What It Is/Who It's ForThose who can't decide between a family hauler and a sporty sedan.
Best ThingPowerful V-6 engine
Worst ThingDisappointing interior materials
Snap JudgmentThe 2012 Toyota Sienna SE has all the strengths of a minivan, but its sportier exterior styling and sport-tuned suspension answers a question no one's really asking.
IntroductionSUVs are currently most Americans vehicle of choice when needing a credible people hauler with a commanding view. But car owners, especially families, still turn to minivans when maximizing space, either for transporting the kids and their numerous possessions (i.e., stuff toys, sports gear, camping equipment, etc.), or road tripping with grown-ups while underappreciated in-laws keep an eye on the smaller ones as they watch the purple dinosaur yet again sing about being friends.
The 2012 Toyota Sienna SE is one of a vanishing breed, as minivans are crowded out by truck-based SUVs and car-based crossovers. The "SE" means this is a sportier variant of Toyota's otherwise soft-riding van, with a stiffer suspension, livelier-sounding engine, and unique styling inside and out to give it a more aggressive appearance than you expect from a kid hauler. We lived, breathed, and drove one for a week to see if how its non-hip design, ark-like interior, and -- most importantly -- how the SE model's sportier street cred held up, not only against its spiritual descendents, but also direct competitors like the Chrysler Town & Country/Dodge Grand Caravan, Nissan Quest, Kia Sedona, Volkswagen Routan, and perpetual rival Honda Odyssey. Is it time to put this movable "box" in storage like the station wagon? Or will there always be a space in an auto world shaped by fashion trends as much as practical consideration?
Safety and TechnologyThe base 2012 Toyota Sienna starts at $25,870 which includes the $810 destination, processing, and handling fee. Our sport-tuned, "sporty-looking" Sienna SE model, though, starts at $31,660. Personally, we've always thought "sporty" and "van" to be as incongruous as "honest politician" and "reality star," and think most buyers would agree. After all, you don't buy minivans for canyon carving like a roadster. On the other hand, our 2012 Toyota Sienna SE kept canyon driving more comfortable with the $1,545 optional package which included features like individual climate controls, rear window shade, Bluetooth, and audio controls on the steering wheel. Total price? $34,898.00.
Safety is always a prime consideration for people haulers and the 2012 Toyota Sienna SE is loaded with enough safety features and their confusing acronyms to make a texting champion a headache. The Sienna's seven standard airbags, which include front row airbags, driver side knee airbag, and side curtain airbags, revolve around Toyota's Star safety system which itself revolves the brake safety system: anti-lock brakes (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), brake assist (BA), and brake assist with traction control (TRAC). The 2012 Toyota Sienna SE received five stars in front and side impact crashes and four stars in rollover tests from the federal government, but only two stars on crashes for the front passenger. The non-profit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has given the 2012 Toyota Sienna SE a Good rating on its front, side, and rear crash tests as well as roof strength.
The CommuteForward traffic visibility is a given for all minivans -- and most SUVs and crossovers -- and the 2012 Toyota Sienna SE is no exception, offering an expansive view every time we slipped into the driver's seat and hit the road. The Sienna's massive front and side passenger windows made it easy to see above the sea of taillights while trapped in L.A.'s notoriously crowded freeways, and the rearview mirrors allowed drivers to observe several minivan-lengths behind when changing lanes. The minivan's short and sloping front end also made it easy to get close enough to, uh, warn, the compact sedan darting in front of the minivan not to do so again (especially at night). One immediate difference between SUVs and minivans is seating position. The driver sits more like in a regular chair instead of some beach lounge with your legs up and bent in an odd angle.
While the 2.7 liter four-cylinder available in base and LE model 2012 Toyota Siennas has enough power for most trips (although it gets noisy when going up mountain roads or when fully loaded), the Sienna SE comes standard with the more potent 3.5 liter V-6. Power came aplenty when accelerating and we never felt the Sienna SE strained in any way, even with a full complement of driver and six passengers. If you're expecting a typically cushy Toyota ride, think again. While the rest of the Sienna lineup absorbs L.A.'s numerous road imperfections with aplomb, the SE's ride is surprisingly stiff, even considering its "sporty" role in the lineup. We have no doubt, though, about the minivan's progressive braking and rearview camera which made maneuvering in tight spots like underground parking lots more like a full-sized car than a bulky box on wheels. We would have liked a larger screen, though, for the camera.
The Grocery RunYou want to know the big difference between minivans and SUVs? Park a minivan next to a full-size SUV like the Ford Expedition. Get into one, then the other, one seat at a time. Now fold those seats down one row at a time. Notice the difference in space?
