Despite ego-appealing advertising talk of “man vans,” “swagger wagons,” heavy metal, and panthers, minivans have never really been about person behind the wheel. They’re about the passengers, and the most consideration the driver gets is usually with regard to managing said passengers. It’s refreshing, then, to see the updated 2015 Toyota Sienna do the driver a few favors.
It starts right in the front seat. The old dashboard and its curious swoosh design are gone, replaced by a less artsy, more modern design that emphasizes ergonomics. The climate controls are closer to the driver and the layout is easier to use at a glance or by feel. The digital information screen has been moved from the top of the dash to the center of the gauge cluster, where it’s easier to read, and it’s even offered in full color on some models. If there’s one drawback, it’s that the numbers on the new speedometer are fairly small and can be difficult to read at a glance.
Dead center of the dash is Toyota’s latest Entune entertainment and information system, and it’s a pretty good one. All models except the base get a 7-inch touchscreen augmented by two knobs, one for volume and one for tuning. All of the touch-sensitive buttons respond immediately to input and the system changes between functions quickly, so you’re never waiting long for the computer to think. Base models get a smaller screen with hard buttons and a slightly less intuitive user interface.
The new Sienna’s driver-friendliness extends to the actual driving as well. Adjustments to spring and shock absorber rates reduce body roll a little without any perceivable detriment to ride quality. It’s simply too big for that. An additional 142 spot welds on the chassis increase rigidity, which both makes the van feel more solid and helps improve handling by reducing flex. The SE model takes it a step farther, though you won’t be confusing it for sedan or even a sporty SUV. Thanks to that big entertainment screen and looming federal mandates, the driver also gets a standard back-up camera now.
If there’s anything to complain about in how the Sienna drives, it’s the brake pedal feel. The pedal is soft throughout its range of travel, regardless of how hard you’re pressing it. While the van stops just fine, the lack of building pressure in the brake pedal is disconcerting, as it doesn’t feel like you’re braking as hard as you are, which makes you wonder if the vehicle is going to stop in time, even when your eyes are telling you it clearly will.
Less specifically driver-related is the addition of 25 percent more sound insulation in the floor of the van. It does a superb job of eliminating road noise from under the vehicle, but it also inadvertently highlights noise from other parts of the minivan, such as wind noise around the A-pillars. Also on the docket are an additional airbag, for a class-leading total of eight; larger side curtain airbags; two additional LATCH points in the third row, for a total of four; and additional optional safety technologies such as Rear Cross Traffic Alert. Interior materials quality also moves up a notch.
There’s one new driver-friendly technology that missed the boat, and it’s called Driver Easy Speak. In theory, it’s a clever idea: Use the already built-in microphone meant for voice control and hands-free calling as a sort of PA system by piping the front seat conversations into the third-row stereo speakers. In practice, it sounds like someone left the tour guide’s microphone switched on. Even on its maximum volume, Easy Speak is barely louder than the front row’s natural voices and the music also coming through the third-row speakers. Turning up the stereo volume has no effect on the Easy Speak volume, so it’s easy to drown out Easy Speak at only moderate stereo levels.
As there were no changes made to the Sienna’s drivetrain and the weight hasn’t changed significantly, we can tell you pretty confidently how it will perform. You see, we tested a 2014 Sienna SE front-wheel drive just a few months ago. It hit 60 mph from a stop in 7.3 seconds on the way to a 15.6-second quarter-mile finish at 90.4 mph. Stopping from 60 mph required 115 feet and the van pulled 0.75 g average on the skidpad. Finally, it lapped our figure-eight course in 27.9 seconds at 0.63 average g. The Sienna remains the only minivan with optional all-wheel drive, but we unfortunately haven’t performed instrumented testing on the latest model. All-wheel drive improves grip but also adds weight, so the performance number shouldn’t be radically different.
Powering all four wheels does make a significant difference in fuel economy, however. As the Sienna retains its 266-hp V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission and suffers no significant changes to aerodynamics or curb weight, fuel economy ratings hold steady at 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway/21 mpg combined for front-wheel drive models and 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway/19 mpg combined for all-wheel drive vans. The optional four-cylinder engine, a holdout in the segment, was dropped in 2013.
In total, the 2015 Sienna offers a host of small upgrades to an already excellent van that should keep it well-positioned against its archrival in the segment, the also recently updated Honda Odyssey. Has either van been blessed with enough updates to break the near-tie we found them in during our last minivan comparison test? We will have to wait for the next test, as they remain too close to tell from afar.