2016 Toyota Sienna Review: Check Out America’s Only AWD Minivan

wheel-to-wheel copy

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Designed to be the low-slung alternative to the Sequoia, the all-wheel drive Toyota Sienna is a mastodon among elephants in the minivan jungle. Advertised as a “space shuttle with limousine aspirations,” the 2016 Sienna has been recently updated and believe it or not, I was excited about testing it out.

Driving around town in search of parking spots, picking the kid up from daycare, hitting the super market parking lot, or bumping down the interstate for a day at the park, it all was undertaken in the Sienna in order to test out its capabilities as a family hauler. I found the Limited Premium model Sienna to be pretty rewarding too, even if Toyota seems to have purposefully made it somewhat overly frumpy.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

After a week behind the wheel, I sent the tech-filled bread box back to Toyota with mixed emotions. This is a van that warrants consideration based purely upon its merits as an all-wheel drive alternative to a hulking SUV and the number of amenities it offers, but it still falls flat in a few key areas that the next generation of parental units will likely find unimpressive. Here is why.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Exterior

On the outside, what you see here is a very stripped down version of what I think might be one of the coolest looking minivans ever made for North America. The Limited Premium package I got is the top of the line version in regards to interior amenities, safety features, and that winning all-wheel drive system. But for whatever reason, Toyota feels its best version of the Sienna should remain overly homely looking, and doesn’t offer it with the sharp external upgrades found on the SE model.

The SE version features lowered, sport-tuned suspension, 19-inch alloy wheels, an attractive aero kit, aggressive, low-profile LED lights, and smoked sport trim that is reminiscent of what you would find on a sport sedan. It also comes with exclusive performance instrumentation and gauge cluster, unique black leather-trimmed heated and powered front seats with white stitching, and a handful of other sharp add-ons that make the Sienna less mundane. But buyers can’t have these things installed on the Limited version, and the SE is only front-wheel drive, so you’re forced to choose between looks and practicality.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Exterior pros and cons

+ This van isn’t as enormous looking as its roomy interior would have you think. All together, it’s nicely proportioned, featuring an ideal ride height for kiddos and grandparents alike.

+ The reflective lower rocker panel accents work nicely with the grille and the headlamps, adding some zest to the Sienna’s bubbly body. Also, the hidden rear wiper that resides beneath the spoiler is a nice touch, encouraging cleaner lines out back.

+ Going with a mesh lower air dam does the Sienna extra favors aesthetically up front, especially since it varies from the upper grille in both contrasting color and design.

– Why can’t Sienna Limited buyers get the lowered, sport-tuned suspension, 19-inch wheels, aero upgrades, and smoked sport trim from the SE? We have cash in hand.

– There’s very little about the external aesthetics of this van that make it superior to what we liked in the Kia Sedona or the Honda Odyssey. It’s just… bland.

– The roof rails on the Sienna aren’t integrated or trim matched, so they stand out as a cheap-looking add-on instead of an integrated design element.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain

Pedal to the metal, the Sienna hauls ass for being such a chunky vehicle. While the 3.5-liter V6 in it only generates around 266 horsepower on paper, the way the Sienna’s all-wheel drive system puts it all to the pavement makes all the difference.

Having the only minivan in the continental U.S. with available all-wheel drive has earned Toyota numerous loyal customers. I’ve been waiting near half a year for this van to arrive at my doorstep, and for the most part it did not disappoint in the drivetrain department.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain pros and cons

+ 266 horsepower may sound underwhelming in a vehicle that ways almost two and a half tons, but Toyota has had years of practice perfecting the Sienna, so its active torque control settings put the power down nicely. I reached 60 in under 8 seconds.

+ Parents shouldn’t have to worry about not being able to get home because their minivan isn’t all-wheel drive. Props to Toyota for continuously offering the Sienna with the ability to turn all four wheels at once.

+ For being such a whale of a car, the Sienna gets relatively decent gas mileage, with a 19 mile per gallon average. That’s with all-wheel drive in play and in hilly terrain.

– While Toyota’s V6 is strong enough to be considered “lively,” we still wonder when the automaker will get around to putting more efficient engines in for those who prefer fuel economy to tow capacity.

– Manually shifting through the gears of a Sienna makes you feel like you’re slicing Wonder Bread. There is nothing firm or rewarding about it.

– It would be nice to have various driving modes to choose from to better take advantage of the all-wheel drive. Snow, mud, ice, etc.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior

The interior is where things improve for the Sienna. For as spacious and kid friendly as it is, there are some drawbacks worth noting before you head down to your local dealer — I wouldn’t call them deal breakers or glaring issues. Remember, the battle between Honda and Toyota is just as fervid as ever, and with Kia edging ever closer to bumping one or the other off its thrown, the minivan battle royale for American preeminence is quite the battleground.

