The Third-Generation Sienna: The Minivan Continues

The F3R, a 2006 Toyota minivan concept.

Sienna chief engineer Kazuo Mori has been hoping to engineer sports cars–which actually makes him the right guy to put in charge of a minivan program, as it is certainly a segment that could use more than a soupcon of excitement.

Funny, from this angle it doesn’t look like a minivan. That’s the point of the SE model in the Sienna lineup. While it will undoubtedly be but a fraction of the minivan’s hoped-for 100,000 annual sales (with the mid-grade LE sales probably accounting for half the sales and the XLE for about 25%, according to Toyota’s Bob Carter), there’s nothing like a little halo for a lineup.

Note the leg rests that are here in the 2nd row of a Sienna Limited. This is called “Lounge Seating,” and the track travel for that pair of seats is 25.6 in.

The first Toyota Sienna appeared on the market in model year 1998. It was based on a stretched and modified Camry platform, and it was powered by the same 3.0-liter engine that was used in the sedan. The Sienna was the successor to the Previa minivan, the vehicle with the ovoid profile that had been introduced in 1990. (The Previa, incidentally, had been preceded by a vehicle that was unimaginatively named the "Van.") One of the aspects of the Previa that was somewhat unusual for a passenger vehicle was the fact that its 2.4-liter engine was mid-mounted, thereby being somewhat up-close and personal vis-à-vis the people inside. And unlike the Sienna that followed, it had a rear-drive setup; all-wheel drive (AWD) was an option (and it has been carried right on through the Sienna lineup).

The 2004 model was the second-generation Sienna. As the U.S. market was the true minivan market, Toyota made significant efforts to create a product that not only met the needs of the American consumer (e.g., it was 5-in. longer than its predecessor, its front and rear tracks were both about 4-in. wider, and some 45-ft3 of cargo space were added—and, yes, it could handle a 4 x 8-ft sheet of plywood, the then-obligatory design feature for "real" minivans), but content-wise it was 85% sourced from suppliers in North America. The minivan was produced at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Indiana (TMMI), in Princeton; the previous model had been produced at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky (TMMK), in Georgetown. (The Previa? Kariya, Japan.) 

And now it is the third generation, the 2011 Sienna minivan. The focus on the U.S. market has been amped-up in that it was designed at Toyota's Calty Design Research in Newport Beach, CA; it was developed at the Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, MI; it is being assembled at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Indiana, in Princeton; and the percentage of U.S. sourcing increased, as well.

And, yes, the 2011 model is bigger where it really matters: it offers a total of 150-ft3 of cargo room with the second row of seats removed (and as a front-drive vehicle); the previous generation has a 148.9-ft3 cargo capacity. One thing has to be noted while mentioning the interior. There are five models, ranging from the "Sienna" (harkens back to "Van") to the Limited. (And while on the subject of models, know that there are a 3.5-liter, 266-hp V6 that is also used in the Camry, Avalon, and RAV4, and a 2.7-liter, 187-hp inline four that is also used in the Highlander and Venza). The Limited is available with a second row featuring "Lounge Seating" with the "Long-Slide" feature, which means each of the second row seats is like a first-class seat on an airliner, with an extending footrest. The "Long Slide" means a 25.6-in. travel (which you don't want to take full advantage of if there are people in the third row).

The development of the 2011 began in 2006. By 2006, Ford was out of the minivan market (the Windstar went out of production in 2003). By 2008, after trying its "crossover sport vans"—an ill-designed melding of SUV styling with a minivan body—GM left the market, too. SUVs and then crossovers were taking share away from what was becoming perceived as the "soccer mom" mode of transport.

In 2009 there were really three big players in the segment. And Bob Carter, Toyota Div. group vice president and general manager, openly admits, "It's no secret that the minivan market has been losing share." In 2009, Chrysler sold a total 175,224 minivans (both Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country models); Honda sold 100,133 Odysseys; Toyota sold 84,064 Siennas. While that was a huge part of Chrysler's business—only the Ram pickup outsold the minivans, and its 2009 sales were just 177,268—it is worth noting that Honda sold 290,056 Accords and Toyota sold 356,824 Camrys. Still, Carter says, "We see an opportunity."

The chief engineer on the third-generation Sienna, the man who had been the assistant chief engineer on the second-generation Sienna, is Kazuo Mori. Here's an interesting admission: "Driving fast has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember." Mori even participated in the All Japan Kart Championship in 1996 and 1997, because he figured the "limitations of the public roads" weren't letting him really get after it.

Following his degree from Tamagawa University, he joined Toyota. "When I first began, my dream was to plan and design sports cars." Well, that hasn't been fulfilled as of yet. His initial job at Toyota was doing commercial vehicle chassis design, which led to a development assignment on a small Japanese minivan, the Ipsum, which led to working on the second-generation Japanese Estima, another minivan. In 2001, it was the second-generation Sienna. And then in '06 the third. Seems like that sports-car thing isn't working out for him.

Well, sort of.

You see, of the five Sienna models, there is the SE. And it has some SEMA-like design touches not found on the other models, such as a mesh grille and dark chrome accents surrounding it, as well as the headlamps and tail lamps. There is a low, wide rocker molding, and the vehicle is lower than any of the other models, with a ground clearance of 6.2 in., or 0.3-in. lower than any other model. There are 19-in. standard alloy wheels, whereas the other trims get 17's or 18's standard.

And Mori admits, "I personally took the lead in tuning the SE's steering, which is not something a chief engineer typically does," adding, "I gave the SE an even tighter response, spending hours on the test track getting it just right." Maybe it isn't a sports car, but it doesn't handle like your typical minivan.

If the market improves, Bob Carter thinks that TMMI may be producing 100,000 Siennas a year. The folks at Princeton would undoubtedly like that. The plant had been producing the Tundra pickup, which was consolidated into the Toyota plant in San Antonio in 2008, in response to the downturn in the market. That left the plant with the Sienna and the Sequoia full-size SUV. In October 2009, after there was a $450-million investment in the factory, production of the Highlander CUV was added, which was followed by the third-generation Sienna.

Given the recall situations that Toyota is presently embroiled in, it is probably not the best time to be launching a new product. But that said, it is probably better to have new product at a tough time than last-generation sheet metal.


Design Influence: F3R

What is said to be an influence on the design of the 2011 Sienna? The F3R concept, which was revealed at the 2006 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The F3R has three rows of seats. While the second row of the Sienna Limited with “Lounge Seating,” the F3R’s driver’s seat reclines and swivels, while the front passenger seat reclines in a chaise-like manner. The second- and third-row seats are arranged so that it is possible to have a sofa-like setup in the third row.