And here's where minivans beat their SUV and crossover successors. To get into the 2012 Toyota Sienna SE, you duck at the door, then slide onto a chair. Not so with SUVs where, due to the ride height, you have to step up into the vehicle and dropped into the seat, your knees angled towards the ceiling instead of the chair in front. The ride height also affects loading large or long (or both) cargo; you have to exert more effort in lifting such bulky items to get them into SUVs, whereas with a minivan you can just slide them in the back -- or side -- door. The 2012 Toyota Sienna, like other minivans, is well-known for handling long cargo like lumber or pipes. However, while the third row folds quickly into the floor, and the second row slides folds and slides far forward, removing the second row seats requires some heavy lifting, and you still don't get a comlpetely flat load floor thanks to the seat carriers.
The 2012 Toyota Sienna SE works perfectly fine just as a normal (though large) people-only transport. The minivan's storage container can swallow a purse or iPad, and one of the two glove boxes has a built-in organizer to store knickknacks like pencils, a flashlight, or snacks. Our Toyota Sienna came with a power rear hatch, which reveals a floor well deep enough to store a full-sized baby stroller behind the third row seats. One irritation: When we went to refuel the 2012 Sienna, we discovered the gas cover lever, like the hood control, was nearly invisible on the driver's side due to their matching color to the rest of the lower dash.
The Weekend FunToyota prioritizes comfort in its vehicles and the 2012 Toyota Sienna SE is no exception. Driver's chair comes with eight-way power controls for multiple configurations while all rows came with leatherette/cloth seats instead of standard cloth and we found them very comfortable, though wide. Each seat came at least with its own cupholder -- usually two -- with driver and front passenger getting three each. Talk about oversaturation.
Engine, road, and wind noise were well-controlled in our weeklong drive, and it took a short but hard rainstorm to break the minivan's normally quiet cabin. The Toyota Sienna SE's come with a conversation mirror built into the sunglass holder which proved surprisingly effective not only in chatting with second row passengers but those in the third row as well. Drivers should rarely have to look back except to check the blind spots, which is partially mitigated by the Sienna's massive side mirrors. Speaking of drivers, they will like how easy it is to use the minivan's controls. We never needed to break out the instructions to use minivan's climate controls or entertainment system, and the rear rows had their own sets of climate controls to maximize their own comfort, which proved useful during one trip when some of editors found the California climate too warm for their East Coast blood.
Again, the Sienna SE V-6 engine constantly surprised the editors with the amount of power available in all driving conditions wherever on the streets or the freeways.
SummaryFrom a technical standpoint, there's nothing glaringly wrong about the 2012 Toyota Sienna SE. It's comfortable, has plenty of user-friendly features, and the interior is large and configurable with most of the competition and even beating out a few (looking at you, Nissan Quest). Fuel economy and even pricing philosophy is literally in lockstep, i.e., competitive base prices, high cost of options.
But we're not seeing the place of the SE model. The 2012 Toyota Sienna XLE has similar features including the V-6 for a comparable price. Yes, the Sienna SE looks more "aggressive" with its unique side skirts, wheels, and headlamp design, sports-tuned suspension which we don't see any advantage during the daily drive. Finally, most minivan buyers are looking for comfort and space, not appearance, when considering their next vehicle. To our thinking, the Toyota Sienna SE is the athletic "black sheep" in a family of scholars and it has a real narrow niche unless "man van" is a major priority for you minivan ride.
Spec BoxPrice-as-test: $34,898
EPA City: 18 mpg
EPA Highway: 25 mpg
EPA Combined: 20 mpg
Observed: 20 mpg
Range: 504 miles
Cost of Ownership: TBD
Notebook Quotes"The kids quickly put the Sienna's plentiful storage areas to good use, especially the floor-mounted cupholders between the two center-row seats. I was also glad to see that the long second-row seat tracks didn't accumulate crud during the trip, especially considering that I made the mistake of giving the kids crunchy granola bars as a snack." - Keith Buglewicz
"Like: engine was fun and strong, suspension was supple, ride handling was very good for size (power and ride was on par with Odyssey) Dislike: cheap dash and interior, tiny screen, lousy audio, bloated exterior styling, not as polished as Odyssey (interior and amenities and storage not as impressive as Odyssey)" - Jason Davis
"Extremely roomy, and surprisingly fast and agile." - Matthew Askari
"Comfortably styled, and more sporty than it lets on: suspension is surprisingly taut for a minivan or even a large Toyota product. Steers pretty well. Good looking on the outside, but how many people are gonna spring for the Sport package?" - Blake Rong