In the last episode, I spoke about (surprise) buying a vehicle that I ended up not liking very much. In addition, our Tundra was coming to the end of its lease. I was still in the midst of a years-long remodeling project on our 1960s era ranch house so I needed a vehicle capable of hauling stuff, but didn’t wanted another pickup (although I really liked the Tundra, fuel economy wasn’t its strong suit). I had already pretty much decided what vehicle would be leased once the Tundra so I planned to trade the Avalon for something that could haul more stuff.
We don’t have any children but we had always been minivan fans. These vehicles are very good at hauling people and things in great quantities while still being more car-like to drive. I didn’t really want an SUV because those offered capabilities that were wasted on me (we don’t get a lot of snow so 4wd wasn’t a must have, and I have never had the brochure-worthy “active lifestyle”). During a preventive maintenance visit to our big-box dealership for the Avalon, I took a trip through the new car lot to explore what my options were within the Toyota family. I had liked the car-based Highlander SUV but it could get pretty costly with all the fancy features I wanted to have, and the 4Runner was more of a truck than I wanted.
The Sienna minivan was a great option for us as it was available with a lot of high-end luxury car features like automatic climate control (including separate rear climate controls), a built-in Homelink garage door opener, tinted rear windows, and power seats. Prices for these vans could be pretty reasonable, especially with the discounts these vans had at the time. We were able to trade the Avalon back to the dealer, and I lost some money on the deal but not a fortune (so, a typical car purchase for me during this time). Unlike the Tundra (which had been transferred from another dealer) and the Avalon (which we had picked from the dealer’s incoming inventory), we picked out the top-line Sienna XLE in “champagne” (or whatever fancy name Toyota had for the silver/gold color that was popular in the late ‘90s and early 2000s) from their inventory. Our van had what Toyota called the “XLE Luxury Package” with a sunroof, leather seats, high-end stereo, and one of the first minivan applications of power sliding side doors on both sides (some vans had power doors but only on one side). Even with the discounts, the van still was more expensive than our Avalon, as I recall. It may have cracked the $30k barrier, or been pretty close to it.
The van maintained the best features of the Avalon as it had the same V6-automatic powertrain and Camry-based underpinnings, as well as the luxury features like the in-dash CD changer. The van was probably one of the last new vehicles I purchased with an old-school column shifter but the rest of the driver ergonomics were great as visibility was good and the van was no harder to get into than a regular car. It drove like a car as well, with acceleration and handling that was on par with the Avalon (better than adequate overall). The van was great for long trips as it would hold quite a bit of stuff and was very smooth and stable on the road.
The van was great for hauling stuff as the seats were removable (this was before things like Stow and Go seating for the middle rows but after Honda had done its flip-fold third row seats). The seats were heavy but the third row could tip forward out of the way. I removed the third row seats several times to haul larger items but rarely removed the individual second row seats as those weighed a lot and were a bit awkward to wrestle out of the van. When those seats were in the van, though, they were very comfortable and gave the second-row riders a “private jet” feeling with the high seating position and tinted windows. Our van didn’t have any second-row entertainment features as those were pretty expensive and were tough for us to justify with just the two of us using the van regularly. The interior was a very nice place to be, as the brochure image above shows (our van had this exact color interior).
The power sliding doors were a great feature that made getting in and out of the van much easier. Toyota mounted a button for each sliding door on the door pillar between the front doors and sliding doors, so it was a simple matter of reaching around from the outside and tapping that button to get the door open. As I recall, the keyless entry remote had a button for opening the power sliding doors but only for one of the doors (passenger side one) as the remote didn’t have space for two. (I might be wrong on that, and the internet shows plenty of single-door remotes for those vans.)
This was also the first vehicle I owned that had steering wheel-mounted stereo controls (just volume up/down and station up/down), and I found those to be very handy especially since the stereo itself was mounted low on the dash and was a stretch to reach from the driver’s seat. Others in our family had never had a car with these remote controls – at one point my wife was driving her sister around and changed the radio station from the steering wheel. Her sister looked around and immediately said “I didn’t do that!”
As with my other cars, I purchased the ever-present front end mask for the van as well as a wind deflector to protect the hood paint during the winter (I removed it in the summer as it interfered with the mask). I had always been very careful to remove these masks and dry them out when it rained as I had heard the moisture could damage the paint. I learned first-hand that this was true with this van – I missed getting the hood piece removed and dried at one point, and the mask held the water against the paint until some of it migrated into the paint itself. The moisture turned the paint cloudy and the damage was clearly visible when the mask was removed. I couldn’t figure out the best way to eliminate the cloudiness but got extremely lucky a few months later. I had the mask installed on a hot sunny day and the black vinyl concentrated the heat underneath, pulling the water back out of the paint and into the cotton backing. Problem solved!
