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A baby born in February 2010 has probably just entered the third grade.
But the Toyota Sienna minivan, now also more than eight years old, hasn’t changed quite that much during that time.
Eight years is a long time for a car to go without major changes. The market keeps setting new standards for driving dynamics, styling, safety, new features, fuel efficiency and countless other qualities. The biggest difference between the 2011 Toyota Sienna and today’s 2018 model? The base price has swelled by nearly $7,000 — to $31,895, the highest in its class.
So it’s not only old, but also expensive. Is there any reason the Sienna remains so popular even today?
Yes. While fresher vans from Honda and Chrysler have become the class standouts, there’s still plenty to like in the Sienna — both due to some updates it’s received over the years, and to some of its longtime strong points.
The Sienna’s biggest distinguishing quality is its optional all-wheel-drive system, which helps it compete with crossover SUVs. No other minivan has offered all-wheel-drive in nearly 15 years.
But Toyota has also given the 2018 Sienna some other notable strengths.
First of all, this van benefits from Toyota’s brand-wide policy of making a generous suite of advanced safety features standard on even the base model. These include emergency automatic braking, a lane-departure warning system with automatic lane-keeping steering, and radar-based cruise control. None of these features are available on the base versions of competing minivans.
Also helping out on the value front, Toyotas provide two years of free scheduled maintenance, which puts some dents in the Sienna’s higher purchase price.
Meanwhile, a new engine and transmission introduced a year ago have helped the Sienna keep up with the competition in terms of fuel consumption. Like the Chrysler Pacifica and Honda Odyssey, the front-wheel-drive Sienna is EPA-rated to achieve 22 miles per gallon in mixed driving. (The all-wheel-drive model slips to 20 mpg.)
The Sienna also continues to the edge out the Pacifica for seat comfort and total cargo space, and it offers a neat feature that the Chrysler doesn’t match: Toyota’s “EasySpeak” system that plays the driver’s voice through the rear speakers. It’s perfect for making yourself heard in the far back even when the optional entertainment system is in use.
Meanwhile, the tested Sienna SE features sport-tuned steering and suspension, making the Toyota more agile and fun to drive than the Chrysler.
But the Odyssey, freshly redesigned for 2018, answers that challenge. Every Odyssey matches or beats the Sienna SE for its sporty-for-a-van handling, while at the same time offering a plusher and quieter ride. The Odyssey also has more comfortable seating — especially if you’d like to seat eight passengers, which the Sienna can only do in a tiny pinch. And it not only matches the Sienna’s EasySpeak system, but also throws in a camera that lets you keep an eye on rear passengers even at night.
Meanwhile, both the Pacifica and the Odyssey have elegant yet functional interiors, with advanced smartphone integration, lovely crisp displays and posh build quality. The Sienna is more basic and blocky, yet its controls still aren’t all that user-friendly. Its smallish touchscreen infotainment system lacks Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration. It also trails these models for crash-test performance.
The Pacifica also has a couple of unique strengths. It’s the only minivan sold as a gas-electric hybrid, and it also lets you fold down the middle-row seats into the floor rather than wrestling them out of the van to maximize cargo capacity.
The two other minivans on the market offer a budget-priced alternative to the class leaders. The Kia Sedona is a modern van with elegant refinement and excellent safety performance, yet with less interior space and worse gas mileage than the class leaders. The Dodge Grand Caravan is a highly functional and super-affordable model that lacks the refinement, driving dynamics, fuel efficiency and top-notch safety of the newest vans.
Where does the Sienna fit into this mix? Again, it has available all-wheel-drive, lots of standard safety tech and a roomy interior. It’s generally competent, if rarely exceptional. There are few reasons to hate it — but there are more reasons to love the Odyssey or Pacifica, and at lower prices.
Visit tinyurl.com/sienna-18-sentinel to see more photos of the tested 2018 Toyota Sienna.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.