Driver's Seat: Toyota Sienna a versatile living room on wheels

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2014 Toyota Sienna LTD AWD: a liv­ing room on wheels.

Price: $47,239 as tested. (A budget model can be had for $26,920, it is alleged.)

Conventional wisdom: Ed­munds.com likes the “smooth and pow­er­ful V6 en­gine; avail­able all-wheel drive; seven- or eight-pas­sen­ger seat­ing,” not the “lower-grade plas­tics in cabin.”

Marketer’s pitch: “Mommy like.” The old Swagger Wagon.

Reality: Can you picture yourself driving your living room around?

Final three: The Sienna rounds out three weeks of minivan tests, starting two weeks ago with the handling champion Honda Odyssey, and last week with the bargain-priced but perhaps trouble-prone Chrysler Town and Country.

Family unit: When it’s time to load Sturgis Kids 1.0 through 4.0 (now ranging in age from 13 to 22), no other vehicle can match the Sienna.

Six passengers found themselves with plenty of space to spare for their various devices and plenty of room to spread out. And this was just for a trip to town for dinner. Unlike minivans of old — and even more so than the Odyssey and T&C — the Sienna seats were made for grownups. Even the back row was just a bit above the rest.

If you have the cash, that is: Granted, we tested about the top-of-the-line model. The middle row seats expand into chairs worthy of dentists’ offices or chemo rooms, with footrests and armrests and just the right level of recline. And the middle seats glide back and forth to adjust for legs in the second and third rows.

Storage: The room behind the Sienna rear seats matched the Odyssey. The Town and Country was just a little less than these two but still ample. Two giant glove boxes upfront and a huge console bin keep everything close at hand.

On the road: Like most other large Toyota offerings — the floppy Tundra, the formidable FourRunner — the Sienna is first noted for handling like every cubic inch it holds. It’s rather like I’d imagine driving a refrigerator would feel (though its temperature controls are not a problem). I’m not saying it’s bad for its size, but it was definitely the most cumbersome of the three.

And I could almost live with it when I rolled back and forth to work on my own. But loading it up with passengers just seemed to make the handling that much more exhausting.

Acceleration is enthusiastic for a van. It gets up to speed in a hurry, and the power comes smoothly. The Sienna can easily creep into some excessive highway speeds if you’re not paying attention.

Crazy controls: The heater controls have not updated much since I first had a Sienna to test three years ago, and that’s a bit of a shame. One dial handles the air temperature, and around that is arranged (or should I say, splattered?) a series of buttons controlling from whence the air blows.

The seat heater controls — the usual Toyota roller dials that seem to harken back to the 1970s — sit way down at the bottom of the console, causing them to be hard to find at first. And they’re so close to the driver’s side that the passenger definitely loses out in this configuration.

Play some tunes: The stereo blissfully doesn’t force listeners to delve into the touch screen for simple tasks. Rows of buttons on either side change from CD to radio to map. The touch screen interface works well for adjusting the sound, too. The wide radio almost requires some assistance from a co-pilot if you want to change the station using the dial. Get those presets arranged quickly or there’s going to be a lot of stretching.

Shifty: The shifter sits in a nice location on the center console. Shiftability is possible but not exactly sporty. But this is miles ahead of the Odyssey, which doesn’t offer the full range of gears, or the T&C, which has an awkwardly located gearshift.

Fuel economy: 19.5 mpg, during an extremely cold week when I drove mainly off highway, slow, and in the snow.

Where it’s built: Princeton, Ind.

How it’s built: Consumer Reports predicts above average for the reliability outlook.

In the end: All three minivans offer plenty of space and versatility. The Odyssey is the most drivable, and the Sienna is the most reliable and versatile for big people and the only all-wheel-drive minivan available. I’ve had my eye on a Sienna for some time now, but the Odyssey’s handling makes it worth a look as well.

Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at mrdriversseat@gmail.com.

 


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