(First posted 12/8/2013) Yes, I can admit that I loved our minivan and was saddened when it involuntarily left our lives too soon at too young an age. For many years we had denied that a minivan might be a good idea. Neither of us had grown up in them (although both families had a VW Bus). Then, in 2007, we took a trip to Canada.
It was a driving vacation through Ontario and Quebec with our 4-year-old daughter and infant son where we decided to give a minivan a try. After reserving one in advance, when we arrived at the Toronto Airport Rental Car Counter we were assigned a dirty Chevy Uplander which we rejected on the conventional wisdom that one must always reject the first offering (No Thank You Monty, I want to see what’s behind door number Two!). Second up was a brand new Dodge Caravan. Bingo. The trip turned out great and the minivan did very well. The seed was planted.
A year later we were notified that a third child was on the way and we really started looking at vans. This being the Bay Area meant that the only choices really were the Sienna and the Odyssey, although nowadays I’d find it hard to choose between those as well as the Mopar and Kia product. We were looking for used, as new ones were not in the current budget. The wife told me to go forth and decide what I liked, she did not want to be bothered with the selection even though it would be primarily her car.
Before I left I was sure I would prefer the Odyssey, but after driving both was astounded to note that I preferred the Sienna. Simply said, the seating position was better, the Odyssey felt a bit cramped around my head.
I looked all over and eventually even on eBay where I found one that ticked all the boxes including being local of course. Being offered by Fremont Toyota across the bay, this was a 2005 Sienna XLE with Toyota CPO coverage, only 27,000 miles on the clock and a Buy-It-Now price of around $18,000.
I spoke with the salesman who had listed it and then drove over there to check it out. Although a relatively young example, it did have a few more scuffs inside than I was expecting but nothing that I figured was worse than my kids would inflict on it in short order, so I bought it since the price was more than competitive.
2005 was the second year of the second-generation Sienna. Powered at the time by Toyota’s 3.3 liter 24-valve DOHC V6 with Variable Valve Timing (expanded to a 3.5 in later years) and backed by a 5-speed automatic, this generated a stout 230hp @ 5600rpm with 242 fl-lbs of torque @ 3600rpm to motivate a curb weight of 4300 pounds that was more than adequate for anything that was required of it and could leave many a wanna-be stoplight racer behind.
All Siennas of this generation were built in Princeton, Indiana and were either FWD or AWD, ours being FWD. Toyota still offers AWD, I am surprised Honda never did and that Chrysler gave up on it, I see a lot of the AWD Toyotas here in Colorado now and would figure there is enough of a market for two players.
Siennas were available in various trim levels, ours being the XLE, one step below the Limited. Ours was fairly loaded including leather (a must with kids), 17” alloys, side-curtain airbags, the JBL stereo system, power sliding doors and the piece-de-resistance, the power rear hatch which was a feature that my wife especially came to love. The color was officially called Phantom Gray Pearl, which is kind of a brownish charcoal color, and looked good paired with the Stone (gray) leather inside.
What looked less good is the god-awful orangey fake wood that Toyota thinks makes a minivan look upscale. Uh, no, it kind of clashed, but I will admit it looks much better (but still not very good) paired with the tan/taupe interior. I also think the exterior styling is a bit awkward especially around the front quarters, it’s a bit pudgy looking. The Odyssey looks much more aggressive in this regard.
The tires that were on it when we got it were not very good either, they were Big-O brand Euro-Tour tires that had minimal grip and were noisy to boot. Having learned my lesson with the Murano, I replaced them with a set of better tires, but cannot recall what exactly they were. It did help tremendously in both aspects so was money well spent.
This vehicle obviously became the family car, being used every day and for every trip, and really came into its own when grandparents came to visit. Loading everyone into one vehicle for dinner out or a trip to the aquarium is what these things excel at, far better than most 3-row SUVs and so easy to load kids into with car seats and/or having to latch someone’s belts/harnesses.
While both the Sienna and the Odyssey of the day had an optional 8th seat that fits between the two seats in the middle row (ours did not have it), and both are able to not use it and then decide if you want the seats right next to each other leaving a walkway on the right (door) side or the walkway in the middle, only the Sienna let you actually slide the seat laterally across positions. In the Odyssey you have to take the seat out and reinstall it again in the center. Those seats are heavy, after removing them a few times I now totally understand the appeal of Chrysler’s Stow’N’Go.
The summer after our third child, Riley, was born, we decided to go on a real road-trip. However, having traveled with the three kids on shorter trips before, we did it a bit different than you might expect. My mother flew out and took our daughter back with her to Colorado for a week. Then four days later I set off in the van. Alone. Three days after I left, my wife was planning on flying out with the two boys, then Piper and I would pick them up and we would generally drive back towards California on the theory that if the kids drove us (OK, me) nuts we’d just drive home faster instead of cutting a round trip short…
Anyway, so I took off alone in the van. The first day I made it all the way into Utah and was pleasantly surprised to note that the Bonneville Speed Week on the salt flats was underway. I turned off and became a spectator for a while which was fascinating.
I noticed they were only using one lane of the salt and the way I had happened to have parked the van was right by the start line of the unused lane which is where these pictures were taken.
I spoke with some of the people there and it turned out that the salt in the unused lane on the right was apparently slower than on the salt on the left. Obviously moisture content changes the consistency of the surface, so they elected to mainly run on the faster side that day.
After watching some cars and motorcycles start their runs I decided to drive to the far end of the track, which involved driving a long loop around and then on the salt for several miles until the real pit and camp areas came into view.
