Still kickin’: Toyota answers newer minivan rivals with deft update of the 2018 Sienna

2018 Toyota Sienna

2018 Toyota Sienna

What changes will make the 2018 Toyota Sienna different?

Updated styling and upgraded safety features. Though short of a full redesign, the changes help the ’18 Sienna compete with the all-new 2018 Honda Odyssey and 2017 Chrysler Pacifica. They also sustain momentum begun with the model-year 2017 introduction of the most powerful engine in the minivan class while bringing Sienna up to date for key driver assists like autonomous emergency braking.

Highlighted by a radically restyled nose, the ’18 revamp is prelude to an all-new Sienna due for model-year 2019. It’s also an interesting stopgap for an aging entry that’s still the segment leader for resale value and dependability and one that remains the only minivan available with all-wheel drive.

Why should I wait for the 2018?

To experience Toyota’s unwillingness to back down from challenges posed by Odyssey, Pacifica, and another newer rival, the redesigned-for-2015 Kia Sedona. Indeed, the ’18 Sienna concedes little to the competition. And ranked No. 1 in residual value by the TrueCar pricing service and No. 1 for dependability in J.D. Power owner surveys, it enjoys third-party validation other minivans can’t match.

Particularly laudable for the new safety features — which are standard on every model — the ’18 updates also enhance wireless connectivity. They’re tempered by the reality that buying an ’18 Sienna means purchasing a van in the final year of its design generation. But discounts should be generous as dealers clear inventory to make way for the calendar-2018 intro of the next-generation Sienna.

The ’18 lineup returns five trim grades: entry-level L, step-up LE, volume-selling XLE, sporty SE, and flagship Limited. All reprise a V-6 engine and come with front-wheel drive. All but the L and SE are available with all-wheel drive (AWD). The SE and front-drive versions of the LE and XLE seat eight passengers. The L and the AWD versions seat seven.

Should I buy a 2017 model instead?

Only if it nails your minivan needs, you don’t care for autonomous steering and braking capabilities, and you get a great deal on price. And you may actually like the ‘17’s styling better. Regardless, both the ’17 and ’18 Sienna will share a basic structure that debuted for model-year 2011. Among rivals, only the Nissan Quest is that old. Still, this is a great family vehicle.

The 2017 powertrain advances translate to class-leading acceleration and near-the-top fuel economy. Toyota doesn’t change the suspension or steering calibrations for ’18, so the ’17 will furnish the same predictable but slightly lazy handling that’s a Sienna hallmark. The automaker did give some ’18 models more sound insulation, though, so your ’17 won’t be quiet as quiet as the updated versions.

Will the styling be different?

Yes, though mainly at the front. Toyota replaces the softly contoured fascia and grinning-grille shape of the 2011-2017 Sienna with the bolder, sharper forms it’s introduced on the newest versions of its other cars and trucks. The grille adopts a split-winged motif while below, the fascia gains a huge air intake flanked by trendy corner cutouts. The SE’s grille and intakes have a chain link-type insert, the other models have horizontal strakes. To spread around some the SE’s sporty character, all ’18 Siennas get the lower body-side flairs previously exclusive to that model.

Visual differences among the ’18 Sienna trim levels again run to particulars like bright-versus-body-colored accents. The SE retains the “smoked” look for some details. Wheel designs differ slightly, too, though all models retain alloy rims unchanged at 17-inch diameter on L, LE, and XLE; 18 on Limited and with AWD; and 19 on the SE. Three new color choices — Toasted Walnut Pearl, Alumina Jade Metallic, and Parisian Night Pearl – round out the exterior changes.

The cabin design is unaltered – the transmission shifter still juts from the dashboard just right of the steering wheel, for example — although Toyota has added additional USB ports. Power sliding side doors remain standard on all but the L model and passenger room is again generous in all three rows. Leather upholstery starts at the SE level, while the Limited returns with cushy La-Z-Boy-style reclining second-row buckets. Eight-passenger capacity is courtesy of a removable second-row center seat cushion. Sienna remains among the few vehicles with LATCH anchors for up to four child seats. There’s plenty of small-items storage space. Cargo room and versatility are again high points, although the heavy, cumbersome second-row seats must be removed to achieve maximum volume of 150 cubic feet.

Any mechanical changes?

No. The ’18 Sienna carries over the major advances introduced for model-year ’17. The sole engine remains a 3.5-liter V-6. It continues to benefit from a host of ’17 upgrades that boosted horsepower to 296, from 260, and increased torque to 263 pound-feet from 240. The next-most-powerful minivan engine is the Pacifica’s 3.6-liter V-6, at 287 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque.

