Out to Shatter Expectations
The minivan was born of necessity. Its utility, comfort, and most important of all, its passenger-hauling capability helped it become a popular choice for families. Fun and coolness have traditionally have taken a back seat in a minivan, but what if that didn’t have to be the case? What if instead of merely being an answer to the need to transport multiple passengers, a minivan was something you actually looked forward to driving? In a somewhat unexpected twist, it’s Toyota that’s exploring that very question and more.
Toyota surprised attendees at the 2015 SEMA Show when it unveiled the Sienna R-Tuned concept. The project, built in collaboration with SoCal performance outfit Dan Gardner Spec (DG-Spec), was undertaken to change perceptions about the Sienna (probably the least exciting product in Toyota’s lineup) and Toyota as a whole. The idea was to inspire consumers and Toyota employees from the bottom up, to show that if a minivan can become this cool, fun-to-drive thing, anything else in the lineup should be able to do the same—and probably do it even better. Toyota gave a handful of journalists the opportunity to see and drive its creation, along with another one we’ll talk about later, at Willow Springs Raceway’s Streets of Willow road course.
From the outside, the Sienna R-Tuned doesn’t look all that different from its people-moving counterpart. It’s lowered, has a racing stripe and graphics, and rides on a set of aftermarket wheels, but otherwise it still looks like a Sienna. But that was part of the goal. The team wanted the finished product to still be a Sienna. That meant no wild aero mods or massive fender flares. It also meant the van needed to keep its powertrain as close to stock as possible. While an engine swap or twin-turbo setup could’ve earned the build some tuner street cred at SEMA, it wouldn’t have been representative of what a Sienna is. So for the R-Tuned, which is based on a front-drive SE model, Gardner and crew left the naturally aspirated, 3.5-liter V-6 mostly untouched—and still driving just the front wheels. The only modifications to the engine are a custom cold-air intake and 3-inch cat-back exhaust. Still, with those bolt-ons, power is estimated to be just over 300 hp, up from the stock Sienna’s 266 hp. The six-speed automatic is unmodified, but the transaxle has been fitted with a one-off, clutch-type limited-slip differential from high-performance driveline company and Toyota motorsports partner OS Giken.
A custom suspension sits beneath the relatively stock-looking exterior. The front struts and springs were replaced by a set of custom double-adjustable coil-overs. Camber plates adapted from an Australian Toyota Celica sit atop the front strut towers. The Sienna’s rear suspension design doesn’t lend itself to a coil-over setup, so the R-Tuned instead uses double-adjustable shocks and height-adjustable springs that use the stock perches on the beam axle. The coils are Vogtland racing springs, which are said to be 300 percent stiffer than stock. The subframes, anti-roll bars, bushings, axles, and steering system were left untouched. The camber plates and adjustable springs facilitate a custom alignment and corner balancing.
The minivan rides on a staggered set of Enkei RPF1 wheels measuring 18×10 inches in the front and 18×9 in the rear. The modified “swagger wagon” gets much of its swagger from the meaty 275/40R18 Nitto NT-01 DOT-R competition tires at each corner. Another big part of it comes from the roughly 800 pounds (363 kg) removed from the vehicle. The interior is gutted of the rear seats, carpet, sound-deadening materials, and other non-essential parts. The front door panels and dash remain intact to keep that minivan cockpit feel. Even the Corbeau racing buckets are mounted close to stock height, partially because a commanding driving position is crucial to the minivan experience but also because sitting lower would make it hard to see over the dash. Additional weight savings come from a custom carbon-fiber hood that is a remarkable 40 pounds (18 kg) lighter than stock.
After a vehicle walkthrough we finally get to the driving portion of the day. We start out in stock Siennas, which perform about how you’d expect in a minivan on a race track. The steering is uncommunicative, and the body feels flimsy through corners. As soon as you attempt to add any kind of speed, you’re met with generous amounts of understeer and tire squeal.
How Toyota and DG-Spec took that vehicle and made the R-Tuned is truly mind-boggling. Once you strap into the R-Tuned—and you literally do have to be strapped in with a six-point racing harness—you feel like you’re in a completely different car. The lower weight is immediately noticeable once you accelerate onto the front straight, as is the exhaust, which fills the cabin with a low, manly engine note. Turn-in is so much sharper, and the level of grip provided by the tires instills confidence and allows greater speeds through corners. One thing I expected was for the Sienna to still feel top-heavy in the turns, but you get very little body roll. I also expected it to still have some “pushy” front-wheel-drive characteristics, but if anything the van has a tendency to oversteer slightly, rotating with surprising ease and control. The brakes, which use racing pads and fluid but are otherwise stock, are responsive and linear-feeling and further inspire confidence.
