For all their advantages – sliding doors, easy ingress and egress due to a low floor, tons of room for people and stuff – fuel economy has not been a high point for minivans.
Most have relatively poor mileage, especially in stop-and-go driving, the kind most parents of small children do often.
Recognizing the demands of the school drop-off and soccer-practice queues, FCA three years ago brought out the plug-in-hybrid Chrysler Pacifica and now Toyota is launching a hybrid-only Sienna for the van’s ’21 redesign. That’s right, if you want a Sienna, it comes with one powertrain: a hybrid.
You could call it a risky move, but Toyota is the world leader in hybrid sales, thanks to the Prius launched 20 years ago. If anyone has a buyer base amenable to such a tactic, it’s Toyota.
However, a hybrid family-hauler may not be everyone’s cup of tea. More on that later.
The exterior of a minivan is usually the least exciting part, but our ’21 Platinum AWD test vehicle came in a fetching dark metallic green shade that turns more than a few heads.
The Sienna’s sheet metal isn’t as sinewy as the Pacifica’s, and Toyota’s signature big grille (split in this vehicle, with a thin upper grille and a giant lower grille) continues to be polarizing. But overall we give this van a solid B on looks.
The inside is where a minivan must shine, and the Sienna doesn’t disappoint in this regard.
Our test vehicle’s cabin is attractive, mostly brown with splashes of ivory and black. There are some bits of design flair, like a faux wood film on the instrument panel and doors, rubberized bins and pads with a similar wood texture engraved in them, as well as a dimpled soft material covering parts of the brown steering wheel and the enormous B-pillar-mounted grab bars in the second row.
Nearly every new minivan has some sort of gimmicky feature and while the Sienna doesn’t innovate much in this area, it does have both a vacuum and cooler/fridge seen in recent rival minivans, although both won't be in early builds due to a supplier issue, says Toyota.
The Sienna’s innovative center console has generous storage (six cupholders!) and houses the aforementioned cooler and part of the vacuum, but it juts into the second row and gobbles up floor space. We foresee its largely plastic sides getting scuffed up quickly because of the intrusion into the footwell, but it does serve many functions.
Up front the console flows into a box with fixed armrests on the edges – throwing us for a curve as initially we attempt to lift the lid on the console box by grabbing the armrests.
There’s a huge space for a purse or bag beneath the console, shifter and exposed cupholders (two more cupholders up front are hidden in a lidded bin). The front of the console is more like a shelf suspended from the instrument panel.
The full IP has a strong horizontal layout, with stacked layers. There is no real center stack, just a grouping of HVAC buttons flanked by vents and above which sits a 9-in. (23-cm) touchscreen.
There’s a wireless phone charger, a 12V outlet and a USB port up front, and inside the center box are two more USB ports, one USB-C.
At its back end, the console also has two USB ports, including one USB-C, plus a 120V AC outlet – obviously no shortage of places to charge tech gear.
Between the second-row seats is a low tray-like console. Second-row passengers also have pockets on the back of front seats to store items, as well as access to six cupholders (two on the center console, two in each side door pocket and two each in the form of nets attached to their seats).
There are three third-row seats, with each outboard seat getting two cupholders molded into the wall; one set of USB ports is on the passenger side.
All three rows are comfortable, with ample legroom in rows one and two (barring that center console intrusion in the middle) and decent legroom in the third row. Second-row seats slide and recline for increased comfort, but we miss the ultimate feature: a footrest. (Ottomans are on second-row captain’s chairs in the front-wheel-drive Limited and Platinum grades, however.)
The third row induces a bit of claustrophobia as thick pillars limit window glass, especially with the Platinum grade’s sunshades.
Getting 60/40 third-row seats to collapse into the floor is a few-step process involving ribbons and levers (pictured below). It’s relatively easy but it seems odd a Platinum trim level lacks a power-fold option. We fail to figure out how to lock the collapsed third row seats into place in the bin, and they remain loose and bouncy.
Second-row seats can partially fold up to increase floor space for ingress and egress from the third row, but like most minivans there is an expectation that children, not adults, will be back there, thus our adult feet get stuck upon exiting the area.