The van was a great addition to our fleet, with only a couple of disadvantages. It was impossible to open the rear hatch while the van was in the garage as our garage roof was fairly low. The hatch would hit the garage door so groceries usually had to go between the first and second row seats (or I had to unload from the rear hatch while the van was still outside). I got a lot of noise from coworkers, too, who couldn’t understand why I bought a van when I didn’t “need to” since I didn’t have kids. The idea that it was practical, useful, and still enjoyable to drive didn’t occur to them.
We owned the van for around two years before another vehicle caught my eye. We were fortunate in selling the van as we didn’t have to search far for a buyer. My wife was picking up the van after a regular service and went to the dealer parking lot where the van was parked. An older couple was having a picnic lunch in the grass next to our van, which my wife found a bit odd. She struck up a conversation with the couple and it turned out they were having lunch after searching unsuccessfully for the right van at the right price at the dealership. My wife said that our van was for sale, and a deal was struck. Easy and direct, no Craigslist needed. Luckily for me, the replacement for the van would be a vehicle my wife and I would both enjoy…
I have a good friend of mine who lusts after McLarens and Ferraris, yet has a huge soft spot for minivans. It sounds strange but, as you said, the Sienna handled and accelerated about as well as an Avalon but was a helluva lot more versatile.
I’ll admit I probably would’ve been as perplexed as your coworkers. A minivan is a lot of space for two people. I had a wagon once and I thought, “Hey, a little bit of extra practicality is good.” But I never used that extra practicality and I certainly wouldn’t have utilized a minivan to its full potential. However, you probably put yours to good use.
Kudos to Toyota, Chrysler and Honda for sticking to relatively short model cycles in a dwindling segment… They could easily have let their vans drag on like Kia has done in the past. And so many companies just packed up and left the segment: GM, Nissan, Ford, etc
The new Chrysler Pacifica is the first proper sliding door minivan in a long time that actually seems cool. I’m not a minivan guy but I could be tempted into one of those.
William: This is a new wrinkle on the Pacifica. I don’t normally like “murdered out” cars, but this enchants me. Now, if they would make a hybrid version in this scheme…
Agreed 100%. My wife would never go for it, but I wouldn’t be embarrassed to drive one.
We’ve had vans for over 20 years – all Toyotas – mostly Previas and Estimas – they’re just great vehicles. The whole van stigma thing never bothered me – never paid any attention to it.
My wife and I own a Mercedes Metris- it always has been and always will be just us. But it’s nice to haul back fifty bags of mulch, or 4 dozen 2x4s, or to pop an air mattress in back and hit the road for a few days. Or just to go to the supermarket and not think about whether or not my wife had removed the vacuums, mops, swiffer sticks, cleaning chemicals, and other stuff for her maid business when buying two months supply of groceries from Aldi.
All that, plus fast, fun to drive, great handling, and 28-30mpg… I think I’d be nuts to drivecanything else.
When minivans first appeared, I didn’t get the idea. At the time I was in my early 20’s with no children, so it didn’t make sense. Until I got married and had kids. For a while, we could borrow our in-law’s 84 Voyager, it was their third car and they didn’t drive it much. I became enamored.
Fast forward several years later, we had moved back to the midwest and our kids were outgrowing our Topaz and Dakota extended cab pickup. We went car shopping and while I thought about a mini GM or Chrysler minivan, my wife didn’t want to be seen in one. So, started our ownership of Pontiac Azteks, which is another story.
About two years ago, while driving our third Pontiac Aztek, I hit a deer at speed. It did a good job of destroying the front fascia on the car and crunching a fender. I took it around to a couple of body shops, no one wanted to do that kind of repair. The one guy wanted essentially what the car would cost to replace, so we eventually scrapped it. This time around, I was getting my minivan…
I ended up with a 2004 Olds Silhouette that apparently had been owned by someone’s grandparents. I fully expected the car to be worn out, but it looked and ran like a champ. This car was loaded, one level below the top line (Premiere) and all of the power accessories worked.
In the intervening two years I’ve had it, it has become my third favorite car of all time; I used it like a pickup truck when remodeling my daughter’s house. When I moved to a new house this past summer, it was my moving van. Often when we go to local sporting events, we all pile into the Average White Van.
