Have you ever noticed how history sometimes has a way of repeating itself?
The last time I rented a minivan it was due to needing to haul a harp for a 200 plus mile roundtrip and our Ford E-150 having a dead fuel pump. My rental? A 2017 Toyota Sienna.
This time when renting a minivan it was due to needing to haul a harp for a 200 plus mile roundtrip and our Ford E-150 having a brake issue. My rental? A 2022 Toyota Sienna.
The automotive landscape has changed considerably in the five years between 2018 (when I rented the first van) and now, viral pestilence or not. Of the minivan players around in 2017, the Dodge Grand Caravan and the nearly identical Chrysler Town & Country have gone away in favor of the Chrysler Pacifica. Further, the decontented Pacifica Chrysler called the Voyager debuted and died within that timeframe. The Kia Sedona exited stage left to be replaced by the unfortunately named Kia Carnaval.
Most relevant to today’s review is the Toyota Sienna having a new generation debut for the 2021 model year.
Renting a car can sometimes be like a Christmas or birthday present from an eccentric aunt – you just don’t know what you are going to get. This time the surprise quotient was greatly minimized. Entering the modest sized rental chain lot, where the various steeds were parked out front in the open, there were three minivans present: two Chrysler Pacificas and a Toyota Sienna.
There was absolutely no preference on my part. Being curious about both, due to having zero experience with either, I simply let the clerk hand me the keys so the anticipation could continue unabated.
Obviously, I beat the odds and got the red Toyota.
This particular rental Sienna had 20,600 miles on it upon pickup. Before I arrived back home with it (naturally taking the longer route to get a better mix of street and highway driving, making it about five miles total) I was really appreciating the work that went into creating this Sienna.
It wasn’t that long ago a 4,600 pound van and 35 miles per gallon on the highway were mutually exclusive concepts. How these two distinctly divergent items could be merged so successfully was the basis of my curiosity.
Admittedly, my experience with hybrid drivetrains from any manufacturer is limited. There was a first-generation Prius in the pool at work – 20 years ago – and my last time riding in a hybrid of any variety was in early 2022 when I rode in a rather new Ram 1500 having the e-Torque system. For a longer hybrid trip, it was a Camry taxi in Chicago in 2015 or 2016. That’s just how the cookies have crumbled.
Yet it appears I am not in some fluke of a minority who has been living under a rock. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, hybrid sales were at 3.2% of the US Market in 2013 and up to just 5.5% in 2021. Here’s a link; it’s full of good information.
To look at things differently, the percentage of hybrid sales in the United States in 2021 is roughly half the percentage of the population that is left-handed. How many left-handed persons do you encounter daily?
On a low volume road close to the house, I pulled over and hit the button for electrical propulsion only. Needing some throttle to overcome the lip of the pavement, the engine kicked on with the dashboard announcing (admonishing?) I had applied too much throttle for only electrical propulsion.
Going exclusively electric again closer to the house, it was soon announced I had exceeded the speed limit for such propulsion, which appeared to be around 20 mph.
The Sienna obviously has no compunctions in announcing what it will and won’t do. That is an admirable trait for any machine.
Our last rental Sienna had accumulated one year in rental service and just over 40,000 miles. The driver’s side sliding door was non-functional, the carpet was worn through, and the transmission was highly annoying in its excessive downshifting. While the 3.5 liter V6 was a sweetie, the overall impression was not positive.
Yet not all apples in the barrel are necessarily rotten simply because some are. When I arrived at the rental lot, I knew I would be leaving excited regardless of what the assigned ride was. Perhaps this Sienna being red, with a gray (yay, it’s not black!) interior amplified my excitement.
Best of all, I had nothing predisposing me in any direction about the Sienna.
My first impression upon entering the Sienna was “wow, this is really inviting” immediately followed up by “well, every rose has its thorn.”
Not being accustomed to consoles in vans (really, the question of “why do they need to be there?” – especially in a minivan – is something that needs to be asked more often), one has to admit the console in the Sienna does have a nifty party trick in addition to its four cupholders – there is an abundance of storage room directly beneath. One could likely store a modest sized cooler there, keeping their RC Cola or Diet Squirt handy.