Material quality is mixed. Soft-touch upper front doors, dimpled grab bars and circular-knit headliner are nice, while second-row seat levers look and feel like cheap, hard plastic.
Most controls are within easy reach, barring the seek/track buttons on the right of the touchscreen and sliding-door close and open buttons on interior B-pillars. Usually they’re placed high but, presumably because of the giant grab bars, they’re down low – a hard-to-find location on a blustery cold day.
The Sienna is powered by Toyota’s 2.5L Dynamic Force gasoline 4-cyl. already in a slew of models, including hybrid variants of the Avalon, Camry, RAV4 and Highlander. A large drive motor, a 134-kW (180-hp) permanent magnet synchronous motor making 199 lb.-ft. (270 Nm) of torque, is standard. In AWD Siennas like our tester there is an additional rear motor making 40 kW (54 hp) and 89 lb.-ft. (120 Nm).
Combined net output is 245 hp, down from the 296 hp made by the outgoing Sienna’s 3.5L V-6.
For around-town driving, the hybrid system is great, with decent low-end torque from the engine of 176 lb.-ft. (239 Nm) at 4,400 rpm. Electric motors of course have immediate torque, but as is the case in most Toyota hybrids, driving on purely electric power (i.e. in EV mode) only is possible at speeds below 25-ish mph (40 km/h). However, motors do provide supplemental torque during Eco mode driving, which is the bulk of what we do.
The Sienna’s drivetrain, as we have noted in previous Toyota hybrids equipped with CVTs, drones audibly when accelerating and cruising at higher speeds, although vibration is minimal. If you find powertrain noise annoying, and don’t want to turn on the radio to counter it, this may not be the vehicle for you.
However, we give the Sienna five stars for its wind-noise attenuation. Despite wind gusts in excess of 30 mph (48 km/h) outside our vehicle, the interior exhibits tomb-like silence.
We still think the shift to a hybrid-only powertrain is the right move as we experience incredible fuel economy during our test drive, which mostly traverses streets 30 mph (48 km/h) and under.
We see 38 mpg (6.2 L/100 km) at one point and end our 2-day test drive averaging 32 mpg (7.4 L/100 km). While that’s below the 35-mpg (6.7-L/100 km) combined estimated average for an AWD grade, it’s still better than non-hybrid minivans.
Technology-wise, our Sienna is loaded with both advanced driver-assist systems (ADAS) and infotainment features.
ADAS is a mixed bag, as it is in most vehicles.
After a near-stellar performance slowing and stopping us behind traffic all afternoon, adaptive cruise control suddenly accelerates our Sienna approaching a stopped car at a red light. We quickly intervene (remember this is “assist” technology – please stay aware) and apply brakes, presuming bright sun and silver paint on the preceding vehicle thwarted cameras and sensors.
The lane-departure and lane-tracing technologies are less of a surprise, like many consistently losing and detecting lane lines and sometimes pulling us closer to a lane line than we like.
Most ADAS functions are adjustable via the gauge-cluster menu, with sensitivity and types of alerts selectable.
Infotainment mostly works well, with voice recognition performance strong when it comes to radio stations and points of interest, although tripped up by one house address.
We don’t try the standard Apple CarPlay due to lack of a cord but Bluetooth tides us over once we find it. Toyota’s infotainment menus continue to befuddle, as Bluetooth is located in the Setup menu, not Projection or Phone as may be expected.
Speaking of oddly placed features, Toyota locating head-up display settings deep in the cluster menu remains annoying.
Toyota believes not only will the typical minivan demographic (families with kids, empty nesters) be attracted to the Sienna, but so too will businesses making deliveries, who may seek a fuel-economy advantage over traditional vans. This makes sense, as battery-electric vans are still to come – plus a hybrid minivan such as the Sienna doesn’t need to be charged.
Despite the precipitous decline in minivan sales over the past decade and the rush to utility vehicles, a small van still has a lot to offer. The new ’21 Sienna, on sale now in the U.S. from $34,460 (LE FWD) to $50,460 (Platinum AWD), excels in many areas (comfort, utility, city fuel economy) and should allow Toyota to maintain its roughly 12% share in the segment.