2021 Toyota Sienna Review: A Modern Family Hauler, Renovated With Hybrid Power
The fourth generation of Toyota's minivan is hybrid-only and a lot more stylish than before. But what's it like to live with?
There's a Modern Family episode in which father-of-three Phil Dunphy impulsively buys a used Porsche 964 Cabriolet. In typical sitcom fashion, things don't work out as planned and he promptly finds himself handing the keys to the Porsche to wife Claire while he takes the family Toyota Sienna to ferry around a real estate client and pick their kids up from school. Though Phil is understandably dejected in the driver's seat of his minivan, his spirits slowly lift as he quietly listens to the latest developments in his children's lives. Luke, an avid soccer player, has obliviously gained an admirer. Teenager Haley, on the other hand, is less than thrilled about the frequency at which her new boyfriend texts her, and the family egghead, Alex, has started learning Chinese.
"There's something about driving your kids around. You're in the front, they're in the back. They forget you're there and you learn so much," he says to the camera. "Like Sigourney Weaver in Gorillas in the Mist. Except Gorillas make less noise chewing."
It's a sentiment many parents can surely relate to. Before the current circumstances consigned many of us to our homes, much of domestic life also unfolded on the road. That first trip home from the hospital, baseball games, violin recitals, doctor's appointments, first dates, first driving lessons, and, perhaps eventually, that first time you drop 'em off at college. Much of it happens on wheels and, for families unconcerned with putting on a rugged image to their neighbors, the humble minivan objectively remains the most practically capable vehicle to do it all in. This brings us to the 2021 Toyota Sienna.
For 2021, the Toyota's minivan is all new and, on the outside at least, not nearly as humble as before. Like pretty much every non-truck and non-sports car Toyota, it rides on the company's modular New Global Architecture, specifically the K variant shared with the Camry and Highlander. Toyota's shaken things up under the hood as well (for the benefit of efficiency, of course) because gone is the V6 and in its place sits a 2.5-liter four-cylinder assisted with hybrid electricity. That's right—the Sienna has gone hybrid-only, and it's a better move than you may think.
But, if you're in the market for a minivan, you probably have kids. And if you have kids, your free time is probably scarce so instead of continuing to waste your time with sitcom recaps, life truths you already know, and technical details you don't really care about, let's explore whether or not the new Toyota Sienna is worth your hard-earned cash.
The 2021 Toyota Sienna Limited AWD, By the Numbers
- Base Price (As Tested): $35,635 ($49,675)
- Powertrain: 2.5-liter inline-four with two electric motors and a nickel-metal hydride battery | E-CVT | electric all-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 245 combined horsepower
- Torque: 176 pound-feet @ 4,400 rpm from gas engine | 199 pound-feet from front electric motor | 89 pound-feet from rear electric motor
- EPA Fuel Economy: 35 mpg city | 36 highway | 35 combined
- Curb Weight: 4,825 pounds
- Seating Capacity: 7
- Maximum Towing Capacity: 3,500 pounds
- Cargo Space: 33.5 cubic feet behind the third row | 75.2 cubic feet behind second row | 101 cubic feet behind first row
- Quick Take: Toyota's family-hauler goes hybrid-only, and for the task of shuttling your family around, it's very hard to beat.
Minivan owners may not be known for their need to look cool, but that hasn't stopped Toyota from making what might be the most expressive-looking van on the market right now. With its U-shaped hood and a jutting front bumper, the 2021 Sienna's front end was inspired by the Japanese bullet train and to its credit, the van's face really does sort of resemble the Shinkansen. Around the sides, you get some pretty aggressive, Supra-esque rear fenders which flow into a rear-end that also appears to mimic that of Toyota's flagship sports car (or, less flatteringly, a crying alien). The big "SIENNA" badging that spans the space in between the taillights is a trendy, luxury car-aping touch.
Styling is, ultimately, subjective and if you're the sort of beholder who finds beauty in big grilles, aggressive design, and generally believes that "more is more," the Sienna should be right up your alley. That being said, if curb appeal truly is of utmost concern, what are you doing shopping for minivans anyway? The Volvo dealership is that way. (Get one of the wagons.)
More subdued, however, is the redesigned Sienna's interior. I actually really like the new dashboard design. The top-half is stitched and soft, the silver trim that runs across the entire thing is attractive, and the new bridge-style center console offers lots of storage and a more upscale, car-like feel. That bridge, by the way, hasn't compromised between-the-seats space either because underneath it remains a massive storage area that's easily big enough for purses and backpacks.
Unsurprisingly for a Toyota minivan, it's a simple, easy space to utilize and navigate. The slim HVAC temperature switches (the ones you use most frequently if you leave it on Auto) are big and easy to locate without looking. There are four cupholders on the center "bridge" area alone (18 in total throughout the Sienna, but 17 if you opt for the spare tire).
The giant, rubberized grab handles that greet you when you open the sliding doors (which you can now do by waving your foot underneath the Sienna) make getting in and out easy for passengers of all ages and statures. The upgraded 12-speaker JBL sound system, while not really comparable to the optional speakers on most luxury cars, sounds clear and strong enough and will do just fine at pumping out whatever Disney tunes are the household obsession of the moment.
No matter which Sienna trim you choose, the infotainment touchscreen measures nine inches diagonally and is mounted high in the driver's line of sight. To the chagrin of what feels like every armchair interior designer on Car Internet, it's of the "tacked on" variety, a criticism I personally never really agreed with (Does one's home look any worse because the TV does not sit flush, integrated into the wall?). One screen-based shortcoming that can't be disputed is the visibly low resolution on display here. As someone who's been spoiled by super-sharp Retina-level displays for the better part of the last decade, the clearly visible pixels, jagged edges, and straight potato-quality backup camera are unbecoming of a vehicle that costs $50,000.
