PALM SPRINGS, CA — Toyota Motor Corp. hopes to set a new benchmark for the minivan segment when its all-new '04 Sienna arrives in showrooms in mid-March.

With its trademark attention to quality and detail, an additional trim level, optional all-wheel drive, a laundry list of additional features and a pledge to price it $1,000 less than the outgoing model, it is entirely possible Toyota can establish Sienna as a volume player in this 1.2 million-unit segment.

The original Sienna, although patently well-executed, was somewhat innocuous, and that was reflected in declining sales: Sienna mustered 7.5% of the segment (103,137 units) in 2000 and dropped to 80,915, or a 7.1% market share in 2002, according to Ward's data.

But the all-new, second-generation Sienna seeks substantial incremental volume, says James Press, chief operating officer, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.

In fact, Toyota is banking on annual sales of 130,000-150,000 units.

The base CE trim starts at $22,955. A top-end, fully loaded XLE Limited will run about $35,000. Average transaction price is expected to be about $27,000.

Instead of focus groups, many of the improvements came from a 53,000-mile (85,300-km) road trip across North America by Chief Engineer Yuji Yokoya, head of the Sienna team, in the outgoing Sienna and prototypes of the new model.

Yokoya's journey appears to have been productive. The result is a minivan bursting with extremely thoughtful features and attention to detail in the right places. There are 10 cupholders, room for four water bottles in the doors, a second glovebox suitable for phones, Palm Pilots and the like, not to mention extra storage under the armrests.

But the prime reasons cited by potential buyers who rejected the outgoing Sienna were size and complaints about ingress and egress. The new Sienna increases interior space by nearly 45 cu.-ft. (1.3 cu.-m) and achieves best-in-class rear cargo space. It is 4 ins. (10 cm) wider and the track increased by 5.1 ins. (13 cm), yet the turning radius has been reduced by more than 3 ft. (0.9 m).

Buyers of the entry-level CE and the LE can choose a 7- or 8-seat interior. The 8-seater is geared to young families with a clever child seat in the middle of the 3-way, split-folding bench in the second row. The middle seat slides 13 ins. (33 cm) forward to put the occupant within arm's reach of an adult up front (this design, likely to become more prominent, also is available with Ford's Expedition/Navigator and Volvo XC90 SUVs).

The Sienna gets high marks for providing back-seat fresh air with standard power windows in the sliding doors, which are power-assisted on the top two trim levels.

And all models have a 60/40 split third-row bench seat that folds flat into the floor — the new “must-have” in the minivan segment. It has a counterbalance spring for easy, one-handed retrieval of the tucked-away seat.

Standard in all models is the newly enlarged 3.3L DOHC V-6 with “intelligent” variable valve timing. It produces 230 hp (20 more than the 3L V-6 it replaces), 242 lb.-ft. (328 Nm) of torque, and propels the people-mover from 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in 8.3 seconds while achieving 27 mpg (8.7 L/100 km) on the highway. An all-new 5-speed automatic is the only transmission.

All-wheel drive is optional for all but the base model. It should add $2,400-$3,000, depending on the trim level, and Toyota expects a take rate of about 6%.

The acoustics are superb — engineers may be right when they claim best-in-class noise/vibration/harshness levels. Extensive use of sound damping materials includes asphalt sheeting, thick fabrics and a soft foam, robotically applied.

Safety features include front, side and side curtain airbags to cover all three rows. There is a tire-pressure monitoring system, and the accompanying run-flat tires can carry on for up to 100 miles (160 km).

Toyota expects the minivan segment to grow modestly in the next two years and for the Sienna to steal share from the competition.

The expectation of a 27.5% conquest rate from other minivans is not to be taken lightly.

SPECIFICATIONS

2004 Toyota Sienna XLE (FWD)
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 7-passenger 4-door minivan
Engine: 3.3L (3,311 cc) DOHC V-6 aluminum block/aluminum heads
Power (SAE net): 230 hp @ 5,600 rpm
Torque: 242 lb.-ft. (328 Nm) @ 3,600 rpm
Compression ratio: 10.5:1
Bore × Stroke (mm): 92 × 83.1
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 119.3 ins. (303 cm)
Overall length: 200 ins. (508 cm)
Overall width: 77.4 ins. (197 cm)
Overall height: 68.9 ins. (175 cm)
Curb weight: 4,165 lbs. (1,890 kg)
Market competition: Dodge Caravan; Ford Windstar; Chevy Venture; Honda Odyssey; Kia Sedona; Nissan Quest