However, this also seems to indicate the console is simply there for the sake of being there. To be fair, Toyota is not unique in such things. There are sometimes styling traits that seem normal at the time but lend themselves to critique later; think vinyl roofs, opera windows, and button-tufted interiors. Might oversized consoles be the T-tops or oversized 5 mph bumper of our times?
The various controls were mostly intuitive. However, the buttons for the HVAC system were somewhat different, requiring a toggle action. So it was toggle up to increase temperature, toggle down to lower the fan speed. In a sense, the HVAC buttons are like calculus – they aren’t instantaneously intuitive but do make sense upon a smidgeon of further examination. Is this good? Is this bad? It’s subjective. All I can really add is Mrs. Jason complimented the controls for the ventilation system as she liked how they functioned.
Both of us greatly appreciated the button that equalized temperature between the front and rear. That is a terrific and greatly appreciated feature.
We were of different thoughts about the figurative iPad on the dash. I was getting a kick out of watching the display showing battery charge levels, the engine being split between motivation and battery charging, and the instantaneous fuel mileage graph. She thought the display was oversized and tacky. It seems something along the lines of “one doesn’t need to be watching television while driving so why is this thing here?” was uttered.
It’s inclusion isn’t the most organic.
However, for my inner five year-old, the iPad-esque display provides all sorts of groovy information other than just for charging, with such tremendous things as tire pressure, unit conversion, and the current time and temperature in my favorite three international cities (well, maybe not that) available for instantaneous consumption.
Having access to all these wonderful tidbits of endlessly valuable information is infinitely more entertaining and captivating than simply looking through a huge chunk of glass only to witness some cow fertilizing a field or seeing some old lady pull out in front of me. Besides, I need something to keep me alert while driving down the road, don’t I? Some drives are awfully boring and one needs something to keep their brain stimulated.
This particular Sienna was a base model. Really, should one expect anything more grand from a rental fleet? However, there was nothing immediately obvious to indicate it was a base model…except perhaps the seats.
Your humble author has a 32 inch inseam and a 34 inch (okay, maybe 36 inch on bad days) waist. Combining this with my 5’11” height, I am likely in the
fat sweet portion of the bell-curve for seat designers. Rarely has getting comfortable been an issue in any of the hundreds of vehicles I have driven. In that regard this Sienna was no different. Finding a happy combination of adjustments for seat height, seat angle, and steering column was quick and easy.
It’s always great when a manufacturer understands people come in all shapes and sizes.
However, about a quarter-mile after leaving the house, my daughter commented how the rear seat was as comfortable as a concrete park bench covered with a luxurious veneer of newspaper.
Soon thereafter, Mrs. Jason commented about the seat discomfort from her perch on the shotgun side. It’s often said consistency is good, but is it always?
On US 54 north of Jefferson City, I set the cruise control at 70 mph. There are a few hills in this area; nothing extreme but just enough to get your attention. Going up one of these hills, I could see Mr.
Drag Ass Overly Cautious Driver some respectable distance in front of me. We then suddenly started to lose speed – rapidly. Upon the initial “what the…?” moment, I realized this was my first taste of adaptive cruise control. It was a mixed bag, reminding me of how it is possible to have respect for the tenacity of someone or something whose philosophical outlook varies from that of your own.
Our old stomping grounds of Hannibal was the destination. Slowly driving around to view the Christmas lights in the downtown area surrounding novelist Mark Twain’s boyhood home, the Sienna was seamlessly shifting between electrical and gasoline propulsion. Some engine noise was the only tell-tale sign and it was, as it had been at other times, delightfully unobtrusive to the point only the observant would notice the transitions.
However, a weird realization and/or curiosity hit. Under heavier throttle, the 2.5 liter four in the Sienna was much more obvious and that engine’s auditory output simply isn’t the most pleasant. It made me curious if such is the case in other Toyota hybrids or if this particular Sienna was simply falling outside the norm.
