Over the years, many challengers have tried to take the minivan crown from Chrysler. Now, "other" brands have 60% of the market, but Chrysler still holds on to the largest share.
The Toyota Sienna may be the strongest threat to Chrysler for some time. Though we actually preferred the Chevrolet Venture in many ways, the Sienna has one key advantage. It is made by Toyota. In our book, that means excellent quality, an attraction to many frustrated Dodge Caravan and Ford Windstar owners. The Toyota name also usually means higher resale values.
Our test car had no buzzes or squeaks, but one of the rear vent windows rattled when partly open.
The engine seemed to be about average for modern minivans in terms of power, but achieved better fuel economy (by about 2 mpg) and was quieter than usual. The transmission was smooth and downshifted readily and quietly.
The interior was, as one would expect, comfortable and spacious, with the usual cup-holders and cubbies. Small cargo nets and moderately well designed cupholders are built into the sides of the front seats. The rear seats can be easily folded over or taken out, and are closer to the Chevrolet design than the Dodge. The dual sliding doors were convenient and easy to use, and the power door was entertaining.
Though one would expect that many minivans would be purchased by families, there was only one place in our leather-equipped van to safely strap in a child seat - in the center of the rearmost bank of seats. That means you cannot have two safely installed child seats, a significant flaw. Toyota does offer a built-in child seat, on the other hand.
The optional sunroof opens all the way to vent parking-lot heat. The power door, window, and rear vent controls were clear, well designed, and easy to figure out.
The optional stereo, with both CD and cassette player, had good sound, as well as a steering wheel control that let us change or mute the volume and change stations.
The ride was smooth and comfortable, though a bit more firm than the Caravan. The difference was not strong, and both vehicles have capable handling and braking.
A variety of hidden bins are available for sunglasses and other bits, but a good coin holder would have helped. The driver's armrest was a bit far from the seat.
In general, though, Toyota did an exceptional job with the Sienna, especially compared with prior Japanese minivans. When you consider Toyota's legendary quality, this assembled-in-America minivan becomes very attractive, indeed.
Now for the part many of you were waiting for: the comparison test. We did not have access to a 2001 Caravan at press time, so we are referring to the 1996-2000 Caravan/Voyager/Town and Country when we mention the Caravan.
From a driver's perspective, the experience of driving the Toyota and the Dodge are roughly comparable. The Dodge offers better-designed amenities in terms of cup holders and coin trays, the Toyota has a quieter engine and, once it gets used to you, a more responsive transmission, with less wind noise. We thought the overdrive shutoff button on the Toyota was a good idea, and preferred the Sienna's cruise control. We fervently hope that the 2001 Dodges will have on-the-steering wheel radio controls, too.
Both minivans have extremely well designed interiors. Toyota's ventilation system seemed to make more sense, while Dodge excelled with cup holders. We prefer the roll-out seats of Dodge models, but that is a matter of personal choice.
The Caravan was more stable in cross-winds.
Our unbiased outside observer did prefer the Dodge. She preferred both the front and rear visibility and the seat comfort, and noted that the Sienna costs about as much as the larger Grand Caravan.
On the other hand, the Toyota holds out the promise of better reliability and higher resale value. You don't get something for nothing - Toyotas are generally higher priced than Dodges, but they are also generally more trouble free and worth more when you sell them.
Both the Sienna and the Caravan are assembled in America by foreign companies, so that's not a deciding factor. The chairman and CEO of DaimlerChrysler have both made it clear that Chrysler is now a German brand, and that the American division has no real authority - and Toyota has invested a great deal in the United States, where it maintains design studios as well as production facilities.
In the end, we're glad we're not in the market for a minivan, because, between the Caravan, Venture, and Sienna, we'd be hard pressed to choose. On the lighter side, we don't think there's a wrong choice in this trio of champions, so choose with confidence.
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