The Sienna R-Tuned’s boldest claim when it debuted at SEMA was that it recorded a lap time of 1 minute, 27 seconds around Streets of Willow—a full second quicker than the outgoing Chevrolet Camaro SS automatic. To back that up, Toyota brought along Grand-Am champion race car driver Craig Stanton to lap both vehicles. In the back-to-back solo laps, the van was consistently faster than the V-8-powered, 426-hp Camaro. But if that wasn’t enough proof, ride-alongs were offered during a wheel-to-wheel demonstration, with Stanton driving the Camaro and Gardner driving the Sienna. Sure enough, the Sienna was glued to the Camaro’s bumper from the get-go and passed the ponycar in short order.
Despite all of the project’s lightweighting efforts, the Sienna R-Tuned still weighs about 3,750 pounds (1,701 kg), not including the driver. That gives it a slight weight advantage over the automatic-equipped Camaro, but the pony car still has more than 100 horses on the Sienna. Heavily modified or not, a minivan beating a V-8-powered sports coupe around a race track is impressive. What’s perhaps more impressive is that beating the SS wasn’t even the goal—beating the V-6 model was. Gardner says one of the most exciting aspects of the project was that the team didn’t know the outcome. It had a starting point and a goal, but because nothing like this had been attempted before, no one knew how well the vehicle would perform in the end. When the team realized how quick the R-Tuned was becoming, it set sights on a new benchmark.
So what does all this mean for Toyota? After all, gutting a minivan negates all of its practicality, and offering one with barely-street-legal tires isn’t a great idea, either. The whole point of this exercise was to further Akio Toyoda’s vision of brand shift. The CEO and grandson of Toyota’s founder says he wants the company to shed its boring-car image. Does that mean building and selling a track-ready minivan? Not exactly. The R-Tuned is an inspirational vehicle. It’s an extreme example of what a Toyota, no matter how pedestrian, can become. A few Toyota employees have had the opportunity to drive the van, and we’re told the experience has been almost universally well-received internally. Perhaps some of those employees will return to work and look at the products they’re working on with new eyes. Perhaps they’ll even ask themselves, “Can we make this more fun?” That’s the hope, at least.
Is this just a stunt intended to prove a point, or is there actually some hope of reinvigorating the Sienna? After all, Toyota learned there was a market for a sportier minivan when it introduced the SE model with the launch of the current-generation Sienna. That trim level includes a unique exterior, stiffer suspension, retuned steering, 19-inch wheels, and black leather interior. It’s cooler and somewhat more engaging than a standard Sienna, but is there room for more swagger? Maybe, if Toyota’s second Sienna project is any indication.
Introducing the Sienna S-Tuned Concept
Toyota and DG-Spec debuted a second concept Sienna at Willow Springs. Called the S-Tuned, this one is more streetable than the R-Tuned and is easier to envision as a production vehicle. The van, which started out as a Limited AWD model, has a full interior with seating for seven. The van uses shocks and struts from the SE and is lowered 1.3 inches on DG-Spec/Hyperco springs. A set of 18×8.5-inch Enkei wheels wrapped in 245/40R18 Nitto NT-05 performance tires underpins the van, and the front custom alignment optimized for the street and autocross competition. The only power-adders are a drop-in air filter from K&N and a custom 2.5-inch exhaust. The brakes again use the stock calipers and rotors but with high-performance pads.
Unlike with the R-Tuned, you can still tell you’re driving a minivan when you take the S-Tuned on the race track. You get body roll, but it feels controlled and less pronounced. The brakes do a surprisingly good job of slowing the S-Tuned’s roughly 4,750 pounds (2,155 kg), and the grippier-than-stock tires give you the confidence to attack corners with more gusto than you might in an unmodified Sienna. The whole package makes the track feel less foreign, and you can actually have some fun. In the hands of a racing driver, the S-Tuned is also fairly quick. The best time Toyota recorded for the less hardcore project van was 1 minute and 35 seconds—8 seconds quicker than a stock Limited AWD.
But the S-Tuned really shines on the street. Driving on the highway, the van offered the cushy ride I’ve come to expect from a modern minivan. But once the road got twistier, the nearly 2.5-ton family hauler turned into an unlikely canyon carver. In the stock SE I had just gotten out of, entering those same turns didn’t feel comfortable without a little application of brakes first. But with the S-Tuned, you can just coast through or even get on the power to hear that subtly burly exhaust. I was actually having fun.
Selling an all-out track-day variant of a minivan doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but something like this does. For the driving enthusiast who has to get a minivan but still wants to retain some semblance of athleticism, the S-Tuned isn’t a bad option. It doesn’t have to be able to set records at Willow—just go through a turn without feeling like a top-heavy marshmallow. This does the trick and doesn’t look like it’s trying too hard to be something it’s not. I think there’s absolutely a market for that.
The question is, will Toyota sell it? With enough interest from consumers, it’s possible. Maybe it could be a special model acting as this generation’s last hurrah, or perhaps it could be a package offered on the SE or Limited AWD. Alternatively, these ideas could all be rolled into the next-gen Sienna, which should be right around the corner. Whatever ends up happening, the R-Tuned and S-Tuned Siennas are helping to show that the minivan segment doesn’t always have to adhere to the stereotypes. Give the world what it least expects from the class, and maybe the minivan stigma can finally die.