I just returned from a 10-day trip that saw me, my wife and some friends travel from the middle of Ohio all the way to the tippy top of Michigan on the coast of Lake Superior. I considered using my old GMC Suburban for the trip due to its cavernous storage capacity and general comfort, but it would drain a tanker’s worth of fuel along the way. I also thought about taking my Tesla Model 3, but charging options across the Macinac Bridge aren’t exactly aplenty.
Fortunately for me, Autoblog’s long-term 2023 Toyota Sienna happened to be available. And it just so happens to be a perfect vehicle for such an adventure. Here are nine things I learned about the all-wheel-drive hybrid minivan along the way.
The powertrain is gutless with a droning soundtrack
“An engine like a grumpy teenager” is how fellow Autoblog editor Joel Stocksdale explained the Sienna’s hybrid powertrain. He’s not wrong. With a couple of passengers in the Sienna, getting up to speed while listening to the engine drone about and without the change in soundtrack provided by a traditional transmission’s gear ratios is borderline irritating. With a full complement of passengers and/or cargo, it crosses the border and ends up straight in the Land of Major Grievances.
Not quite as irritating but still surprising considering how long Toyota has been producing successful hybrid vehicles is the very noticeable transition between full electric propulsion and hybrid propulsion. The four-cylinder engine isn’t as smooth or quiet as I would have expected, though other recent Toyota models have had similar demerits. Total system horsepower is rated at 245 ponies, but those donkeys aren’t all that motivated and it doesn’t feel torquey.
Excellent efficiency makes up for a lot
Here’s the flip of the coin. Fuel efficiency in my hands was excellent. I tracked all of my fuel refills and miles traveled and was rewarded with better than 31 miles per gallon overall. Many but not all of those miles were passed on the highway, and all of them with a full complement of passengers, suitcases, coolers and the like. That’s excellent efficiency in my book, and depending on an owner’s list of priorities may be the single best reason to choose a Sienna over the V6-powered competition.
It has very little ground clearance
Scrape! Thud! Whoosh … those are the sounds I heard while backing out of driveways, driving over a deer that had been hit and left on the highway after dark (more on that in a bit) and when driving on dirt roads with any sort of central mound between two tire tracks. This van sits extremely low to the ground, which undoubtedly helps with overall efficiency but often detracts from the driving experience.
So, that deer. The car in front of me is the one that actually hit it on a lonely stretch of two-lane, sadly leaving it dead in the very middle of the roadway I was traveling on. I didn’t have time to stop, leaving three choices. One, I could swerve toward the shoulder, but that’s where the car in front that initially hit the animal had moved. Two, I could swerve into the other lane, but oncoming traffic meant that was a no-go. Three, drive over the animal. So that’s what I did, straddling the tires on either side. Oh, dear. That low ground clearance meant I made contact with it anyway, but thankfully the underbody is protected by a stiff felt structure that’s held in place with plastic plugs. There wasn’t any damage to any more sensitive bits that lurk under the passenger compartment.
Now would be a good time to mention the Sienna Woodlands edition, which adds a bit more ground clearance. At 6.96 inches it’s actually a scant 0.59 inches higher than the standard Sienna. That’s a small increase, but honestly we’d take it if we could.
It’s extremely versatile inside with loads of rear-seat comfort
One of the main selling points of any minivan is interior spaciousness. While I didn’t have another van for comparison, I found the Sienna very versatile inside for people and cargo. The middle captain’s chairs slide far forward and back, which means space can be apportioned as necessary. When we had long suitcases to carry, we slid the seats forward to maximize cargo capacity. When those were unloaded, the seats were slid further back in their rails for more passenger comfort. Read all about the Super Long Slide seats and their pop-up leg rests in a previous long-term Sienna update.
The dual power sliding doors open wide for easy ingress, and the power liftgate (all three buttons are conveniently located above the driver in a single binnacle) rises to reveal a large rectangular opening that makes loading stuff a simple affair.
But it’s really hard to keep clean
Again I echo another editor’s thoughts, in this case when it comes time to clean up the van’s interior. It’s just plain difficult to keep the thing looking spiffy inside. As Senior Editor John Snyder pointed out, sand and dirt collects in those Super Long Slide seat rails and underneath all the plastic bits affixed to the floor. Hair is even harder to get out. I too couldn’t fit a vacuum into the dozens of thin crevices in the carpet when I cleaned the van after a 10-day trip. If I owned a similar Sienna, I think I’d probably have some carpet cut to fit over the factory carpeting that I could remove often and clean.
It’s awfully hard to jump start
We put the van’s comfortable rear seats to good use for a quick nap in between driving stints only to find the 12-volt battery dead when we awoke. That was user error — we thought the van was in the right mode for the engine to kick on when needed but instead had it in accessory mode — but a quick jump wasn’t in the cards. With the hood propped open, I began looking for either a battery or some conveniently placed lugs for jumper cables. Instead I ended up leafing through the owner’s manual for directions. It turns out the positive cable needs to connect to a surprisingly small connection point hidden under a plastic cover in a sort-of-fuse-box-looking area on the driver’s side of the engine compartment. The negative connects to the type of simple stud I was expecting, but it’s mounted on top of the engine, not to the chassis like I had expected.
We did get the van started and eventually charged back up. In the process I found that it won’t rev past idle in Park or Neutral, which is another oddity I hadn’t expected.
The Sienna really needs an infotainment update
I’m not going to harp on this too much because Toyota has already replaced the infotainment setup in the Sienna with something better. While the latest tech hasn’t yet reached the minivan, I suspect it will in the next refresh cycle. That’s good, because Toyota’s old system as found in our 2023 Sienna Platinum isn’t good. The graphics are all very low-res, including those displayed from the backup camera. There’s a smattering of little buttons and switches in both silver and black surrounding the standard 9-inch screen. It all works once you get the hang of it, but it’s not as intuitive as any of its competitors’ infotainment systems.
It’s quite comfortable and handles better than expected
Considering its primary role as a mover of people and their stuff, the Sienna is actually pretty dynamically solid. The ride is comfortable and never bouncy, no matter how loaded it is. And despite its overall softness, it handles pretty well. A lot like a smaller family sedan, in fact. We suspect its low ground clearance is beneficial for a lowered center of gravity, which is always good for a vehicle’s handling.
The Sienna’s adaptive cruise control is also very well programmed. Like most systems, there are a few settings to adjust the distance the van stays behind the vehicle in front, but unlike most systems, the closest-following setting actually seems appropriate.
And finally a haiku about cupholders
There are many cups
each a holder for fluid —
eighteen spots to fill