2021 Toyota Sienna Review: Powertrain and people-moving efficiency

Chris Teague

Chris Teague

Nothing about the 2021 Toyota Sienna is revolutionary. For that matter, it doesn’t have to be. The redesigned minivan is, however, a big leap forward for its automaker in terms of fuel efficiency, innovation, design, and functionality. That being said, it’s still not the best minivan on the market today.

When it launched late last year, Toyota conveyed the hope that some customers would choose the 2021 Sienna over the 2021 Toyota Highlander. The Highlander, which is a well-priced, practical, well-appointed people mover, is a formidable foe. It drives smaller than it is, comfortably seats six adults, and has a quiet cabin. It’s also available with a hybrid powertrain.

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The 2021 Sienna has a tighter appearance than its predecessor.Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.

Then the 2021 Chrysler Pacifica went on sale, bringing a better-appointed cabin, available all-wheel drive, and a new infotainment system into the equation. Honda refreshed the Odyssey, and Kia introduced the newest version of its people mover, the intriguing Carnival, which is designed to look like an SUV. Suddenly the minivan segment got very interesting.

So, the Sienna has to stand out.

In the looks department, the Sienna doesn’t move the needle. Its designers took inspiration from the Shinkansen Japanese Bullet Train and that’s easy to see, especially from the front and side. The Sienna still looks like a minivan, though.

The real innovation in the Sienna comes down to the engine and it’s something Toyota has been doing for years. The Sienna now only has one powertrain – a 2.5-liter four-cylinder hybrid unit. That’s right, every Sienna is now a hybrid. You don’t have to plug it in and you still get the benefit of desirable fuel economy (an EPA-estimated 35-36 mpg combined depending on if you opt for a front- or all-wheel drive model).

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All Sienna models now wear “Hybrid” badging at the rear.Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.

On paper, the minivan’s 245 horsepower is a decrease from the old van for the 2020 model year. On the road, the decrease doesn’t show. The Sienna remains confidence-inspiring, using its electric power off the line to boost quickness. It doesn’t matter if you’re driving on city or rural roads, or on the highway, the Sienna will get you there in an un-irritating fashion.

Where you will be irritated is with the interior of the Sienna. Toyota has, for some unknown reason, created what shall henceforth be known as the “Great Divide” between driver and front seat passenger. This Great Divide sees to it that those occupants stay in their assigned zone at all times, like a chaperone at a high school dance in the 1960s.

It makes the driver’s seat of the Sienna feel more like a true captain’s chair, with the airship’s dashboard laid out in front and adorned with hard plastic covering in an… um… unique design as tested in the Sienna XSE. Is there a checklist to go through before you take off from your driveway? That’s up to you to decide.

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The front row of the Sienna is broken up by an extra large center console.Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.

There’s a good deal of comfort and convenience for the second- and third-row passengers of the Sienna. Seats move forward and aft a surprisingly great distance and the storage capacity of the Sienna is one of the highest in the class. USB ports are available in all three rows and quad-zone climate control is standard on every trim level except the base. As tested, the Sienna’s upholstery and finishings in the rear of the vehicle looked like the type that would stand up against the wear and tear of family life.

And for all its engineering and hardiness, the Sienna just didn’t come off as particularly nice. Sure, it’s capable in more ways than just how it drives, but the Sienna felt more utilitarian than a Honda Element. It just didn’t feel special or serene, merely passable.

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The second-row seats in the Sienna offer great flexibility.Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.

Passable shouldn’t be good enough as competition stiffens. The Carnival and Pacifica have interiors and infotainment systems that put Toyota’s to shame, despite its large 11.6-inch infotainment touch screen. The all-wheel drive in the Pacifica opens up the model to more marketability and the Pacifica Pinnacle, a new luxury-level option that comes as a plug-in hybrid is a compelling choice for buyers.

With the Sienna, Toyota gets away with what they’ve gotten away with in the RAV4 for years – a vehicle so gosh darn practical and traditionally reliable with a Toyota emblem at the front that buyers are (likely) willing to overlook its interior failings and buy it without cross-shopping the far better competition.

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