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Soccer mom secrets revealed! Sienna has sizzle

By Larry Edsall
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  • The minivan is making a comeback as people realize how much they appreciate the roomy and flexible interiors and the car-like driving characteristics.
  • Toyota's 2004 Sienna is among the first of the newest generation of minivans, and it's larger, more powerful (but also more fuel-efficient) and even more versatile than ever.
  • Sorry, soccer moms, but your secret is out: Minivans aren't just big boxes on wheels. They're cars for moving much more than the Saturday morning soccer set.


Have you noticed that minivans are making a comeback?

Though maligned as "soccer mom mobiles," minivans remain an amazingly practical form of transportation for many people, and only a few of them are soccer moms.

Need to haul the whole family someplace, or to take a group of business associates to dinner? Need to be able to provide transportation for a senior citizen who can't climb up into a sport utility vehicle, or for someone in a wheelchair? Need to haul home 4x8 sheets of wallboard or other building supplies from a home improvement center on a rainy day? Need the versatility to carry long packages - such as the bookcase I just bought - and people at the same time? Need the option of all-wheel drive? Need a rear-seat DVD entertainment system to keep the youngsters (or the in-laws) quiet and contented? Need a vehicle with five-star crash safety and four-star rollover resistance ratings?

Well, the minivan may be your wisest automotive choice, and with people buying more than a million minivans a year, the automakers are eagerly investing in a new and improved generation of minivans (although General Motors will insist on calling its next generation "crossover sport" instead of "mini" vans).

Among the first of this latest generation is the 2004 Toyota Sienna.

Toyota's first entry into the American minivan market was the box-like and mid-engined Toyota Van of the mid-1980s. Early in the 1990s, Toyota replaced the Van with the spaceship-shaped Previa. The Previa certainly made a statement on the road, but while other minivans had versatile interiors, front-wheel drive and V6 engines, the Previa offered none of the above, and it was expensive.

For the 1998 model year, Toyota introduced its first real minivan, the Sienna, which was based on the Camry platform and was built in the U.S. of A.

That original Sienna was updated for 2001, and for 2004 Toyota rolls out its all-new and second-generation Sienna, which is larger, more powerful - but also more fuel efficient - and offers an easily reconfigurable, flip-fold-and-stow seating system that makes it easy to take advantage of the nearly 45-cubic-foot expansion of its interior.

While the 2003 Sienna offered 133.5 cubic feet of interior space, the 2004 model provides as much as 177.4, which Toyota says is the most of any front-wheel-drive minivan, and that a class-leading 43.6 cubic feet of that space is located behind the third row seat, which not in use folds flat to the floor.

Compared to the first-generation Sienna, the new model is 6.5 inches longer, 4.0 inches wider, 2.0 inches taller and rides on a 5.1-inch longer wheelbase. The 2004 Sienna also is about 200 pounds heavier.

To propel this more maxi minivan, Toyota equips the 2004 Sienna with a new V6 engine and links that engine to a new five-speed transmission.

The engine is a 3.3-liter V6 with what Toyota calls VVT-i, or variable valve timing with intelligence, which helps extract 230 horsepower and 242 pound-feet of torque from the engine while also delivering 19 miles per gallon in the city and 27 on the highway, while also earning Level II Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle certification for the vehicle.

A key to those fuel economy figures is the smooth-shifting five-speed automatic gearbox. By the way, the gated shift lever for the transmission is cleverly mounted on the dashboard instead of taking up room between the front seats.

The placement of the transmission shifter may seem unusual, but it falls easily to hand. In fact, all of the switchgear in the 2004 Toyota Sienna seemed to be intuitive to find and to use, and we appreciated all the storage pockets, included the water bottle cubbies in the front doors and map/notebook holder built into the lid of the center console, both features we found quite helpful on a drive across the desert from Phoenix to Los Angeles, and then as we made various stops in the LA metroplex.

The only interior feature we didn't like was that the temperature indicator lights on the automatic climate control system don't dim as you adjust the brightness of the instrument panel lights. We like to really dim things down at night so we can see the road with little distraction, and were glad when we discovered that we could simply cover the temperature figures with a pair of business cards.

On the other hand, we appreciated the fact that the Sienna's gauges were easy to read by day or night, by day even through Polarized sunglasses and at night when the silver-trimmed gauge bezel turns a gentle pale blue that's easy on the eyes.

The Sienna we tested was the front-wheel-drive XLE model with seven-passenger seating. Toyota also offers an eight-passenger seating configuration.

The Sienna comes in CE, LE, XLE and XLE Limited trim levels, and in front- and all-wheel drive. The base CE with seven-passenger seating starts at $22,955 and the top of the line, all-wheel-drive XLE Limited starts at $36,930.

Base price on our version was $28,260, but it was equipped with an XLE Package #16 that adds a whopping $6,545 to the price but includes leather seating -- with heated seats for the driver and front passenger -- front side airbags, all-row curtain airbags, vehicle stability control and brake assist, rear disc brakes, a de-icing windshield wiper, a power moon roof, second- and third-row side sunshades, a 10-speaker JBL audio system with six CD changer, and an overhead-mounted DVD rear-seat entertainment system with a pair of wireless headphones.

Many of those features are standard on the XLE Limited, which also has high-intensity discharge headlamps, 17-inch wheels and chrome exterior body accents.

Standard equipment in the XLE we tested included a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, eight-way power driver's seat with adjustable lumbar support, second-row captain's chairs that can be slid together, split and stowing third-row seats, an automatic climate control system, two power sliding doors with power down windows, rear quarter-panel windows that also power open, an overhead console with trip computer, a center console that can be moved from between the front seats to between the second-row seats, wood grain interior trim, a tire-pressure monitoring system, fog lights, a roof rack and 16-inch wheels with 215/65 aspect tires.

As mentioned earlier, we brought back a bookcase from IKEA, that marvelous Swedish furniture company, and it was a simple matter of flipping and folding the seats along the right-side of the Sienna to fit the bookcase box securely in place for the drive home.

We also liked the deep well behind the third-row seats. It provided a safe and secure spot for luggage and other packages.

Whether carrying just the driver or passengers and cargo, the Sienna's ride was smooth and comfortable, in town or at Interstate speeds across the desert. The engine and transmission worked very well together, with the five-speed gearbox making effective use of the new engine's substantial output.

Sorry, soccer moms. Your secret is out. The minivan doesn't have to be a dull box on wheels. This Sienna was fun to drive - a movie theater on wheels - and easily versatile in its configurations.


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