With it being December, we were so lucky as to drive the entirety of the return trip at night. Nothing is quite as exhilarating as driving 100 miles in the dark, keeping a diligent eye out for deer, coyotes, raccoons, opossums, fox, and the adventuresome armadillo, not to mention roaming dogs, cats, and rabbits. Also, the bear and elk populations in Missouri are both on the rise but the elk are more prevalent in the southern half of the state. They make deer look like miniature goats in comparison.
We had stopped for a soft drink at a truck stop just south of Hannibal in the town of New London. That put us on Route 19, a relatively flat road with a few minor curves which is totally vacant after a certain hour. It was well after that certain hour.
Marvel of marvels, hitting the high beams on that Sienna lit up the road ahead unlike anything I have ever experienced. Mrs. Jason and I emitted a “whoa, look at that!” immediately upon the road being lit up like an airport runway. There are times I have likely overdriven my headlights, but not this time. The high-beam headlights were likely the most endearing trait of this entire minivan. They were that good.
Having arrived at the age where the evaporation of my energy for the day is punctual and predictable enough to set one’s watch, Mrs. Jason was bestowed the honor of driving the last 40 mile leg of our return trip. Experiencing what she had said previously, the shotgun seat was not overly comfortable. What was that about consistency?
As mentioned, we were hauling a harp. That particular harp is about five feet tall. Our last rental Sienna earned demerits due to the seat anchors being greasy and exposed. It seems things have improved with this new generation of Sienna but anchors, albeit fewer, are still exposed and pose a hazard to some types of cargo. A collapsed cardboard box and some furniture foam worked to camouflage the anchors and make the floor more hospitable for a harp.
No doubt my use case for a rental minivan is in the infinitesimal minority.
The technical merits of this Sienna are outstanding and it was a delight to experience them. These merits, which are across the entire line, help set the Sienna apart from its competitors. We had viewed this rental as a test drive of sorts as we realize keeping a now 23 year-old van in daily service could be an uphill climb. This is part of why we had no preference in brand rented as we simply wanted to explore the possibilities.
But if one wants to explore minivan possibilities, it appears the figurative train may be leaving the station. In the years from 2015 to 2019 (trying to avoid all the challenges in the industry since 2020), sales of the Sienna dropped from 137,500 to 73,600. If taking these last three highly atypical model years into account, where many factors come into play, it looks even worse; GoodCarBadCar has sales of the Sienna as being 14,800 for 2021 and, as of December 27, a mere 6,840 for 2022.
Prompting a further question is my seeing a sister Sienna at this small lot when I turned mine in…it made me wonder how many of these 6,800 examples can be rented.
This sales decline isn’t just a Toyota thing, either. Honda Odyssey sales fell from 127,000 to 99,000 within those same years of 2015 to 2019. Kia’s Sedona saw an even steeper decline in that timeframe, from 36,800 in 2015 to 15,800 in 2019.
Of the bunch, Chrysler seems to have the most stamina, but it’s hard to say how long that will continue. In 2015, Chrysler sold 97,000 Grand Caravans, which was down considerably from 2014 and which rebounded healthily for 2016. In turn, Chrysler sold another 94,000 Town & Countrys in 2015. For 2019, when the Grand Caravan was still around to compliment the still newly introduced Pacifica, combined sales were 221,000.
The Grand Caravan name alone sold over 225,000 copies back in 2005.
The hybrid system of the Sienna works flawlessly and generates fuel efficiency previously unfathomable in a minivan. As should be expected, the use case needs to drive one’s purchase of anything and all factors need to be considered. All are undoubtedly good vehicles; one could argue at this point in the minivan’s tenure in the automotive market Darwin’s theory has had time to exert itself and any turkeys have lost the battle.
For our use case I would want to explore the competing options from Chrysler, Honda, and Kia before deciding. While this Toyota is good and I did like it, it fell just enough short, primarily due to the seats, to prevent it from being a slam-dunk for any prospective purchase. This is nearly the same conclusion I reached with my last Sienna rental.
It has been said those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. And, in a sense, history has repeated itself….but in the rental world, one’s learning is a much cheaper, and more fun, education than is an outright purchase.
Curbside Review: 2021 Toyota Sienna Platinum AWD – by Jim Klein