Some of the fondest memories I have from my youth involve riding in the back of my family's Pontiac station wagon.
This enormous, steel-bodied land yacht stretched more than five metres in length and provided my family the means to travel the country in comfort, in our quest to terrorize friends and relatives alike. With seating for nine, there was always room for some extra cub scouts, teammates or figure-skaters, and all of their chattels.
Unfortunately, the station wagon's days were numbered, as Chrysler kicked off the era of the minivan in 1983 with the debut of its venerable Voyager and Caravan models. Toyota soon followed with its first effort, simply named the Toyota Van; General Motors and Ford entered the fray the following year.
What was the big appeal of these new body styles?
Consumers liked the minivan because they were vehicles with a large amount of room but a rather small footprint. Baby-boomers adored them, despite the fact they had ridiculously poor handling characteristics and terrible aerodynamics. Manufacturers loved them because they were relatively cheap to produce, using many existing components.
Just shy of a decade later, the minivan became an endangered species when image-conscious consumers began to turn their attention to sport utility vehicles to avoid the "soccer mom" label that had become associated with those rotund people-carriers.
In recent years, the arrival of crossover utility vehicles has hastened their demise.
Both Ford and General Motors have already abandoned the minivan in favour of protecting their respective strongholds in the light-truck market, and expanding their individual catalogues of SUV and CUV models.
Today, Chrysler dominates the minivan segment, largely because of the company's aggressive pricing and abundance of dealerships. But Toyota, Honda and Nissan are still in the game.
Toyota is the No. 2 player in the van segment, but this might be by design. Instead of offering stripped-down fleet-fillers, the Japanese automotive giant has decided to equip the popular Sienna with an impressive list of standard features.
The 2014 Toyota Sienna XLE is the company's top-tier model and, as such, it features a full complement of luxury amenities and a full suite of technological accessories. And should you be looking for all-weather traction, the Sienna XLE can be ordered with all-wheel drive, a feature that gives it a distinctive edge over its competition.
The 3.5-litre V6 engine produces a generous 266 horsepower and 245 pound-feet of torque. Mated to the company's proven six-speed automatic transmission, this combination will quickly, and quietly, hustle this spacious people hauler to highway speeds with ease. This engine will be the sole source of motivation for the Sienna range, as Toyota has discontinued the 2.7-litre four-cylinder for the 2014 model year.
The Sienna can be ordered with either a seven-, or eight-passenger layout, depending on individual needs and selected trim level. My test vehicle was the former and featured a pair of captain's chairs in the second-row position and three seats in the rear. This design is very popular, as it provides a centre aisle for easy movement between the two rear seating areas.
Once perched behind the wheel it is obvious the fine folks at Toyota are working hard to ensure the Sienna remains relevant. One look at the quality of the fit-and-finish, luxurious appointments, and impressive array of instruments fitted to the Sienna, and it is evident minivans have come a long way in 30 years.
Visibility from the driver's seat is very good, as the hood quickly falls away and the tall windows and large mirrors help optimize situational awareness. The Sienna comes fitted with a backup camera, rear sonar, and a blind-spot alert system to further enhance visibility and help keep both passengers and pedestrians safe.
After spending the better part of a week behind the wheel of the Sienna, it became apparent Toyota's engineers have provided the van with handling dynamics akin to those of a passenger car. In fact, while driving the Sienna I soon forgot I was driving a van, as it seemed to perform more like a mid-sized sedan. And that is a good thing.
Steering feel is communicative, although overly assisted, but you will appreciate the help whenever you are faced with navigating through tight urban streets. The transmission seemed to keep the engine operating within its torque band and never hesitated when called into action to surge up a hill or execute a pass. The braking system inspired confidence, as response was quick and effortless, and stopping distances were commendable for a vehicle this size.
The ride is comfortable, and the suspension and chassis did an excellent job of isolating the cabin from the bumps and jolts associated with irregular pavement and light road hazards. Buyers will appreciate the fact the passenger cabin is well insulated from both wind and road noise, so occupants will be able to converse with ease.
The serene environment makes for an excellent place to watch a movie on the optional widescreen rear entertainment system, or listen to your favourite musical selection on the premium audio system.
The rear compartment is accessed via a pair of remote-operated sliding doors. Ingress and egress is a breeze, as the Sienna benefits from a low step-in height and tall roofline, backed up by plenty of grab handles. Once planted in the comfy captain's perch, a subtle tug on the door handle will initiate the auto-close function. The second row seats in the XLE offer lounge seating and an abundance of legroom. The third row bench is a little firm, and three adults might find it a little confining.
Should you find the need to haul cargo rather than passengers, the two captain's chairs can be removed and the rear bench (which is a 60/40 split design) can quickly be folded into the cargo recess to create a flat floor. The wide rear hatch can be opened and closed using the remote, which makes life a lot easier when you are handling luggage or wrangling a pack of wild kids.
The minivan is well past its heyday, but solid efforts such as the 2014 Toyota Sienna stand as proof there is still a place in the market for these rolling living-rooms -- as long as they continue to evolve to meet the ever-changing demands of the modern consumer.
-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013