Saturday, December 26, 2009

Did Someone Say Minivan? Yes, the 2011 Toyota Sienna

If you're thinking about trading your BMW for a minivan like my friend Elizabeth did or getting a new car by the end of the year to take advantage of the 2009 tax credit, you might just want to wait till next year if you're in the market for a minivan or a car with a lot of cargo space. I was invited down to the Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel last week to test drive the various models of the all new third-generation 2011 Toyota Sienna.

I'm one of those SAHMs that still has a hard time letting go of her past life as a young urban professional. So a minivan has been a very difficult sell to me. When we moved to Southern California from New York, we had to buy a second car. We bought a Honda Accord with the plan of trading in the BMW a year or so later for a minivan. It hasn't happened. But now I'm feeling the pressure more and more with both boys acquiring their sets of friends and the need to be able to pick those friends up and drive everyone around instead of being trapped at home. So when the opportunity came up last week to test drive the ten different renditions of the five models of the 2011 Toyota Sienna, I knew I had to go. Elizabeth was also there and we partnered up to test drive three models, the XLE V6 AWD, the SE, and the new Sienna 4 cylinder. The XLE V6 AWD felt just like Elizabeth's current model XLE. We didn't really have the road conditions to experience the difference AWD would make. Some nice new features about the XLE AWD (XLE MSRP $32,175) are the standard leather interior and Lounge Seating (reclining captain chairs in the second row, complete with footrests). I think the new Sienna 4 cylinder with a base MSRP of $24,260 is meant to compete with the Kia Sedona, which had a base MSRP of $22,195 in 2010. With just a $2K price difference, I bet more consumers would go with the better reviews, styling and reputation of the Toyota Sienna over the Sedona, especially if you're only driving around town with the kids. The 4 cylinder vs. a V6 really makes a difference only if you're lugging a lot of cargo or doing frequent highway driving where you need the extra power. With gas prices going up and down, the better fuel economy of a 4 cylinder (26 mpg highway) also makes sense for the budget-conscious consumer.

That brings me to the new SE (MSRP $30,550). I really think that Toyota should have called the SE something else, and labeled it not-a-minivan. It sits lower and the steering is a lot tighter so when you are inside you feel like you are in a regular sedan, maybe even a sports car. The Chief Engineer of the 2011 Sienna is Kazuo Mori, someone who spent his youth competing in the All Japan Kart Championships. When he began redesigning the Sienna in 2006, it was after a 7,000 mile cross-country road trip from Socal to NY to Detroit with the Toyota Alphard, known as the King of the Minivans in Japan. His market research led to him believe that there was a need out there for a minivan that was not only about Comfort and Convenience, but, based on the comments he got on the stylish Alphard, also the "Cool" factor. So he was able to infuse his passion for sports cars into the design of the third generation Sienna, namely the Toyota Sienna SE. If I were to buy a minivan, this would be the one for me. It even has cool exclusive instrumentation that has a completely different look from the other Sienna models.

The all-new 2011 Sienna will go on sale in February with the arrival of V6-powered Sienna grade, LE, XLE, and Limited models. Four-cylinder Sienna grade and LE models, and SE grade will arrive at dealerships in April. Another neat aspect of the third-generation Sienna is that the sliding door slots are so well hidden that they are barely noticeable. A lot more features have become standard equipment at all levels so this means that the Sienna is giving the Sedona a run for its money, literally. That means even though you wouldn't get the 2009 new car tax credit, you'd be getting a lot more car for your money to make up for it.
So now that I know which Sienna I would get if I were to get a Sienna, I just need to make the decision whether to trade in that BMW. Bob Carter, the Toyota Division Group VP & GM I met at the test drive event, said that if I were to get the SE, he would change the name on that car for me so it wouldn't be a minivan. After all, what makes a minivan? The sliding doors? Well, at first glance you can't even tell that the SE has sliding doors. So I wouldn't really be buying a minivan, right? Stay tuned.

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