The 2016 Sienna has a lot of the quality plastics and soft touch materials we have all come to expect in a premium Toyota, with things like glossy trim work, removable captain’s chairs, and tri-zone climate control at the vanguard. For the most part, everything in the cabin is well laid-out and properly fitted, and with the addition of the available cargo management system, hauling muddy soccer cleats around won’t be an issue anymore.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior pros and cons

+ Dual-view rear seat Blu-ray entertainment, 10 JBL speakers that include a thumping sub, and heated leather front seats that are all warrant praise.

+ If cupholders and pockets aplenty don’t strike your fancy, maybe deep storage compartments, an extra glovebox, and the addition of integrated hidden storage totes in the trunk bed will garner your attention.

+ Two-way driver memory seat functions, one touch folding headrests, cabin air filtration, and a heated steering wheel that isn’t lame to grasp adds loads of value to this automobile’s interior.

– There aren’t any under seat storage bins in the Sienna, nor are there things like a built-in vacuum like what you find in a top trim Honda Odyssey.

– Faux wood strikes again, as do non-contrasting, bland seat colors, non-mechanical rear sunroof shades, and having heated seats that aren’t ventilated.

– Small issues add-up quickly: Chief offenders include not having a panoramic sunroof like the Sedona, the heated steering wheel only warms the bottom two-thirds, armrests feel super spongy and cheap, and the stitching on the dash being noticeably uneven in places.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech and safety

Rattle off the safety system or collision mitigation and chances are the Premium version of the Sienna Limited has it. This is a five star awarded piece of machinery, and while the government specializes in crashing these vehicles for review, we prefer to experience the technology that makes them so safe and enjoyable. Highlights of this model include a new multimedia layout with Siri Eyes Free, and “Driver Easy Speak,” which uses a microphone to conduct your voice through the audio system’s rear speakers.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech pros and cons

+ If the extensive driver Multi Information Display (MID) guides don’t suck you in, maybe the wide assortment of apps and the easy to use, all new multimedia layout will.

+ Blind spot monitoring, cross traffic warnings, Toyota’s Smart Stop technology, the aforementioned Driver Easy Speak … the tech-related rap sheet goes on forever.

+ The navi in the Sienna is extremely responsive, and while the aforementioned split rear TV and booming JBL audio are a cut above, it’s the fact that Toyota decided to add manual control knobs into the mix that makes me happy.

– I will continue to ding cars for not installing digital vehicle speeds in their MIDs, especially when it is a vehicle like the Sienna, which grandparents are prone to piloting.

– Driving the Sienna is great, especially since it has loads of tech at your fingertips. But having to reach all the way to the very top right of the touchscreen in order to jump to the next channel is a real pain, especially if the driver is a five-foot soccer mom.

– Not having LED interior lights or a fun-filled array of mood lighting like what we found in the Dodge Journey Crossroad doesn’t really hurt the Sienna, but neither does it help it.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

The drive

The feeling you get when driving the Premium Limited Sienna is about on par with the emotional stirrings you have when looking at it. It’s a doughy-soft drive in the handling department without the SE version’s stiffer springs, and although it’s very comfy for cruising, the disconnect is a bit much since the steering is just as soft. Fortunately, the brakes aren’t bad and the level of command you get from behind the wheel is pretty rewarding since all the controls are easy to access and the visibility is superb.

The real star of the show with the Sienna though is its powertrain, which remains strong and reassuring. The all-wheel drive system is predictable and adaptive, and the 3.5-liter V6 isn’t shy under throttle, so getting up to speed down and on ramp is never an issue. Unfortunately, some of the road noise noted at higher speeds was an unpleasant surprise to find.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Wrap up and review

For months I secretly harbored a wish that Toyota would send the sporty SE model down so that I could prove once and for all that minivans aren’t just well-equipped loaves of white bread. But the Limited Version in a Premium trim level showed up instead, and even though it’s a world-class family vehicle, I think Toyota may have missed its mark a smidge.

An increasing number of family car buyers are Millennials, a demographic that enjoys standing out, and most of them don’t want to buy what their parents would likely opt for at the dealership. This top-tier Sienna has all of the trappings of a champion, with its quality materials, utilitarian tech-laden interior, and all-wheel drive powertrain reinforcing its reign as king of the minivans.

Unfortunately, Toyota doesn’t offer the sharply styled SE version in all-wheel drive, and refuses to let you outfit the $48,250 Limited Premium version with the SE’s appearance upgrades and better-handling springs and wheels. In denying us the best of both worlds, Toyota has split potential buyers into unnecessary groups and in the process perhaps missed out on some extra margin padding, as younger buyers shoot for the SE instead.

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