COAL: 2002 Toyota Sienna XLE – A Van? Really?

Toyota minivan

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.

Sienna brochure front view

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.

Sienna XLE interior

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!”

Toyota minivan with mask

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.

Toyota minivan rear view

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…