In our opinion, the trigger-happy, ass-kicking “Swagger Wagon” by Toyota is the most enjoyable minivan on the American market today. While the all-wheel drive Sienna Limited Premium has the minivan segment on lockdown due to its grippy drivetrain and comfortable interior, we found that it fell short in both the styling and performance departments, two areas that are crucial selling points for millennial dads.
Enter the Sienna SE, a family-hauler with Stormtrooper aesthetics, sporty handling upgrades, and all of the familiar practicality of a minivan. It’s a van that’s been retooled several times since its inception, and every time it receives a refresh, it gets a boost in attractiveness and attitude.
I recently had a week-long audience with the Sienna’s chief engineer, Andrew Lund, during the track-oriented road trip known as One Lap of America, where we took a pair of minivans on nine race courses. In between romping around the track, our “SE+” version served as our form of transit to and from pit row, giving me quite a few hours behind the wheel to assess its strengths and weaknesses.
While you can’t exactly get a Sienna SE from the dealer just like this, it’s still pretty close to being stock. With a handful of tasteful TRD and aftermarket upgrades, the DG-Spec prepped SE+ Sienna serves double duty as both a test mule and a testament of what’s possible with your people mover. It may still have it’s shortcomings, but with a few key component tweaks, and some performance bolt-ons, we feel that this version of the Sienna could become the ultimate fun-filled family car.
The styling differences between the SE and other Sienna models is night and day. From its restyled front and rear underspoilers and 19-inch alloy wheels, to its lowered ride height and LED daytime running lights, the van looks both sporty and self confident. The SE+ prototype takes things even further, with smoked head and taillights, a widened stance, powdercoated wheels, a rear wing extension, and two-tone dark chrome touches in just the right places.
Exterior pros and cons
+ The stance on this van is just right, as the performance lowering springs drop the ride height about 8 millimeters and the custom DG-Spec 10-millimeter wheel spacers bring the track out to make the wheels and tires sit close to flush with the fenders.
+ The sport mesh grille, powdercoated 19-inch alloys, smoked front and rear LED lights, and all of those black chrome two-tone touches look outstanding.
+ The OEM aero on this van is right on the money, and the best part is you can get yours equipped this way straight from the factory.
– The rear wing extension looks OK, but a set of angled riser pads would make it even sharper looking.
– Those OEM wheels look great, but having some wider and sharper upgrade options from Enkei would be nice.
– The single port exhaust on the passenger side is not very visible, and for good reason, as there’s nothing sporty about it.
The Sienna SE utilizes a 3.5-liter V6 and a six-speed automatic transmission to get around, both of which are about as predictable and indestructible in their approach as a sumo wrestler. Generating around 266 horsepower and 245 foot-pounds of torque, the front-wheel drive eight-seater didn’t show any signs of struggle when loaded down with gear in the mountains of West Virginia. Unfortunately, this powerband isn’t nearly as engaging as the suspension setup, and without paddle shifters and more power, I was left wanting after about an hour behind the wheel.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ Even when burdened with all manner of race gear and luggage, this understated powerplant plods along without a single complaint.
+ For being over 2.5 tons and V6 equipped, those 18/25 mile per gallon estimates aren’t too shabby.
+ Reliability ratings on this engine/transmission combo are damn near bulletproof, and everything from gear shifts to acceleration speeds feel balanced.
– The SE version of the Sienna still does not come with an available all-wheel drive option, which is a major miss on Toyota’s end.
– Some people don’t like slapping an automatic gear selector around for fun, and not having paddle shifters only deflates driving enjoyability.
– Being that this is a performance prototype, you would expect around 300 horsepower thanks to a TRD performance trio of intake, exhaust, and ECU reflash, none of which came on the car.
Cruising across America in a loaded Sienna is like taking your living room on a roadtrip with you. From easily removable leather captain’s chairs and a “Dual-View” 16.4-inch rear display screen, to wireless headphones and heated seats, this interior is equal parts versatile and inspired. Once the rear bench is laid flat and the second row gets removed, a total of 150 cubic feet of cargo space is exposed, making it an attractive alternative to many SUV and truck options.
Interior pros and cons
+ Folding the backseat flat into the floor and removing the second row was a very easy affair, as was the installation of said seats later on.
+ Cargo space galore, nice leather touches, copious amounts of deep storage compartments, top grade plastic trim pieces, and a well proportioned leather steering wheel are all notable wins.
+ The SE+ prototype features upgrades like a passenger seat-mounted fire extinguisher, a leather TRD shift knob, and LED interior lighting.
– The second and third row don’t have access to USB plugs or heated seats, and the driver and front passenger seats are not ventilated.
– No in-seat storage bins or trapdoor floor compartments.
– Those spongy armrests are equal parts cheap feeling and unattractive. If everything else gets wrapped in leather, why not this key component?
Tech and safety
If there’s a lot to this van that kicks ass, the only major exception is in the tech department. Safety-wise it’s pretty top-notch, with Toyota’s “Star Safety System” leading the way, and a five-star overall crash rating from the government. But there are a few features lacking in both the accident avoidance arena and the tech amenities department.
Tech pros and cons
+ Excellent sounding JBL audio components, push-button start, and easy to use infotainment center.
+ “Driver Easy Speak” channels the voice of the wheel man all the way to the speakers in the third row, eliminating the need to shout.
+ Blind spot monitoring, solid traction control settings, and a top notch “Top Safety Pick+” IIHS crash safety rating all are big wins.
– No parking sonar, lane keep assist, forward collision mitigation, or variable cruise control.
– No wireless charging, detailed 3D mapping, or surround view camera system.
– MID is informative but basic, and without slick Lexus-style animations and a digital speedometer read-out, it’s underwhelming.
Even though I didn’t spank the SE+ across the nine tracks of One Lap of America, I got ample amounts of windshield time with the Swagger Wagon carting the Toyota race team to and from hotels and events. I also got to partake in a few on-track parade laps, and in the process noted a few additional strengths and weaknesses.
With its 10-millimeter wheel spacers, Pirelli P Zero high performance rubber, upgraded G-LOC GS-1 performance street pads, recalibrated steering inputs, and stiffer springs, the SE+ engages corners with a far more controlled approach than one would expect. It drives like a bulky sports sedan or a mildly tuned station wagon, so while the engine remained a tad underwhelming, and the missing paddle shifters made the drive a bit more mundane, the SE+ didn’t disappoint.
Wrap up and review
With the SE+, Toyota has built a test mule to raise interest and get feedback from the media, engineers, and the public from its participation in Brock Yates’ One Lap of America. Chief engineer Andrew Lund has been pushing for a more engaging minivan for the better part of a decade, and while he’s made huge strides in getting the program to this point, the future looks like it holds the really fun stuff.
We feel that if Lund can make the Sienna SE even more sport-oriented than it is today, and fixes a few oversights like the absence of rear USB ports, millennial dads are going to ditch the SUV for Toyota’s minivan. It’s already the slickest looking van on the market, and has all of the right tools to make it even more practical and plucky, even if it remains incomplete without an all-wheel drive option and some much needed TRD bolt-ons.
So keep up the good work, Toyota; you’re on track to shatter a lot of minivan stereotypes. Now if only we could convince you to offer TRD supercharger, adjustable suspension, a side-port exhaust, and a big brake kit.