Family Hauler – 2008 Toyota Sienna Limited AWD Review

The first in a series of family hauler reviews

By Chris Haak


The past few weeks have found me in the market for a larger family hauler – one that can accommodate two child seats and with enough room for one adult over six feet tall (me) and one near six feet tall (my wife). The shopping list included large crossovers (as long as they had more second row legroom than our current SUV did) and minivans.

Last week, I had the opportunity to test a nearly-loaded 2008 Toyota Sienna Limited AWD. The Sienna and the Honda Odyssey, of course, are the 800 pound gorillas of the minivan market. Both vans offer large cabins, dual power sliding doors, stability control, the full complement of airbags, kid-friendly features such as built-in DVD players, and solid reliability ratings. One thing the Sienna offers that its competitors do not, however, is optional all wheel drive. Hyundai, Kia, Chrysler, Honda, and Chevy all offer only front wheel drive minivans for 2008. Living in the Northeast, all wheel drive is nice to have for the occasional snowstorm, and for a more secure ride even in non-icy foul weather.

People don’t buy minivans to make a fashion statement; they buy them because they are some of the most space-efficient passenger carrying vehicles in the market. That being said, the Sienna is a pretty boring looking vehicle. It’s a very generic minivan shape without many interesting styling details. The integration of the rearmost side window at the D-pillar with the shape of the taillight has an unfortunate resemblance to the Buick Rendezvous’ similar design. Most trim levels have standard or available alloy wheels, which slightly improves the appearance. Top-of-the-line Limited models have available HID headlamps, which add some spice to the appearance after dark (as well as enhancing the driver’s field of vision).

Crossovers have nothing on minivans when it comes to interiors. They can try to replicate the utility and passenger space of a minivan, but inevitably compromises in their design (such as the necessity to have a higher ground clearance and “trucklike” styling, non-sliding back doors). Dual sliding doors are opened and closed with buttons on the key fob, as is the rear cargo hatch. The Limited is extremely comfortable inside – in fact, on more than one occasion that afternoon, I referred to the van as the “Lexus of minivans.” Seriously, if Lexus sold a van, it would be very similar to the Sienna Limited, which features such niceties as woodgrain interior trim (although it’s fake), a wood steering wheel, navigation system, leather seats, and more. The styling of the interior was pretty attractive, and most modern minivans like the Sienna feature a third-row seat that folds flat into the floor, but leaves a deep, useful cargo well behind the third row when the seat is not folded. Also, there was plenty of legroom in all three rows of seats, the second row seats could be adjusted fore and aft to accommodate all different sizes of passengers. I found plenty of room for my 6’4″ frame in both the second and third rows. In fact, the third row was far nicer than the third rows in any crossover or SUV I’ve sat in, including the Suburban. Another nice feature is that the console between the front seats can be moved between the second row captain’s chairs so rear seat passengers have an extra spot to store things, or hold a drink.

On the Road
The salesperson at the Toyota dealership made a copy of my driver’s license, stuck a magnetic tag on the van, and sent me on my way. I appreciated having the opportunity to drive the van wherever I wanted to without worrying about whether the salesman wanted me to stay on a designated route.

I found it very easy to find a comfortable seating position. I’m used to driving a Honda Accord and a Nissan Pathfinder, and I felt at home immediately in the Sienna. As I pulled onto the highway, I noticed that there was no wheelspin at all; though the roads were dry, I definitely would have experienced at least the traction control activating in a front wheel drive vehicle in that scenario. Engine power was strong from the 266 horsepower 3.5 liter V6, and the van felt very stable at highway speeds. I hadn’t driven any Toyota in a while, and the common complaint is that they tend to have a less-than-engaging driving experience. I found this to be true, particularly with the steering. It felt very numb and uncommunicative – even worse than the steering in my heavier 2005 Nissan Pathfinder. The other odd thing I noticed about the driving experience was that the transmission seemed to upshift under full throttle at a relatively low (around 4,000 RPM) engine speed. When I encountered that issue, I had been cruising around 25 miles per hour and floored the accelerator. Accelerating on a freeway on-ramp at full throttle did extend the shift point to a higher range.

Fuel Economy
EPA fuel economy ratings (newly revised for 2008 to more accurately reflect real world expectations) are 16 city/21 highway for the all wheel drive model and 17 city/23 highway for the front wheel drive model, and are nearly identical to the ratings of competitors’ vehicles.