Toyota's infotainment software is, in a word, fine. Combining the touchscreen with physical buttons, volume and tuning knobs, as well as steering wheel controls, managing music and maps here isn't terrible nor is it amazing. It gets the job done. Wired Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa are standard while Qi wireless charging is standard on Limited and Platinum but available as part of a Plus package on LE, XLE, and XSE.
Speaking of creature comforts, upper trims of the new Sienna were supposed to get a vacuum and refrigerator but, due to supplier issues, earlier production-run cars like our tester do not get either of these. More recently, news broke that Honda's supplier for the Odyssey's HondaVac, Shop-Vac, went out of business entirely, putting the future of that minivan's in-car vacuum cleaner up in the air. We've reached out to Toyota to ask whether Shop-Vac was also supposed to provide the Sienna's vacuum but the company has yet to respond.
Even without the vacuum and fridge, the interior quality here is a step forward from the last Sienna. But the same cannot really be said for interior quantity. Middle and rear-row legroom has grown by 2.3 and 2.4 inches, respectively, but cargo capacity behind that last row has shrunk 5.6 cubic feet while cargo room behind the second row is down 11.9 cubic feet. Total overall passenger volume is down 4.7 cubic feet. What's more, and this may prove to be a dealbreaker for some, the 2021 Sienna's middle row cannot be removed unless you go rogue and use your own tools to do it. This is apparently due to the presence of side airbags.
If you can live with that, though, I feel like comparing interior specs between the new Sienna and the old Sienna (or against any other minivan, for that matter) is splitting hairs. This is still a more expansive and practical space than the vast majority of cars on sale right now. Fun fact: my father actually owns a 2015 Sienna and when I gave him a ride in the 2021 model, he described the cabin as "like my car but renovated." Which, I gotta say, is an astute observation and I do dig what Toyota's done with the place.
Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 is standard and consists of the following:
- Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection/Lowlight Detection
- Full-Speed Range Dynamic Radar Cruise Control
- Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist
- Lane Trace Assist
- Automatic High Beams
- Road Sign Assist
Radar Cruise works as advertised but Lane Trace Assist doesn't seem quite as advanced or reassuring as, say, the Hyundai group's current semi-autonomous system and not really something I'd depend on to keep the Sienna between the lines. Regardless of whether there's precious cargo riding inside this minivan, just keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road, okay? Speaking of...
The Drive: 2021 Toyota Sienna
Out and about, the 2021 Sienna's lower, lighter, stiffer modular platform helps it drive noticeably less van-like than the outgoing model did. Like the Highlander with which it's related, steering is light and easy while being more responsive than before. The ride is equally agreeable, smoothing over bumps well and rarely giving its occupants a hard time over uneven pavement.
That hybrid powertrain means low-speed travel is smooth, if not exactly silent. Toyota's hybrid system has a fairly distinctive set of whirrs and high-pitched electric noises that'll be familiar to anybody's who's ever had a Prius for an Uber. Combined horsepower comes in at 245, down from the old six-cylinder's 296 peak horses, but it makes up for it with that electric torque low down. With the 2.5-liter gas engine active, straight-line thrust is about the same as the outgoing V6 Sienna (ask me how I know) with the most noticeable detriment of cylindrical downsizing being the sound that the four-pot makes. It's an unpleasant sounding engine that makes the silent, electric future not look so bad.
Official towing capacity comes in at 3,500 pounds—identical to the Highlander Hybrid and, despite its more powerful V6, the last-generation Sienna. Those looking for a three-row, unibody Toyota that can fit more on the trailer should consider the V6 Highlander which can tow up to 5,000 pounds.
Of course, the big reason Toyota has traded in the Sienna's V6 for an electrified four-banger is efficiency. The EPA says the hybrid minivan is good for at least 35 miles per gallon in both city and highway but, in the week I had it, that number was closer to 30. Still commendable for a vehicle of this size although if fuel economy is of chief importance when picking out a minivan, it's hard to beat the plug-in Chrysler Pacifica's EPA rating of 82 equivalent combined mpg. Toyota Sienna Prime, anyone?
Sporty rides like the Toyota 86 are what I like to call "9 and 3 o'clock cars," in reference to where on the steering wheel one's hands tend to grip while driving. The Sienna is still very much a "hang one hand casually at 7 o'clock" type of vehicle, remaining a fuss-free, easy way of getting lots of humans and cargo from Point A to B. And considering the Sienna comes in fourth on the list of cars most likely to be kept for more than 15 years, it'll probably be able to keep shuttling you and your loved ones around for quite a long time. Toyota's been making hybrids longer than pretty much anyone and this new Sienna's electronics, mechanicals, and switchgear all feel like they were made for the long haul.
It isn't perfect, though. The infotainment and semi-autonomous tech functions but is really nothing to write home about, the inability to easily remove the middle row of seats is a bummer, and Cool Dads will miss the sound of the old V6 (then promptly shut up about it when they realize how much this hybrid will save them at the pump). With its extraverted styling, less generous cargo room, and a second row that takes a bit more effort to remove this time around, Toyota's "Swagger Wagon" seems to offer more swagger than wagon compared to the outgoing model.
But that doesn't mean it's suddenly lost its status as a great family hauler. It's easy to use, comfortable, fuel-efficient, spacious, better to drive than ever, and, chances are, inexpensive to maintain for years to come.
It might not feel like it right this moment, but one day, the pandemic will be over and four-wheeled family life will resume. Full-time, in-person learning will come back. Junior hockey will start back up and so will ballet, football, and piano. And when those days return, the 2021 Toyota Sienna might be just ideal the machine to spend 'em in.
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