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Minivans have always been superior as people movers. They're easier to park and drive than SUVs, have a low step-in height for easy access, plus comfortable seating and cushy ride characteristics.
The Toyota Sienna has been designed since the beginning to optimize those advantages. But times change, and so has the Sienna. Toyota rolled out an all-new, fifth-generation Sienna for 2011. The 2012 Sienna is nearly identical, with only minor changes regarding standard equipment and options.
This latest-generation Sienna is very much a transportation solution for moving up to eight people, but it is also versatile as a cargo mover, with more flexible interior configurations.
Visually, the 2012 Sienna looks less like a minivan than previous generations, with lower, longer lines, and a wider stance. For 2011, Toyota designers altered the profile and stance to make the Sienna more appealing. Although the current model is based on the same mechanical platform as the previous generation, with the same wheelbase, it has more interior room. Interior seating arrangements were completely redesigned and can be rearranged more easily to carry passengers, haul cargo, or any mix of both.
Sienna excels in second-row passenger comfort and cargo flexibility. The second-row seats are mounted on very long sliders, so they can be moved far forward or far back, depending on the way the interior needs to be configured for people or cargo. With the second-row seats adjusted to the rearward limit, a walk-in isle is created, big enough for an adult to walk through to help a child or an older passenger. With the second-row seats adjusted all the way forward, walk-in access to the third row becomes possible. With the second and third rows removed, Sienna offers a cavernous 150 cubic feet of cargo space, more than most SUVs offer.
The 2012 Toyota Sienna is available in five grades, with seating configurations for seven or eight. There are models aimed at practical transportation, models driven by luxury tastes, and even a sport model, the Sienna SE, which drives and handles more like a sports sedan. The Sienna SE sits lower than the other models, on a sport-tuned suspension, with its electric power steering tuned for quicker response and better feedback.
At the opposite extreme is the luxurious Sienna Limited, which has the nicest interior, and low-effort steering tuned for ease of operation, with very high levels of power assist. That makes the Sienna Limited easy to park and maneuver at low speeds, but it also requires more attention to keep in the center of the lane when driving quickly. Sienna LE and Sienna XLE models are somewhere in between, with steering and chassis priorities balanced 50/50 between comfort and handling.
Sienna is available with a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine; higher grades are all V6-powered. Front-wheel drive is standard. All-wheel drive is available with the V6. We found little difference between the four-cylinder and the V6 in daily driving, but then there isn't much difference in fuel consumption, either, so the V6 may be the better choice. The V6 runs a little smoother at highway speed, with more reserve power for passing.
The Toyota Sienna is made in America, designed in California, developed at Toyota's technical center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and assembled in Indiana. It will be sold only in North America and Puerto Rico.