Some people want minivans.
They want something to carry children and all of the things that travel with children. They want a vehicle for long-drive family vacations, weekend shopping trips and, yes, hauling soccer players to and from defeat and victory.
For them, there is the 2004 Toyota Sienna XLE, a minivan slavishly devoted to the transportation needs of families and cleverly designed to fulfill those needs with a blend of power, joy and surprise.
As such, the new Sienna -- the second generation of a vehicle line introduced in 1998 -- is a refreshing entry into a North American automotive market beset by chronic Product Identity Crisis (PIC). While other car companies have crossed over into fantasy with "crossover" models -- all-in-one sedans, sports cars, minivans, sport-utility vehicles -- Toyota, at least in this case, has returned to reality.
The new Sienna offers substantially more seating space and cargo room -- an overall increase of 45 cubic feet in interior volume -- than its predecessor.
The new Sienna's wheelbase, the centerline distance between the front and rear wheels, is longer by 5.1 inches. Track width has increased by four inches. The wheels are larger. It all means a minivan that rides and handles better, that doesn't bump passengers senseless over rough roads or toss them from side to side on roads that wind and curve.
A longer, wider body requires a bigger, stronger engine, and Toyota has delivered one here. It is a 3.3-liter, computer-controlled V-6 in which the 24 valves -- the things that admit air and fuel and emit burned fumes -- are precisely timed to their work.
Precision yields efficiency, which, in matters of horsepower and fuel economy, means this: The Sienna's V-6 develops a maximum 230 horsepower at 5,600 revolutions per minute and 242 foot-pounds of torque at 3,600 rpm. Yet it produces that power at minimum fuel costs. The tested front-wheel-drive Sienna XLE averaged 26 miles per gallon in highway driving. Toyota's engineers say that the all-wheel-drive version of the minivan can get 24 mpg in highway travel.
The power, handling and fuel economy of the Sienna XLE are pleasantly surprising. But the joy of the vehicle is in its interior. The seats are as maneuverable as they are comfortable in both the seven-passenger (second-row captain's chairs) and eight-passenger (second-row bench seats) configurations.
Second-row passengers get roll-down windows, which children appreciate. In the eight-passenger setup, the middle portion of the bench seating can be moved nearly 13 inches closer to the front seat. That's close enough to ease the work of putting a milk bottle into a baby's mouth, but far away enough to protect an infant or toddler from a rapidly expanding air bag in a frontal collision.
The Sienna XLE is loaded with storage bins, cup holders and bottle holders -- 10 cup holders and four bottle holders to be exact. There also are 10 baggage hooks and one hook for a handbag or soft-bodied briefcase
The tested Sienna XLE came with an optional, ceiling-mounted DVD screen for rear-passenger movies. That might not facilitate family conversation on road trips, but it does replicate life in many American homes, where the boob tube offers a good excuse to avoid family conversations of any sort. Perhaps there is comfort in this, too, especially on road trips where family conversations can lead to shouting matches and lots of driver distraction.
You can't send raucous children to their bedrooms in the new Sienna. But with its flexible seating arrangements and array of electronic entertainment options, you can create virtual demilitarized zones.