Curbside Rental Service: 2017 Toyota Sienna – I Declined a BMW in Favor of a Toyota Minivan

Think that title is some cheap attempt to grab your attention?  It is, but it’s also true – I did decline a BMW in favor of a Toyota Sienna.

There was a very valid reason for doing so.  Like many things in life there are always reasons that aren’t obvious.

It started with my daughter’s harp.  Harps, like all instruments, require periodic maintenance.  Given the rarity of harp players, finding someone to work on them isn’t easy.  My wife found a gentleman from Indiana who travels internationally to regulate harps (adjusting levers, pedals, and replacing strings) and he was taking appointments in Kansas City.  She made the appointment last fall.

We decided all three of us would go for a nice little excursion.

With three of us going, it quickly narrowed down which vehicle we would be taking.  Had it simply been two people, our Passat would have worked great.  Drop the backseats and the harp slides right in.  However, the harp – it’s approximately 28″ x 53″ and it has to lie flat – required the lion’s share of backseat width, relegating a third person to having nowhere to sit.

My pickup wasn’t an option.  With the harp needing to be in a climate controlled environment, its configuration was a non-starter.

That left us with our van.  Despite fussing about, and hurling pejoratives at, this rig in various articles over the last six years, my opinion about it has inexplicably softened the last few months.  Perhaps dementia has set in early.

A few days prior to departure, a time near the end of an extended period of sub-zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures, it would not start.  It had been sitting for a while and upon the non-start discovery my schedule did not allow for any diagnosis.  The engine cranked fine but the fun ended there.  I suspect a fuel issue.

The night before departure, and with no viable transport, I did a Hail Mary and booked a rental minivan from one of the two local rental chains.

Of the two, the one founded in St. Louis and likely used by William Shatner was sold out.

My reservation guaranteed me a Chrysler Pacifica or similar.  All is good, right?

My pickup time was 10 am; I arrived around 9:30 with the harp case to give a trial fitment.  With this particular office being in a strip mall, their inventory is all out in the open by their front door.  No minivans were present.

Confirming my reservation with the clerk, I told him I was transporting a harp as I held up the empty case.  His face dropped and his eyes grew wide.

He grabbed the keys to a BMW X3 and commented on the general roominess of SUV’s; the harp case did not come anywhere near fitting.  No dice on the BMW; in fact, it was further from working than our Volkswagen.

We then examined a GMC Terrain.  Nope, the GMC didn’t cut it either.

In a last, desperate attempt, we tried a Chevrolet Malibu.  It was the closest by far but it still wasn’t close enough.  I was rather agitated by this point; I was five hours from an appointment 150 miles away in Kansas City and had no way to effectively transport a harp.

The clerk called their office in Columbia (population 108,000) which is 33 miles north.  I was told a brand new Pacifica was on the lot, ready to go.  After some discussion with Mrs. Jason (who promptly called their Customer Service with a scathing critique about taking reservations for vehicles not in stock), I drove to Columbia.

There was so much room we used blankets and pillows to keep the harp from shifting.

Out front was a Toyota Sienna.  Joy of joys, that harp case slid in with loads of room to spare.  The clerk knew I was coming and was as terrific as the one in Jefferson City in his desire to help.  He apologized profusely about telling me it was a Pacifica, despite my assurances there were no worries about an honest mistake.  I also learned it was their only available minivan between St. Louis and Kansas City.

I drove back home to get the harp and the two females before making a mad dash to Kansas City.

How was the Toyota?  Let me preface this by saying for all the positives I’ve heard about Toyotas, my experiences with them have been tepid.  This Sienna does have some things going strongly in its favor but that is only part of the equation.

The biggest virtue of the Sienna is passenger comfort.  The driver’s seat is great, providing support in just the right places for most passengers.  It’s a nice height from the floor, making it feel a lot like a very comfortable living room chair.

The position of the steering wheel was a little wonky and not the most natural, but that could have likely changed had I fiddled more with adjustments.  The wonkiness did dissipate after a short time.  My only comparison with current minivans is the Dodge Grand Caravan; the Caravan has a more natural seating position, although the seats in the Toyota are generally better, particularly in the second row.

Unassuming and predictable are the operative words with the Sienna.  Navigating is as easy as pie, whether on the interstate or the tighter confines of places like downtown Kansas City.  Given minivans aren’t as mini as they used to be, it’s obvious Toyota has dialed out the cumbersome that can creep into big boxes on wheels.

