Which is the best family vehicle on the market today, keeping in mind that "best" doesn't necessarily mean sexiest? My vote goes to Toyota's (TM) new Sienna minivan, which in my opinion has moved slightly ahead of its arch rival, the Honda (HMC) Odyssey, in terms of price, features, and practicality. Consumer Reports has just named the Sienna the "Best Family Hauler" of 2011. It's also the hottest-selling minivan on the market, with sales up 129 percent in the first two months of this year.
The redesigned Sienna is more stylish than the ungainly Odyssey, which looks from the side as if its rear third was tacked on as an afterthought. Other improvements include a new four-cylinder engine; an efficient six-speed automatic transmission; plush, reclining second-row seats; a new "auto access" seat to accommodate aged or disabled passengers; and a fancy rear-seat entertainment system with a wide, split screen that allows one kid to watch a movie while the other is playing a video game. There's even a new sporty SE trim line with a specially tuned suspension, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and 19-inch alloy wheels.
The Sienna now comes with a choice of power plants—a 2.7-liter, 187-horsepower, inline four-cylinder engine, or a 3.5-liter, 265-hp V6. All versions of the Sienna come with a six-speed automatic transmission (in contrast to the Odyssey, which comes standard with a five-speed automatic and offers a six-speed automatic only on more expensive trim levels). All-wheel drive, which is not offered on the Odyssey and Chrysler Town & Country, remains an option.
The big advantage of the four-cylinder engine is that it lowers the Sienna's price. The base-model Sienna with four-cylinder power and front-wheel drive starts at just $25,370, nearly $3,000 less than the Odyssey, which comes only with a 3.5 liter, 248-hp V6 and starts at $28,580. Standard equipment on the base model Sienna includes dual sliding rear doors with power windows, full power accessories, a telescoping steering wheel, and a four-speaker CD system.
The V6-powered Sienna LE starts at $26,610, still nearly two grand less than the cheapest Odyssey, and adds a raft of appealing standard features that include power sliding doors, heated side mirrors, second- and third-row side window sunshades, and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls. A top-of-the-line all-wheel-drive Sienna Limited has leather upholstery, dual sunroofs, and a host of other standard amenities. Yet it starts at $40,880, well below the $44,030 starting price of a top-of-the-line Odyssey Touring Elite.
The disadvantage of the Sienna's new four-banger engine is that it doesn't improve fuel economy very much. Mileage is rated at 19 miles-per-gallon in the city and 24 on the highway, with 21 combined for the front-wheel-drive model, dropping only slightly to 18/24/20 with the V6 engine. Neither version of the Sienna can beat the Odyssey, which is rated at 19/28/22 with a six-speed automatic and 18/27/21 with a five-speed. (The Sienna's mileage falls to 16/22/18 with all-wheel drive, available with the V6.)
Both Sienna and Odyssey are very safe. The 2011 Sienna has been named a top safety pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Under new, more stringent standards, it also earned an overall four-star rating in government crash tests. The 2011 Odyssey earned the top, five-star government crash test rating. (The 2011 Dodge and Chrysler minivans haven't been tested yet.)
The Sienna is close to overtaking the Odyssey's sales. The Toyota's 129 percent increase in the first two months of this year drove up its total for the period to 15,129, while the Odyssey's sales only rose 28 percent, to 15,766, during the same period. The Sienna gained on the Odyssey last year, too, with sales up 17.7 percent, to 98,337, compared with merely an 8.7 percent increase, to 108,182, for the Odyssey.
Behind the Wheel
A minivan lives and dies by the comfort and utility of its cabin, and the Sienna offers both in spades. Its interior has an airy, well-lighted feeling, partly because of the dual sunroof that's standard on the Limited, the version that I test-drove. The windows afford excellent visibility in almost every direction.
The second-row seats are a major differentiator among minivans, and Toyota has come up with two attractive configurations. In the eight-passenger setup, the second row features a removable, child-size jump seat between two conventional seats. You can stow the jump seat in back, revealing cup holders and a storage compartment between the remaining seats.
The alternative is two ultra-comfortable, Barca-Lounger-style reclining captain's chairs. These seats can move way back when there's no one in the third row, and a foot rest pops up when you recline them. I spent 45 very pleasant minutes cruising down Interstate 81 late on a cold winter evening with my seat reclined, rear-seat temperature controls directing warm air my way, and Casablanca playing in the wide-screen format on the DVD player. The snappy dialogue between Bogie and Bergman no doubt helped make it one of the most relaxing experiences I've had in a passenger vehicle.
The Sienna's rear seat is at least as spacious as the Odyssey's, although three adults would feel cramped back there. A nice touch is that the Sienna's third row seats can be folded down into a floor well when not in use, creating a large, flat cargo space.
The downside of the second-row seats in both the Sienna and the Odyssey is that they have to be removed and stowed outside the van to maximize hauling capacity. This creates an amazing 150 cu. ft. of room in back, with floor space about 8 ft. long and 4 ft. wide, but the seats are heavy and very clunky to remove. The Chrysler Town and Country holds a clear advantage because both its second and third-row seats can fold down flat into the van's floor.
However, the Sienna's second-row seats fold up tight against the backs of the front seats, creating 117.8 cu. ft. of space in back, which is enough space for most purposes.
I have a few criticisms of the Sienna. The van's plastic dash and the tacky faux wood trim on the Limited are too cheap-looking for such an otherwise well-appointed vehicle. The entertainment system headsets didn't always work. When you pull the second-row seats out of the van, the tracks stick up out of the floor, making it difficult and potentially hazardous to slide cargo into the space.
Toyota also continues to be plagued by quality glitches. It has already had to recall 94,000 2011 Siennas for potential problems with the brake light switch bracket. That's on top of an earlier recall of 1998-2010 Siennas because of corrosion of the cable that holds the spare tire in place.
Buy it or Bag It?
The Sienna sells for an average of $32,416, according to the Power Information Network—about the same as the Chrysler Town and Country, but nearly $2,300 less than the Odyssey ($34,703).
I'd probably go with the Sienna's V6 engine, which costs only $1,240 more than the four-cylinder engine and is almost as fuel-efficient. My V6-powered test van had excellent acceleration and plenty of oomph at highway speed.
I haven't yet driven the new Town and Country, but you won't go wrong with the Odyssey if Toyota's seemingly endless recalls worry you. Other things being equal, however, the Sienna now has a slight edge over its arch rival.
Click here to see more of the 2011 Toyota Sienna.