Change comes gradually to the Toyota Sienna

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Change has come so slowly to the Toyota Sienna that its media site uses this 2015 Sienna photo for the 2018 model. Its last redesign was in 2011.

Battle of practicality: 2018 Toyota Sienna SE Premium vs. 2018 Honda Odyssey Elite.

This week: The Sienna.

Price: $40,830 as tested (no options on test vehicle).

Conventional wisdom: Car and Driver likes the “minivan utility, class-exclusive all-wheel drive available, tons of standard active safety features” but not the “chintzy interior quality, lacks the innovative features of rivals, looks as sexy as a pair of dad pants.”

Marketer’s pitch: “Checks the to-do list and the wish list.”

Reality: The minivan with everything — including dad bod.

Long in the tooth: The Sienna has been around in its current incarnation for a long time. Its last redesign came in 2011.

Toyota treats the Sienna as a forgotten child in a market that most American buyers enter apparently with reluctance: the minivan. It’s worked for years, but the new features of the Honda Odyssey and the completely new Chrysler Pacifica mean it’s time for Toyota to step up its game.

The old vs. the new: At the same time, the Sienna is so much more than it was in 2011. The Sturgis family Sienna hails from this long-ago era, and so it made the perfect comparison vehicle for the latest model year.

But wait, there’s more: I can hear this infomercial line coming out of the mouth of a Toyota salesman trying to let people know about the Sienna, if anyone were actually letting people know about the Sienna. Between the lack of advertising and the lack of a redesign, Toyota has done a horrible job of calling attention to just how much better this minivan has become in seven seasons.

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The interior of the 2018 Toyota Sienna is a holdover for four model years, but it’s far more functional and attractive than earlier years.

Friends and stuff: Though the Sienna may lack the class of its competitors, it makes up for it in sheer spaciousness. We picked our Sienna because it was the minivan that could comfortably seat six adults (and had eight seats total), and it remains matched only by the Pacifica.

Yet total cargo space is 150 cubic feet, slightly less than the Odyssey’s 155.

On the road: From the first time I turned the wheel, I knew this was a whole different universe. The 2011 Sienna has a bunch of play in the steering and handles like a walrus on a wave slide, bouncing from one edge of the road to the other.

But the latest Sienna’s steering wheel feels tight and ready for action. Turning is far less leisurely, and the lower-profile tires make the ride far less pillowy.

While handling is improved, the Sienna still lags behind both the Odyssey and the Pacifica for road manners. But the Sienna wins among minivans — and even some luxury sedans — for smoothing out bumps and road seams.

Shifty: The 2018 Sienna also benefits from an 8-speed automatic transmission, up from 6 in 2011. Shifting, however, is a little more abrupt, and there seems to be a continual hunting expedition for gears.

The Sienna is also the only minivan available in all-wheel-drive form.

Up to speed: The 2018 also seems less prone to offering all-out acceleration. Though its 3.5-liter V-6 claims 296 horsepower — about 5 percent more than the Odyssey — I had to press the pedal hard to keep the new model in lower gears and speed onto highways, and still the acceleration died out around 50 or so; the 2011 always feels peppy and energetic.

Car and Driver says 0 to 60 was 6.9 seconds for the Sienna, but I’d venture that was downhill with a strong tailwind.

Driver’s seat: The leather seats afforded us in the latest model were far superior to the cloth versions in the 2011. But they’re not luxurious; they’re more cleanup-oriented, as a minivan needs to be.

Play some tunes: The interface for the stereo is simple, with dials for volume and tuning and buttons on the touchscreen for source. Sound quality is far better than the 2011 model, but nowhere near the Odyssey.

Dated: While the interior is revamped from the 2011 model, some items remain rather old.

The seat heater controls are rollers next to the cupholders. Cups in the cupholders render them impossible to reach from passenger seat.

The unlock button is also impossible to find in the dark, which makes the Lovely Mrs. Passenger Seat a little cranky when she’s left outside too long on a windy night in the hills of Western Pennsylvania.

Fuel economy: Here the 2018 has the 2011 beat hands down. Our model has never varied between 19.6 and 19.8 mpg, a dismal number. The 2018 reset after each short trip, and averaged in the low 20s, and as high as 24.

Where it’s built: Princeton, Ind.

How it’s built: Consumer Reports predicts its reliability to be a 4 out of 5, where it’s been for the last few seasons.

In the end: If you need all-wheel drive, the Sienna is it. But the Pacifica matches it for hauling grown-up passengers and having nice features; all things being equal, between these two, though, I’d probably go for the Odyssey.