Another nice thing about the Toyota is its 3.5 liter V6.  Rated at 296 horsepower, it’s a smooth and powerful little honey, revving great without any drama.  In fact, it’s a little deceptive, not unlike some other engines I’ve experienced the last few years.  At first blush it seems a little pokey but when standing on the happy pedal things take a distinct turn for the enjoyable.

But everything isn’t sunshine and butterflies.  It becomes tedious when a nearly 300 horsepower minivan possesses a chronic need to downshift in favorable terrain.  Perhaps it’s due to gearing or its peak torque being at 4,400 rpm but this Toyota had to downshift relentlessly.  The tachometer needle jumped up and down like a yo-yo even when running at the 70 mph speed limit on I-70.  There were three instances in which it had to downshift on level ground.

It was so frequent my wife asked if something was wrong with the vehicle.

The incessant downshifting ate into fuel mileage.  I admittedly did not check it as closely as I could have, but rough calculations put my fuel economy at just over 20 mpg with an ambient temperature that day of 55 Fahrenheit, the first day in weeks it was above freezing.  It’s EPA rating is 19 mpg city and 27 mpg highway, a highway rating which seems rather optimistic given my almost exclusive highway use.

There were also two items in which I am still debating if they are a reflection of this van having spent the first 40,000 miles of its life in a rental fleet or a reflection of how these might age.  It’s likely a combination of both.

The first, a minor but remarkable thing, was the carpet in the driver’s footwell.  This van was manufactured in December 2016 and possessed no floor mats yet a small hole had already been worn into the carpet.  I have driven and ridden in countless fleet vehicles in my career, vehicles generally having comparable or more harsh conditions than a daily rental, and I’ve never seen such premature wear.

The second issue was thankfully discovered before I left the rental lot.  With the clerk folding and adjusting seats for me, he went to close the electric sliding door on the driver’s side.  It was unresponsive.  There was nothing amiss to prevent the door from closing.  Trying the key fob and the door handles both inside and out, the door would not close despite multiple attempts that drank a lot of time.  The clerk, having had his fill, shoved the door shut against the resistance of the electric motor.

As it shut he looked at me and smiled.  I honored our gentlemen’s agreement about not touching this door.  The other door was flawless.

Again, is it a function of daily rental service or insight into what one might anticipate?  It’s undoubtedly a combination, with the proportions being debatable.

Upon making the reservation, I viewed the websites of Toyota, Honda, Kia, and Chrysler to learn more about the interiors of their minivans.  I knew Chrysler had the Stow-N-Go system (seen here) and was curious what the others had so I would know what to expect.  Curiously, Toyota did not bring as much attention to the versatility of their seat and storage arrangements as did most of the others.

Picking up the van, which I’m still happy was available, quickly revealed why Toyota’s website skimmed over such things.  These eight hooks for the seat screamed out like a hungry coyote on a cold winter night.

Making matters worse, all of these hooks were covered in grease.  What other brands of contemporary minivan have exposed grease?  My needing to place a Kleenex over these hooks to keep things unstained – to supplement the flattened cardboard box I had already placed on the floor so those hooks wouldn’t poke holes into a harp – is unfortunate.

To be fair, there may have been a factory cover for the storage area that was simply missing.

While I was waiting in the hotel lobby for the technician to finish regulating my daughter’s harp, a woman left carrying her much bigger harp.  Stepping outside, I saw her near the entrance loading her instrument into the back of a Chevrolet Traverse.

Striking up a conversation with her about vehicles conducive to hauling harps, I was able to inspect the interior of her Traverse and how folding the seats provided an entirely flat floor (hers appeared to have a second row bench).  She said her previous Ford Explorer was good but her Traverse is great.  Admittedly, the Traverse is an SUV and not a minivan, but both it and the Sienna have a third row seat.

It’s interesting; GM, a company having bouts of not being able to find its ass with both hands, can make a flat floor upon folding the seats.  Kia and Chrysler can as well.  Why not Toyota?

So, in the big scheme of things, would I consider a Sienna?  If hauling a harp or any other type of cargo is involved, I would explore other options.  If I was hauling people, it would be worthy of consideration as it is generally more comfortable than the Dodge Grand Caravan.  Despite its downshifting propensity, I liked the Sienna.  But I would have to drive a Kia Sedona, Chrysler Pacifica, and Honda Odyssey before writing a check.

Yet what is more important than my impressions about the Toyota Sienna is what renting it represents – that my wife and I will go to any length to keep a promise made to our child.  Toyota can make all sorts of changes for the next Sienna but one does not get a second chance when raising a child.