The only downside is rust. Living in the upper midwest, we use a lot of salt on the roads in the winter, and since this car came from southern Indiana where they use less salt, the undercoating had dried out and now the rocker panels are rusting quickly. It looks like the rear quarter panels will follow suit soon.
While I’m considering what to replace our nearly decade old Pontiac G6, I think I will always keep a van around. They’re just too versatile to ignore.
> About two years ago, while driving our third Pontiac Aztek, I hit a deer at speed. It did a good job of destroying the front fascia on the car and crunching a fender
And yet it *improved* the appearance of the Aztek 🙂
I had a ’98 Sienna. Here’s my COAL: https://www.curbsideclassic.com/cars-of-a-lifetime/coal-1996-mercury-sable-gs-wagon-and-1998-toyota-sienna-xle-dreaded-family-cars/
Not my favorite vehicle then. But I was in a crappy marriage and that colored everything. Now that I’m middle aged with stepkids again and elderly parents, a minivan would be mighty useful. And I’m old enough now that I don’t care what anybody thinks.
And for moving those pictured kids to college, right? Thanks for your COAL reminder, I just read it, it was great, must have missed it originally somehow.
These Toyotas were great sellers and had a great reputation as durable people haulers. I never drove one, but I did drive a Previa, which I found to be pretty slow and underpowered, though it had great utility.
While vans are becoming progressively retrograde, some still have iconic statuses. I’ve got a VW van that we use for camping and traveling (we have no kids either, but the dog comes everywhere with us). Part of the VW’s appeal is that it can serve as a portable hotel room with its comfy bed and picnic table.
On my trip to Japan, I saw all sorts of cool mini-campers. It seems like most of the minivans here in the US are all about hauling as many butts as possible. I guess that’s why people have such a hard time understanding why a couple without kids would want one. I like the versatility of Chrysler’s stow-and-go setups. It’s the only van I’d consider to replace my VW, but I plan on keeping mine for the long haul.
You’re going to run out of Toyota models soon. These Siennas were a great size in retrospect and not unattractive – I say now. At the time I wasn’t a fan even though we are similarly aged.
Toyota went all in on these, finally got rid of the perceived weirdness with the Previa, picked up the good bits from the competition, and had a great variety of trim levels. Except for the sludging issues in some engines that eventually came to light, these were a home run for them.
Nice write up thank you. When I was looking for a Minivan in early 2017 after my Caravan died I looked at one of these circa 2002 Sienna XLEs (which had been donated to a charity) and did not care for it. Maybe it was the 178K miles, but the Minivan did not inspire confidence on tight turns at higher speed and the leather seat was flat so my butt was sliding around a lot.
I ended up buying an eight passenger 04 Sienna LE since I wanted the second row bench seat the 97-03 Siennas did not offer. I have never used the third row, I just want a five passenger Minivan. The suspension inspires more confidence while driving and my butt does not slide around the contoured cloth seats.
I leased a Voyager about 18 years ago. Great vehicle. The minivan is the best, most useful and versatile vehicle format ever devised. I’m generally horrified at the disdain many people (including good friends of mine) have of the minivan for the sake of fashion and image. Really? You reject the vehicle that suits you and your family’s needs best because of what other might think? Rediculous
. It’s a colossal waste of money and resources for many families, buying a hulking SUV when the minivan can do everything thats needed more easily and comfortably. And for why? So your neighbors are impressed you’re ready for a Serengeti safari at a moment’s notice? Sorry, we all know the height of adventure for most of us is picking the kids up at soccer practice.
I will admit, I’m a non-conformist and my love of the now-unpopular minivan is typical of my non-conformity.
I have never understood the disdain factor. We owned an ’87 Dodge Caravan for nearly 10 years before trading it in on a ’97 Ford Windstar. With 3 kids, those vehicles were very practical, comfortable and ideal for all long distance road trips. Traded the ’97 Windstar in on a new ’01 Highlander and although the Toyota has been a keeper – still have it for grocery and Home Depot trips – the minivans were tops for comfort.
Great that you documented your vehicles with pics. And thank you for scanning them, as then appear to have originally been photo prints.
I am on my second Caravan and can pretty much agree with most of your statements. It handles nice, gets reasonable mileage, is comfortable on trips and you can stuff it full of amazing things.
But as a single guy, the comments on driving a van! That, truth be told was why I got rid of the last one and still struggle with this one. As some have said here, get over it and don’t worry about the stigma. I want to agree as the van fits my life perfect right now but there is still a tiny little piece of my car guy soul that chips away every time someone asks what I drive and I tell them “a minivan”.