Pricing for the Sienna CE FWD starts around $25,000 including destination; the least expensive AWD model is the LE, which starts around $30,000 but includes far more equipment than the value leader CE. In general, all wheel drive adds about a $2,000 premium over a comparably equipped front wheel drive version. Fully loaded Sienna Limited AWDs start around $40,000 and top out at around $42,000 when all the option boxes are checked off (including navigation, laser cruise control and the aforementioned HID headlamps).

I haven’t yet decided which vehicle I will purchase. On one hand, the Sienna looks great on paper: luxury interior, Toyota reliability, all wheel drive, and plenty of passenger space. On the other hand, while I won’t be its primary driver, the driving experience was not the least bit engaging, and it may be the least attractive minivan on the market (except for the Chevy Uplander). My wife could care less about its looks and probably about its numb steering, so it might be the right choice for us.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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  1. In terms of minivans, the Sienna is good intrems of handling. None of the vehicles are sports cars.

  2. I love the interior of the Sienna. It more than makes up for the styling-challenged exterior imo.

  3. ghastings, I drove the Odyssey within 90 minutes of the Sienna (review coming soon!) and the handling and steering was WORLDS better in the Odyssey. It felt almost like I was driving an Accord, which is the ultimate complement to a 4500 pound people mover with eight seats.

  4. I chose the Honda Odyssey over the Sienna and the brand-new Chrysler. I think the Chrysler minivan is better than the Sienna, and it was was pretty darn close between that and the Honda.

  5. I chose the Sienna between the Mazda CX-9 and the Honda Odyssey. I’m still not sure I made the right choice, but not because I wanted the HOnda. I really liked that Mazda.

  6. You definitely need to try the ’08 Town and Country Limited before you make a decision. I personally rate it far better than the Sienna and Odyssey and purchased one this month. If you have young kids and take them for a spin in it, they won’t let you buy anything else. These vans have a lifetime powertrain warranty too.

  7. anonymous, I checked out a T&C extensively online and looked at one from the outside at the dealer (I stopped on a Sunday when they were closed). But really, even with the lifetime powertrain warranty and slick seats/entertainment options, I’d prefer the Odyssey if I were going to get a FWD van. As it is, though, I’m pretty close to getting the Sienna, only because of the AWD availability. I’d really prefer an Enclave, but they’re thousands of dollars more expensive than the Sienna, have less room inside, and lack many of the Sienna’s coolest features like laser cruise control and Bluetooth, the sliding side doors. I really do dislike the idea of buying a Toyota, though.

  8. Well whats wrong with purchasing a Toyota? they are good cars. i have a 04 Sienna Limited AWD and it now has 100,000 miles and we are looking to upgrade to the 08 Sienna. Our 04 has never given us a problem and don’t want to switch brands because we have had such great cars from Toyota. I hope you pick the Toyota, it was rated number one in reliability by Consumer reports.

  9. There’s nothing wrong with purchasing a Toyota. In fact, that’s what I wound up buying. I just would have preferred to buy the new vehicle from someone other than the latest automotive juggernaut. I did say in the text of the review that the Toyota had the reputation for reliability, AWD, and a convenient passenger space, so those were the reasons I chose it over the other two. I stand by my comment that the driving experience is worse than the Enclave or Odyssey, though. My wife thought that the Sienna felt top heavy when she drove it (after we bought it), coming from a Pathfinder 4×4. The issue wasn’t that it was top heavy, but with the steering. Still, we do love our van so far.

  10. At 6’5″, I can say, I have been more comfortable in the Sienna than in a Suburban that I had before. I love the AWD handling. Only complaint is the drive flat are nearly impossible to get one at a time…and VERY EXPENSIVE! The only other complaint is the fuel tank seemed small…we were always filling up. Other than that…LOVED the vehicle…I am just finishing up a 3 year lease and if not for the Chrysler T&C with the swivel seat & table…I wouldn’t consider anything else!

  11. Having done the test drive of New Town and country and Toyota Sienna 08 we decided for Sienna because (a) Town and country is darn slow, so slow that I pulled over to see if I had a hand breaks on, (b) Sienna accelerates much faster (Sienna 266 horsepower vs Chrysler’s 175) (c) Interior material is of better quality in Sienna (d) Sienna is much lighter but yet much better on the curves (my kids felt dissy in Chrsyler), (e) Sienna is Toyota = Quality.

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