Classic CARmentary: 1998 Toyota Sienna LE

Another in a series of my reviews that appeared in the online version of African Americans On Wheels, a now defunct automotive magazine that was included as an insert in the Sunday newspapers of major cities.

This is another vehicle of which I have absolutely no memory.  Below is not the version that ran on May 18, 1998, since my editor took an already dull review and dumbed it down even further.  You may argue that the 1996 Chrysler minivans were radical.  While extremely handsome and stylish vehicles, they were still conservative when compared with the GM Dustbuster vans or the Previa.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Since Chrysler introduced the first modern minivan for the 1984 model year, other automakers have been trying to “redefine” the concept with rear-wheel drive, mid-engines, and radical styling. Now 15 years later, Chrysler still controls more than 50 percent of the minivan market, and it’s clear that the formula originated by Chrysler is the only one that works: conservative styling, front engine, front-wheel drive, and a car-based platform.

The all-new Toyota Sienna, which replaces the weird, expensive, and slow-selling Previa, follows the formula to a tee. It shares its platform and spirited 24-valve V6 engine with the best-selling Camry. Its looks differ little from Chrysler’s minivans, and it offers a flat floor and optional dual-sliding side doors. It rides and drives more like a car than a van, although the steering wheel is still at a bus-like angle. Entry requires a minimal step-up.

The Sienna is available in CE, LE, and ultra-lux XLE trim. Our tested LE seats seven, with front and center captain’s chairs and a three-person rear split-bench. All of the rear seats have cupholders embedded into their backs, enhancing their usefulness when folded forward. Each seat also has a pull-out cupholder in its side, a nice touch. The rear seats are light and can be removed quite easily but lack the handy wheels of the Chrysler minivans, making them a little more cumbersome. Toyota thoughtfully designed the rear-most seats to tumble forward to provide extra luggage space when necessary.

Even though we had the mid-level model, it was still impressively equipped. All of the requisite power features were there (including power rear vent windows), as well as alloy wheels and CD player. There is no center console in order to provide the ability to walk to the back of the van, but this allows you to enter and exit the van from the sliding doors in case you ever find yourself in a really narrow parking space (not impossible in the city).

Overall, an excellent minivan, but new and/or redesigned minivans are on the way next year from Kia, Honda, and Ford (all following the formula). But with the Toyota badge and the almost mythical quality that goes with it, Toyota should sell every Sienna it builds.

For more information contact 1-800-GO-TOYOTA


Type:5-Door Minivan
Engine:194 horsepower, 3.0 liter V6
Transmission:4-Speed Automatic
EPA Mileage:18 city/24 highway
Tested Price:$26,555