All-wheel drive sets Sienna apart

by Haney Louka . Sep 02 2016

The minivan segment is an odd one. Some car companies, such as Ford, GM and Nissan, never quite decoded the market and fled in favour of producing large and mid-size crossovers to fill the gap. But there are still serious volumes to be had in this neck of the woods. Year-to-date Canadian sales numbers for minivans show nearly 60,000 units have already found homes this year.

The leader, of course, is the Dodge Grand Caravan (DGC). This is a price-sensitive segment of the market and the DGC can be bought at a price with which the others can’t compete.

The Toyota Sienna is No. 2 on the sales charts, but only claims about a quarter of the Dodge’s numbers, with just a slim lead over the similarly-priced Honda Odyssey.

Segment-wise, these are healthy numbers: sales volumes of mid-size, three-row crossovers exceed those of vans by only about 10,000 units.

And it’s easy to see why folks still love their vans. Passenger and cargo versatility are unmatched by any other segment, despite the proliferation of three-row crossovers. There’s simply no comparison between the two when it comes to people and stuff-hauling capabilities.

One of the main reasons people like their crossovers is the availability of all-wheel drive. The Sienna remains the only van on the market with a feature so many believe is a must-have when doing their shopping. A few years ago, I drove an AWD Sienna equipped with Nokian tires in the winter — it was unstoppable in the white stuff.

While prices for the Sienna start at $31,675, getting AWD in a Sienna means stepping up to the LE AWD model at $37,790.

That sum buys second-row captain’s chairs, a seven-inch touch screen user interface, three-zone climate control, rear-view camera, roof rails, windshield wiper de-icer, automatic headlights and all the cupholders you can spill a Slurpee in.

Our tester was the Limited AWD, which starts as an XLE AWD at $42,375. The XLE nets leather upholstery, navigation, acoustic windshield glass, wood grain trim, power liftgate, parking sensors, keyless start, power moonroof, LED running lights, blind-spot monitor, and cross traffic alert. The transformation to Limited trim only adds $7,325 to the price and introduces a host of premium features: heated steering wheel, premium JBL audio, double-wide rear entertainment system display with Blu-ray capability and wireless headphones, upgraded hide on the seats, 120V power outlets, dual moonroofs (both panels operate), rain sensing wipers and HID headlights with automatic high beams.

This Sienna, then, stickers at a little less than $50,000 fully optioned. The 2017s are nearly $2,000 higher across the board, with only minor changes slated for this upcoming model year. Perhaps most significantly, the six-speed slushbox will be replaced with an eight-speed, and power from the V-6 will be bolstered by about 30 horses while sipping less fuel.

But back to our tester, which was a 2016 model. The 3.5-litre unit under the hood generates 266 horsepower and 245 lb-ft of torque, transferring that twist through a six-speed automatic transmission to a part-time all-wheel drive system. It’s one that normally sends power through the front wheels but shifts it rearward when traction at the front is compromised.

During its time with us, the Sienna did family hauling duties, a short road trip, and even a trip to Ikea to pick up a sofa.

The knocked-down sofa was in boxes nearly seven feet long. Stowing the split third row was a cinch; lower the centre headrest and give the solid handle on the seatback a pull and the seat stows in one swift motion. The second-row captain’s chairs slide forward quite far, but that wasn’t enough to accommodate the long boxes, so removal of one of the second-row captain’s chairs was required to fit everything in. Not quite as simple as stowing the third row, but removal was straightforward nonetheless. I removed the right seat and placed it behind the left one, and the boxes slid in no problem. It’s this type of versatility that keeps van customers loyal.

What should also keep customers loyal is the Sienna’s comfort on road trips. While it’s no surprise that it can swallow many combinations of people and their stuff, what surprised me is the lack of comfort I experienced during this trip. As I see it, there are two culprits: the seats and armrests. The chairs themselves are soft and flat and offer very little of the support required to keep driver and passengers comfortable for the long haul.

Compounding this is the odd positioning of the armrests and lack of comfortable resting points for my elbows. Rather than having a large centre console armrest, the Sienna instead was designed to maximize stow space between the front seats, with armrests relegated to scrawny appendages on the sides of the seats. While they are height-adjustable, there’s just not enough real estate there to make them functional. And the point on the driver’s door where my elbow landed was inconveniently between the hard plastic and soft padded area on the door panel.

Sienna’s primary competitive advantage lies with the optional all-wheel drive system that the competition lacks, but prospective buyers should make sure they take one for a longer drive to make sure it fits just right.