Also returning is the nine-speed automatic transmission that replaced a less efficient six-speed automatic for 2017. Sienna’s AWD system is a basic setup that normally runs in front-wheel drive and shuffles power rearward when sensors detect tire slip. It’s not designed for off-roading (ground clearance is a modest 6.6 inches), but it does provide a snow- and gravel-surface traction advantage available on no other minivan.

For road manners, Odyssey, Pacifica, even the Quest feel more responsive overall, though the Sienna SE won’t cower at the prospect of turns taken with some urgency. Ride quality is generally good. The AWD versions use run-flat tires that sacrifice some bump absorption, however. And Toyota seeks to reduce noise, vibration and harshness for ’18 by giving the SE a laminated front windshield and the Limited new acoustic front side glass.

Will fuel economy improve?

Unless the reshaped nose brings some aerodynamic benefits, EPA ratings probably won’t change. That means the 2018 Sienna would again rate 19/27/22 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive and 18/24/20 mpg with AWD.

Despite a structure lacking some weight-saving tricks available to newer vehicles, EPA ratings for the front-drive Sienna are within 1 mpg of the segment leaders in city and highway driving. Its 22-mpg city-highway combined rating is dead even with the best in class. (The wild card here is the Pacifica plug-in hybrid, which rates the equivalent of 80 mpg city-highway combined, counting its ability to travel 30 miles on electricity alone.)

Will it have new features?

Yes, and they’re important because they bring Sienna up to date for safety tech. Although blind-spot and rear cross-traffic alerts had been available on SE, XLE, and Limited models, and adaptive cruise control (to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead) was an extra-cost item for the Limited, Sienna lacked state-of-the-art safety features available on newer rivals. The automaker rectifies that by making its Toyota Safety Sense-P system standard on every 2018 Sienna.

TSS-P includes all the unseen-vehicle alerts and adaptive cruise control, plus high-beam headlights that dim to oncoming traffic and lane-maintaining automatic steering. Vitally, it also includes autonomous emergency braking designed to automatically stop the Sienna to avoid a frontal collision with another vehicle or a pedestrian (that’s the “P” in TSS-P). Autonomous emergency braking qualifies every ’18 Sienna for the industry’s most coveted safety accolade, Top Safety Pick+ status from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. As of this report, only optionally equipped versions of the Pacifica and Sedona were Top Safety Pick+ minivans. Honda targets the redesigned Odyssey for the award, although its relevant safety suite is unavailable on the base model.

Toyota also advances Sienna’s infotainment capabilities for ’18. It eschews Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for a proprietary interface called Entune and makes the latest generation, Entune 3.0, standard on every model. Entune 3.0 includes the Scout GPS navigation link, enabling you display smartphone-app mapping on Sienna’s standard dashboard screen. LE, SE, and XLE grades also gain WiFi connection for up to five mobile devices using 4G LTE. All that, plus premium JBL audio and an imbedded navigation system is available on SE and XLE and standard on the Limited. The available rear-seat entertainment system now includes streaming capability for Android devices. And a bird’s-eye-view monitor is newly available for the Sienna Limited.

How will 2018 prices be different?

They’ll increase, driven by customary model-year inflation but also by addition of TSS-P. Still, Toyota will certainly maintain competitive pricing. And Sienna’s record of top-notch residuals and dependability will continue to add customer value.

Estimated base prices in this review include the automaker’s destination fee, which was $960 on the 2017 Sienna. For front-wheel-drive ’18 Siennas, estimated starting prices are $31,200 for the L, $34,000 for the LE, $37,600 for the SE, $37,800 for the XLE, and $44,300 for the Limited. Options content for the ’18 models hadn’t been released in time for this report.

When will it come out?

The 2018 Toyota Sienna release date is set for fall 2017.

Best competitors

Chrysler Pacifica, Honda Odyssey, Kia Sedona, Nissan Quest

What change would make it better?

Toyota solved our major issue with this minivan by adding TSS-P and gets extra points for making the safety system standard on even the least expensive ’18 Sienna model. Coming on the heels of the model-year ’17 powertrain upgrades, the automaker has done a fine job keeping Sienna fresh in the face of newer competition. In fact, Honda, Chrysler, and Kia all deserve credit for continuing to advance the minivan concept in the face of declining sales across the segment. Sienna’s model-year ‘19 redesign isn’t likely to stem the exodus of shoppers to crossover SUVs. But it should offer buyers who recognize the minivan’s unmatched family-duty capabilities a new, lighter, quieter, even more efficient choice. Expect a gas-electric hybrid powertrain option, too.

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]