Since their inception, minivans have been the most efficient way to transport people and their stuff.
Like other remnants of the 1980s — read: parachute pants, Cyndi Lauper and Beverly Hills Cops — their luster has faded. But they survive due to sheer practicality.
This year, Toyota steps up its van game with the all-new, fourth-generation 2021 Sienna. Aside from the expected generational gains — it’s bigger, better equipped, more comfortable — the Sienna makes history as the first minivan that can be had only as a hybrid.
It’s also the only electrified van available with all-wheel drive.
The hybrid strategy is the most dramatic change in a makeover that leaves the Sienna better prepared for stiff competition. There are only a few vans left, and all of them are worth a look.
Gilding the lily
Toyota covers the basics — seating for seven or eight in the spacious cabin, a slug of family friendly features, a full slate of safety and driver-assist features — and gilds the lily with available features like foot-activated hands-free sliding doors, in-car intercom and extendable footrests for the second-row captains chairs.
There’s even a Curb View function that can help prevent drivers from scuffing their alloy wheels while parking.
At the heart of Toyota’s latest is a strong, new chassis. The TNGA-K Platform produces gains in ride quality, handling and safety. Noise, vibration and harshness are reduced.
Extensive use of noise insulation and body sealant help curb noises. Engineers even focused on cutting noise in the frequencies where conversation happens.
Sienna’s wheelbase grows 1.2 inches, yielding gains in ride quality and cabin volume. The new chassis includes a new rear suspension — a multilink setup replaces the old twist-beam axle — and consequently, the Sienna feels more solid and stable.
Cabin layout tidier
Steering grows quicker and more precise. Steering feel is too lightly weighted and offers little driver feedback but has a good on-center groove and Sienna tracks easily in its lane.
Sienna’s cabin hadn’t received a serious update in a decade and was due for a wholesale freshening. The new layout is tidier, with cleaner lines and less clutter. It uses better materials and better integrates cabin tech.
On lower trims, a 9-inch touchscreen handles infotainment duties. Upper trims have a 10-inch screen. Smaller drivers may need to stretch to reach the big screen’s far right-hand selections.
The infotainment system menus are straightforward and, for the most part, user-friendly. The audio system menu scheme is more complicated and can frustrate.
That said, the buttons and knobs used to control the audio and climate functions are solidly built and operate with precision.
Clever, comfortable cabin
The Sienna cabin has a decent amount of cabin storage, starting with the broad “floating console” that emerges from the base of the tiered dashboard. In addition to housing four cup and bottle holders on top, it incorporates a large, open storage area below.
There’s also a long and shallow tray at the base of the dash that runs nearly the full length of the dash. A large covered storage bin resides between the driver and passenger armrests.
There are plenty of hard plastic surfaces, and we noticed a few misaligned panel gaps.
The 2021 Sienna is available in five trims: LE ($35,635); XLE ($40,925); XSE ($43,175); Limited ($47,875); and Platinum ($51,075).
Front-wheel drive is standard; AWD is available. AWD versions come only in the seven-passenger configuration with second-row captain’s chairs.
The second-row seats can’t be removed or folded flat into the floor. Instead, they slide and fold forward to expand the cargo area. The third row folds into the floor.
Sienna is powered by a 2.5-liter gas engine paired with two electric motors. Total system output is 245-horsepower.
That’s enough to propel the Sienna from 0-60 in a competitive 8.2 seconds. The continuously variable transmission (CVT) doesn’t use simulated gearing and is prone to sending the engine into its upper, and noisier, ranges.
The EPA rates the Sienna at 36 mpg in combined driving. A properly equipped Sienna can tow up to 3,500 pounds.
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2021 Toyota Sienna XLE AWD
Vehicle base price: $35,635
Trim level base price: $40,925
As tested: $46,087 (includes destination and handling)
Options: rear-seat entertainment; wireless phone charging; premium JBL sound system; navigation; all-weather floor liners; trifold cargo liner; tow hitch; mudguards; wheel locks
Tow rating: 3,500 pounds
EPA rating: 35 combined/35 city/36 highway
Regular gas specified