I like minivans also. Our first was a basic short wheelbase ’90 Dodge Caravan with the Mitsubishi OHC V6. I loved that motor as it loved to rev and the three speed tranny lasted up til 130k when it was rebuilt. I was lukewarm about buying the first van, but decided to get something that I chose to replace it. I found a beautiful used ’97 Town and Country LXI. This one was loaded to the gills, with leather, Captains chairs, rear air, sixteen speaker audio, and gold alloy wheels.. It had the big 3.8 V6. While it ran pretty fast and handled very well the motor wasn’t as rev happy as the Mitsu. It was that light purple/grey exterior with grey interior. We called it the “Luxury liner.” We took family trips all over, and I enjoyed driving it even when alone.Too bad the transmission gave so much trouble in the end.
I love the Luxury Liner name for your Dodge!
I have always had at least one minivan in the fleet since my first 1974 vw van I picked up in the early 1990’s. Back then they were just an old wierd van and could be had for a couple thousand CDN dollars in good shape. Now the VW’s are popular with everyone from baby boomers reliving their youth, to millenials who think they are cool. As a result the prices have gone up. I switched to a Toyota previa 5-6 years ago and it has served me well but is getting up to almost 400 000 kms. I think I might have to replace it in a year or 2 if I am lucky. The generation if van in the article is on my short list. The great thing about all the minivan hate these days is that I can pick up a good used one for cheap. I read somewhere that the main demographic for minivan drivers today are middle aged men as good fuel economy, price and space outweigh image. I guess at 45 I am now middle aged and it has been a while since I cared what people think about my vehicle choices.
Here is hoping I can find a van as nicely appointed as this one with under 200 000 kms when I need to replace my current van.
Count me as another minivan fan. I looked down my nose at them during my big van years but will now admit that they provide 90% of the utility with none of the hassles (like whether it is too tall for a parking garage).
If we count my 96 Odyssey I have had 3 in a row (99 T&C, 12 Kia Sedona). I am fearful that the Mrs. may be tiring of them though. I have removed seats fairly often in moving kids to and from school and my mother out of her house and into elder care.
For some reason the Sienna has never entered my life. My minivan driving friends and my minivan rentals have all been from other manufacturers. They may have the best reputation in the used market but that just makes them expensive to buy. But they have sold in good numbers and should be in healthy supply for a long time, so who knows.
How did you like the Honda? They are also on my short list as a replacement for my Previa. I have read certain years have a weak transmission but I like the styling more than the Toyota’s. I have noticed they were in my price range the last time I was looking, at least for the early to mid 2000’s. The big thing I will miss about the previa is that is has a chain not belt for the valves so I don’t have to do that job every 100 000 kms.
I liked my 96 a lot, but it was a first generation. The second and some 3rd gen Odysseys were the ones saddled with weak trannys. Personally I liked my 3d gen Chrysler better than the 2nd gen Odyssey. They also suffer from weak trannys but they are at least fixable.
Having had both a second gen ’05 Sienna XLE and a third gen ’06 Odyssey EXL I give the nod to the Sienna in retrospect (both are written up in my COAL archive). Less attractive but seemed more solidly built, with far better brakes. We drove them both quite hard. The Odyssey had an extended warranty issued by Honda on the torque converter. However if I were to buy another used one I’d give the second generation Kia Sedona a serious look due to the apparent value for money but don’t know much else about them. Having rented relatively current Dodge/Chryslers (but not Pacifica yet) I couldn’t stand the way they drove in the mountains (between 5000 and 11000 feet), the trans programming is horrendous. It might be better in the flatlands but the Honda and Toyota were good in both in that respect. Odyssey’s seem severally underbraked when descending from altitude though, lots of judder when moderately hot.
Thanks to both of you for your insights. I have a bias towards the Toyota due to the good service and reliability of my previa. The Dodge and Chysler vans are a dime a dozen here in BC Canada and prices and parts seem reasonable. But having pushed my father’s old dodge truck down the road on more than one occasion as a young man has soured me toward the brand. Then again I did that routine on my old vw vans but back then I had rosed colored so what do I know.
Your comment is spot on insofar as the Non-Toyotas of my experience. That 5th gen Chrysler (2008+) doesn’t do it for me at all. I would encourage folks to check out a gen2 Sedona if you are looking for a good value in a used minivan.
I really wish someone who had one would write a review of one. It would be a good addition to this site.
Hmmm, maybe I should do this some time.