/26 mpg.

The now-optional 266-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 carries over from the 2010 model and is mandatory when all-wheel-drive is selected.

Both engines connect to six-speed automatic transmissions that replace the previous five-speed unit.

For the 2011 model year, there are five trim levels, beginning with the base Sienna and Sienna LE that come with tri-zone air conditioning (driver, passenger and rear), multiadjustable driver's seat, tilt and telescopic steering wheel plus the usual power-controlled goodies.

The SE, pictured here, includes a mesh-style grille, sporty body trim, taillights with tinted lenses, special instrumentation and interior trim, sport-tuned suspension and distinctive 19-inch wheels (17-inchers are found on base models).

The XLE features climate control, power moonroof, leather-covered seats (heated in front) and power-sliding side doors, while the high-stylin' Limited with its living-large lounge chairs also has keyless remote entry and push-button start, sliding first- /second-row floor console and a dual-sliding moonroof.

Among a plethora of options is a unique dual-view 16.4-inch wide-screen monitor that can display a single program or two programs, side by side, from two sources. There's also a 180-degree rearview monitor that assists when backing into tight spaces.

Sienna pricing will likely start off at the $25,000 mark and peak in the low $40,000 territory for the all-wheel-drive V-6 Limited. That range should continue to attract many fiercely loyal, trend-bucking minivan buyers with places to go and people to haul around.