Smart Touches Add Up To Passenger Comforts, Easy Storage & Fun On the Road
It’s the classic suburban mom dilemma: to minivan or not to minivan. The 2014 Toyota Sienna makes this decision all the more difficult.
On the one hand, it’s understandably hard to hand over your identity to a vehicle whose utility defines it. You become it. On the other hand, all that utility can turn the ordinary struggle into simply another brilliantly executed excursion: no packing, repacking, stressing about forgotten items or being forced to leave things or people behind. Things go into their spaces and there they stay until they are needed.
My friend Cheryl recently had just this debate. Her 2005 Sienna needed to be replaced. Her kids voted for something larger and more SUVish: a Land Cruiser or a Suburban. But she loved all the conveniences and features that the Sienna offered. So one day, despite the lobbying of her family, she did it. She bought what she wanted: her second minivan.
This time she opted for features that weren’t on her first one: second row reclining captain’s seats, navigation and safety packages, and a dual screen entertainment system.
The In-Car Reading Nook
She knew she’d made the right decision a few days after the Sienna came home. Early on a Saturday morning she came downstairs to notice the door to the garage ajar and the light on. She went out to find her son reclined in the second row captain’s chair in the Sienna, reading a book.
That’s the beauty of the mini van, and the challenge that Toyota has continually taken on as it has evolved the Sienna: making it even more comfortable, convenient and accommodating to its occupants. So much, apparently, that it’s Cheryl’s son’s preferred reading nook.
We recently spent two weeks in the Sienna and were amazed by three things: The incredible amount of flexible space, the smart creature comforts that are incorporated into the car’s design, and the ease of tooling around town.
Flexible Space: A Vacation Luxury
And, we found out—accidentally—just how flexible the space is. We planned a Spring Break trip to Kentucky that was to continue on to South Carolina and North Carolina before heading back home. We packed the car with three sets of golf clubs for the golf tour my husband was planning with the kids, extra blankets and pillows for back seat passengers on the long trip, a few DVDs and the requisite snack bag. Since we had the room, we tossed in a case of water, extra sneakers and my daughter’s batting helmet and baseball bat.
As we made our way south, back seat passengers watched movies, reclined the captain’s chairs, popped up the footrests, worked on laptops, read and slept. Even with the golf clubs and luggage in the rear, we moved the center row seats all the way back— they are on a track that allows them to move to create more leg room for third row passengers. The center row looked more like a first class airline cabin. Best of all, my kids fought to sit in the back; I never hear this in my car.
Flexible Space Saves The Day When Things Turn Bad
But our planned trip south was interrupted when my aunt had a massive stroke and her doctors said she wouldn’t live long. We changed course and headed to Florida to say good-bye and to help my uncle through a tough time.
The first thing he asked me to do after my aunt passed away was to clean out her closets and cosmetics; not only was there no one in the house who could use these things, he didn’t know Gap from Gucci and wanted to make sure her treasures were saved for her grandkids and those of us who would find comfort in them. And, he asked if I’d bring Brook, my aunt’s standard Poodle, up north so my cousin could adopt her. How could I say ‘no?’
Over the course of the week I began to sort things out and to plan in my head what to bring back, what to take to a nearby Goodwill donation center and what to send to consignment. As I stacked the boxes and crates earmarked for the trip up north, my husband shook his head.
“Where are we going to sit?” he wondered aloud more than once.
“It will all fit, and we’ll have plenty of room,” I assured him.
He was so doubtful that I packed the car myself the night before we started our trip back. Several crates of clothing, our suitcases, my aunt’s golf clubs, assorted keepsakes and more, and pretty soon the car was packed. But not an inch of passenger comfort was spared: we got it all in, the captain’s seats could still recline and the driver could even see out the back window.
From Challenges, New Lessons
The fully packed car gave us a window into features we hadn’t fully appreciated before: First up, the rear view camera with panoramic view and cross traffic alert. Normally, I’m nervous to park a car with a blocked rear window anywhere but at the far corner of a parking lot. But the rear view camera was great; the camera gave me a great view behind the car, the cross traffic alert beeped if someone or something was headed into my path, and the side view mirrors filled out the view.
The Sienna’s blind spot monitors were great on the highway when merging in and out of traffic; they gave that one extra bit of security that I needed to feel confident.
Next, the flexible seating in the center row. When we headed down to Kentucky we took the luxury route: We pushed the seats all the way back, popped up the foot rests and enjoyed the ride. But with all the cargo in the back, would the center row be as comfortable? The answer is yes. We pushed the seats far enough forward so the foot rests were usable and started to pack the car. Even with Brooke relaxing on her bed between the seats, we had more than enough room.
The DVD system means everyone is entertained. When I drive long distances, I like to listen to news or NPR; I find it engaging and interesting. The kids—not so much. So we stopped at Redbox and rented a few movies; the kids just put disc in, put the wireless headphones on and zoned out for the ride (although, I can be enticed to listen to movies, too).
And if we can’t get a consensus on the movie, we can play two at once: just hook up a DVD player to the A/V outlet at the rear of the center console and the screen will display both.
Sliding doors—I know, they’ve been around a long time but I still love them. Sliding doors make getting stuff and people into the car so easy, especially in a crowded parking lot.
What I Loved Most: Handbag Storage
Last, I just fell in love with all the smart storage in the Sienna. There is a perfect spot for a handbag on the floor in front of the center console, or, storage in the space created when the center console is pulled apart (and pushes power ports and cup holders toward the back seat). We stored quite a few things in this space, including DVDs, snacks and handbags.
There is a storage ‘well’ in the rear where the third row seats store flat when not in use; the well adds another 10 cubic feet or so—enough for two or three golf bags or a couple of hockey bags—to the storage behind the third row. And there are smart little spots throughout the car where things can be stowed safely and conveniently.
But maybe the best comment I got was when picking up my daughters at school the first day we had the Sienna. I drove my daughter’s friend Brittany home from school. Brittany climbed into the center row, reclined in the captain’s chair, and smiled. I asked her what she thought about the car and she said she liked it. So I had to ask her when: she gets her license next year, will she drive her mom’s mini van? Absolutely, she said, smiling. Mini vans are smart, and smart is cool.
What We Loved
- Tons of flexible space
- Seating for seven (8 with a center row bench seat)
- Second row reclining captain’s chairs with pop up footrests
- Pull-out console that moves cup holders and power ports closer to second row passengers
- DVD/video system with dual display, pull down screen and wireless headsets
- Double sunroof
- Rear view camera
Blind Spot Monitors
- AWD and traction control
- Hands free Bluetooth
What You Need to Know
- Averages 19MPG; rated for 16 MPG city/23 highway
- Second row power charge ports are tucked under the console edge and can be difficult to reach (my kids had no problem, however)
- Third row power port is behind the third row in the cargo space
- Base price: $41,700
- Price of the model we tested: $47,239
Disclosure: Toyota provided the Sienna for our test drive; opinions here are all my own.