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2011 Toyota Sienna SE -- Chillin' in the Swagger Wagon

By on October 28, 2010 11:04 AM
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Intent on revamping its image as well as its relative position in the minivan segment, Toyota gave its 2011 Sienna a major makeover for the new season. While the entire lineup benefited from this comprehensive reengineering effort, one version in particular, the 2011 Toyota Sienna SE, came in for its own distinctive attitude adjustment so cleverly celebrated in the unique "Swagger Wagon" video that racked up over three million online views in less than two weeks and also ran on television. Well deserved kudos for having the cheek to roll with, that bit of atypical promo work aside, has Toyota actually managed to make good on the execution front? We recently spent a week in a Sienna SE to find out just where the truth lies.

>The 2011 Toyota Sienna was a 2011 Best Redesigned Vehicle finalist

Burnishing the image

To help move its perception needle deeper into the cool zone, Toyota gave this trick Sienna an assortment of unique body bits including edgier front and rear fascias, more sculpted side sills, and color-keyed front/rear underbody spoilers. A blackout mesh grille insert with a smoked-chrome surround for it as well as the projector-beam headlamps team with smoked LED taillamps add an extra touch of curbside cred. To complete the look, SE-specific 19-inch Super Chrome alloy wheels replace the 17-/18-inch alternatives used on its kin and get wrapped in even lower-aspect-ratio 235/50 all-season tires. Adding a final functional as well as visual flourish, the sport-spec springs used in the Sienna SE's tauter suspension further contribute to its semi-slammed appearance by marginally lowering the ride height.

Although it retains all of the basic functionality of the base/LE/XLE/Limited variants, the 2011 Toyota Sienna SE also gets its own distinctive cabin appointments that set it apart from and slightly beyond the impressively equipped LE grade. Most notable is a bespoke dash treatment that adds a custom "sport meter" instrument cluster display set off by chrome and piano black accent elements. The SE also nets leather trim on its tilt/telescoping steering column and leatherette/sport fabric coverings for the eight-way power driver's seat and four-way front passenger seat. Beyond that, the SE provides all of the impressive room and overall flexibility found in other Sienna models, helped greatly by expansive fore/aft travel for its 40/20/40 second row seat that adds considerably to at least the mid-distance appeal of the 50/50 third tier. On the downside, the SE also shares the demand to do a bit more reaching and pulling than required by the Sienna's archrival, the Honda Odyssey, to expand cargo capacity by flat-folding that last row.

Fine-tuning the functionality

Cosmetic touches notwithstanding, the real character of the 2011 Toyota Sienna SE lies in its mechanicals. Where lesser versions of Toyota's minivan can be had with the 2.7-liter/187-horsepower inline four-cylinder, and all but the base Sienna can be had with optional all-wheel drive, the SE comes only with the 3.5-liter V6 that makes 266 ponies and develops nearly a third more peak torque, all of which gets shipped only to the front wheels by the standard six-speed autoshifter. That pairing will help the SE hustle from 0-60 mph in a very respectable 8.0-8.5 seconds.

The inherent spirit of swagger manifests itself far more directly in the chassis tuning of the 2011 Toyota Sienna SE. Stiffer springs/shock absorbers, a more aggressive wheel/tire package and increased effort and feel in its electric-assist power steering really do make a palpable difference compared to other members of the Sienna set. Don't expect to see this 4,460-pound people mover challenge the likes of a Lexus LFA through the twisties, but the SE's shored-up suspension does provide a notably higher degree of control with crisper response, less push, reduced  body roll and a more athletic feel without exacting too much of a penalty in ride comfort. Like all Toyotas, it also gets the STAR Safety System that includes stability/traction control, and anti-lock brakes with Brake Assist and Electronic Brake-force Distribution.

It's sporting flair aside, there are a couple of potential caveats to consider before deeming the Sienna SE your ideal minivan. While its $31,560 base sticker brings a major load of standards at a fairly competitive pricepoint, Toyota has confined the SE's option roster to a single Preferred Package that nets a power rear liftgate, tri-zone climate control, rear window shades, roof rails, a fixed console box plus a slightly enhanced audio system that adds 90 days of XM radio, Bluetooth hands-free phone/music streaming capability, iPod/USB connectivity and auxiliary steering wheel controls to the basic mix. Unfortunately, that means a host of potentially very attractive features -- including the voice-activated touch-screen navigation, JBL premium audio system, second-row Dual View Entertainment Center with a 16.1-inch split-screen display, Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management System, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, Pre-Collision System and HID headlamps -- remain confined to the realm of the considerably pricier Sienna XLE and Limited models.

A qualified success

All things considered, Toyota's attempt to carve out a micro niche of the overall minivan market does merit a fair amount of legitimate praise. As an alternative to more conventional vehicles in its class, the Sienna SE's bolder appearance and more dynamically engaging character should find favor with a certain slice of Gen X/Y buyers who now find themselves in a family way. However, the inability to fit the SE with minivan staples like a navigation system and rear-seat entertainment package may see function trump form even among those who do have more overt enthusiast leanings. And the moment the real-world choice reverts back to the entire 2011 Toyota Sienna lineup, the fully redesigned 2011 Honda Odyssey offers an equally compelling case to the vast majority of potential minivan buyers who still place a higher priority on moving people than carving corners.

Ride and Drive

Both of the Toyota Sienna's engines deliver where it counts, whether you crave the fuel-sipping economy of the 2.7-liter four-cylinder or the extra punch provided by the 3.5-liter V6. The four-cylinder-equipped Sienna is surprisingly acceptable, but for serious family- and cargo-hauling, the V6 is the engine to get. Power for both engines is managed by a smooth-shifting ECT six-speed automatic transmission. The base Sienna offers a quiet, soft ride that will cocoon driver and passengers, with the suspension floating effortlessly over potholes. For those who want a more involving driving experience, however, we recommend the sporty SE trim, which offers a sport-tuned suspension and tighter steering feel.

KBB Value Analysis

The base Toyota Sienna's Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) starts around $26,000, while the LE starts closer to $30,000, and adding all-wheel drive ups the price by about $2,000. The feature-laden XLE starts around $33,000 while the luxury-oriented all-wheel-drive Limited tops out around $46,000 with all the options. Before you buy, be sure to check the most recent Fair Purchase Price to see what others in your area are paying for the Sienna. Remove the luxury frills and you can find a comparably equipped van from Kia for a lot less money, while family-oriented options similar to those in the Sienna can be found on the granddaddy of all minivans, the Dodge Grand Caravan. But the Sienna is expected to have a high resale value, far better than that of rivals Dodge Grand Caravan and Kia Sedona, a few points higher than the Nissan Quest, but not quite as good as the Honda Odyssey.

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