Walking around there was fascinating, such ingenuity and creativity on display. I wish I had more pictures of that Mercedes wagon below, it was stunning (and their tow/push-car).
Afterwards driving back towards the interstate I had the van up to about 80mph on the salt. It is spooky driving on the salt as it is such a large featureless plain that one has no sense of distance or speed. On a road you can see the side of the road go by to gauge your speed, not so on the salt. A very interesting phenomenon.
I reached Golden, CO the second day and met up with my daughter again. After spending the night, we drove up to Rapid City, SD to pick up the rest of the family as that was their destination airport.
After doing so, we spent a couple of days in the Mt. Rushmore (The Big Faces, Daddy!) area, then headed west to Devil’s Tower (Close Encounters…), which is just as awe-inspiring as Mt. Rushmore but in a totally different way. Both sights are must-see’s if the opportunity ever presents itself to you, dear reader.
After that we headed on to Cody, Wyoming, one of the gateways to Yellowstone, after which we decided to go up to Idaho and take in the area around Boise. Then it was back towards home again.
I must say, our travel strategy did work out well, with an infant, a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old it was good to know that we were headed towards rather than away from home when the inevitable irritations set in, although I will agree that everyone was fairly well behaved even if some of the distances were rather vast without much scenery at times.
The van did great. It was a stellar interstate cruiser and with the larger wheel/tire option did very well around turns as well, not nearly as much floating and bobbing as a large SUV would have had and much better road manners overall.
Gas mileage was in the high teens, largely as I was flogging it fairly mercilessly at times, which brings me to one of the few pet peeves I had with this car.
Just like the Land Cruiser we had, this one also asked for premium gasoline. Why? I cannot fathom a good reason for asking owners to spend extra at the pump. Just detune the engines a bit to let them run well on regular. I know I could just use regular and the engine would compensate but then I’d feel as if I was not getting the power I had paid for. It’s annoying though as I equate premium fuel with a performance engine, not anything installed in an SUV or Minivan.
We obviously also used the van every time we made the slog down to Orange County to visit the in-laws, and being a van this was also great for trips to IKEA and for my home remodeling projects. It is JUST possible to fit 4×8 sheets of drywall in the back and close the hatch if you take out the center seats and move the front seats all the way forward.
When you are 6’1” like I am this leaves you in a somewhat precarious driving position with the seat all the way forward hoping that the airbag does not go off but it’s doable for a couple of miles home from Home Depot if you like living on the edge (of the seat).
When we took it to our local independent Toyota mechanic for a routine service he noted that one of the rear shocks had blown recently, most likely a result of me jamming an entire flat-packed IKEA kitchen in the back and then crossing the San Mateo Bridge to get it back home. The van was quite overloaded and hitting the bump stops over larger undulations in the road. Replacing the shocks with a set of KYB’s made it ride smoother and corner better than it had before so that worked out well in the end.
At this point we had owned the van for about 2.5 years and had put about 40,000 more miles on it. We had made the decision to uproot our lives and move to Colorado and start over from scratch. California seemed stuck in a budget quagmire, the local schools were constantly in trouble financially, and after twenty years my chosen career was not anything I wanted to continue with any longer. As we were getting the house ready for sale over a period of a few months (early in 2010), we did a lot of work to it.
A few episodes ago I mentioned some garbage cans in a picture that I said would play a part at a later date. Well, we had a very large double-decker deck rebuilt and changed some landscaping at the same time. As a result the garbage cans were temporarily moved from the side of the house under a cantilevered section to a spot between the Sienna and the wooden fence. The painter we hired to stain the deck started his work and at the end of the first day of this large project tossed the rags into the trash can. In the middle of the night my wife awoke to a noise and sent me to investigate.
Upon doing so, I saw that our 60-foot pine tree was fully engulfed in flame along with the fence and the front part of the van and the conflagration was threatening the deck and house itself. I hollered back to my wife to call 911 and get everyone and the dog out the back which she did while I turned on a hose from the upper deck and tried to put out what I could. The fire department showed up soon after and doused everything but could not get the van to stop burning until they used their large saw to literally cut the hood in half and also tried spraying the inside dash area where smoke was billowing out.
The rags loaded with stain had spontaneously combusted and started burning inside the plastic garbage cans, melting them and then the flames jumped to the fence on one side and the van tire on the other side. As bad as it was, thank goodness the trash cans had not been next to the house itself under the cantilevered section, it could/would have been much worse.
The van was a sad sight the next morning. The front half was a charred mess and the sliding doors and power hatch were not working, even manually, anymore, I suppose something electrical had remained in the locked position. I salvaged what I could and the insurance company had it dragged down the driveway via a winch onto a flatbed a couple of days later.
The only good thing that came of it was the adjuster that came out and looked at it asked me if it was “loaded” after he saw it had leather to which I said yes and he then left. A few days later we were offered a check for several thousand more than we paid for it a few years earlier, it appeared the adjuster had just checked ALL of the options boxes including Navigation and on-board DVD players and Sienna values had gone up since we bought it. We took the check and ran to the bank.
It’s too bad minivans are not considered “cool”. The combination of utility, usability, and convenience is pretty much unmatched by anything else. At the end of the day what matters is what works best, for folks with more than two kids to discount a minivan just because of image is asinine although I see it all the time (we did it too). Often it seems people don’t learn that lesson until after the kids are so old that it no longer makes a difference. Anyway, I loved this van and have no shame!