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Friday
May222015

Toyota Sienna Premium vs. Ford Transit Connect Titanium

By Christopher A. Sawyer 

Fate brought the Toyota Sienna and long wheelbase Ford Transit Connect wagon to our offices recently, and gave us the opportunity to study minivans located at opposite ends of the spectrum. The Toyota is the minivan evolved; a large vehicle of style and power with luxurious appointments. The Ford, on the other hand, is the minivan in its original form; a smaller vehicle with an enormous interior, flat load floor, and four-cylinder engine under the hood. The two were very different yet surprisingly similar. 

Toyota Sienna SE Premium 

When the latest Sienna was introduced, Toyota referred to it as the “Swagger Wagon” in an attempt to make owning a minivan seem cool. (See sidebar.) It even tasked the advertising folks to produce a rap-style music video to drive home the point in an self-consciously ironic way:

I don’t think I’d call the Sienna cool. However, I would call it one of the best vehicles in the Toyota lineup. And that, to be honest, was a surprise. 

By now readers of this site know I am very particular about the way a vehicle steers. Not only should it be free of stickiness and friction (often referred to as “stiction”), the weight or heft should neither be too light nor too heavy, and it always should be in keeping with the type of vehicle. The Sienna, on first blush, has surprisingly heavy steering. It’s not truck-like. It’s just that it’s not as light as you would expect from a large vehicle built by a Japanese automaker, and driven predominately by women. For decades the Japanese have fitted their light-duty vehicles with steering lacking in effort, but such is not the case with the Sienna. You don’t need to be a wrestler to drive this minivan, but you may be surprised at first — as was I — at the fact that you actually have to put a bit of effort into steering it. After a few miles I began to appreciate the steering effort as it made the Sienna feel a touch more stable and precise, two things you want in a vehicle in which you haul around your kids. I also appreciated the fact that this greater effort didn’t make parking more difficult. 

Stowable third seat should stay stowed unless carrying prisoners of war or unruly children in need of discipline.The instrument panel is laid out logically, with clear gauges separated by a small information screen, an IP-mounted gear lever, easy-to-use controls for the climate control system, a large (7.0-in.) touchscreen for the audio and navigation systems, upper and lower glove boxes, and real stitching along the upper glovebox door and across the dash top pad. There are cupholders in the leading edge of the center console, as well as a pair that slide out from the instrument panel face. And moving the shift lever to the IP made it possible to make room for a small storage cubby that fronts a rubber matted tray at floor level. 

The seats in the first two rows (with one exception) are quite comfortable, and slide fore-and-aft. As you might expect, the rearmost seats are rather flat as they have to flip and fold to create a flat cargo bed when not in use. The removable center seat that fits between the second row captain’s chairs stows on the left rear inner quarter panel, and should be used only as a disciplinary device. It is so narrow, flat and uncomfortable, that just the threat of being strapped into it would be enough to turn any budding Charles Manson into a straight-A student. Especially if you want to stream Scared Straight videos on the letterbox screen that flips down from the ceiling through the optional ($55) wireless headphones while the other kids use their own electronic devices. 

On the road, the 3.5-liter V6 moves the Sienna briskly, making merging onto a freeway easy, and the five-speed automatic always seemed to have the right gear for the occasion. Rated by the EPA at 18 city/25 highway/21 combined, the Sienna returned a creditable 20 mpg in mixed use during its stay with us. MSRP for all this was $41,108, which included the mudguards ($129), the aforementioned headphones, security system ($359) and Delivery ($885). At first glance, it’s a price almost as large as the “mini” van itself. However, it is not out of bounds. You get a lot for the money, and a lot to like with the Sienna. 

Ford Transit Connect Titanium LWB Wagon

One other reason the minivan has fallen out of favor is that it has grown too large for many young families, especially those that live in urban settings. The Transit Connect, even in long wheelbase (LWB) form, is much closer in size to the original Chrysler minivans, and makes for an interesting comparison with the Sienna: 

Measurements (In inches):

Toyota Sienna

Transit Connect LWB

Difference:

Length

200.2

189.7

-10.5

Width

78.1

72.2

-5.9

Height

70.5

73.0

2.5

Wheelbase

119.3

120.6

1.3

 

The height difference isn’t as shocking as it first appears when you remember that the Transit Connect does double duty as a delivery van, where a low load floor and high ceiling are a plus. Where you have to step up slightly into the Sienna, the Transit Connect is a “slide across” vehicle that is ridiculously easy to enter and exit. However, there are times when you need the extra width or could use the deep well behind the third row that the Sienna offers. That said, the Transit Connect has optional twin overhead lidded storage binnacles between the first and second rows that compliment the storage tray located over the driver and front seat passenger’s heads. The latter is great for paperwork when the Transit Connect is in commercial use guise, but also stores a lot of small items families drag along and ultimately misplace in conventional minivans. 

The second row seats don’t side fore-and-aft on the Transit Connect, but the two reclining third row seats do. They slide fore-and-aft a total of five inches to give the best compromise between nearly 20 ft3 of cargo space and 35.3-in of leg room. Fold them flat and there’s 58.9 ft3 of luggage space. Leave it up and you’ll have 15.7-19.8 ft3 of cargo space. 

Large gap between rows and thin rigid cover make careful packing a priority.To get a flat load floor, you must fold the second row flat, then forward as you would if loading the third row with people. The nearly six inch width deficit comes in handy here as you reach back to flip the lower cushion of each rear seat forward before walking around to the cargo area to fold the seat backs flat. This is followed by folding the panels on the back of the third row forward to cover the gaps between the seats. It’s this last item that caused some consternation when using the Transit Connect as a delivery vehicle; the span between the two rows is at least six inches, and the fold-out modesty panels are not exceptionally thick or rigid. If you have items that span this gap, there should be no problem, but carrying smaller heavy items could pose a problem if placed on these panels. Pack wisely. 

Anyone who has driven an Escape or Focus will recognize the look, layout and feel of the instrument panel. A soft-touch dark upper surface overlays a similarly colored hard plastic divider which sits atop a lighter hard plastic lower section. All of the minor controls are located vertically along the center stack, with the gear lever at its lower leading edge. If this layout has one major fault it is that the hood over the center information screen blocks the upper portion of the screen for taller drivers. Over time you get used to the fact that the switches for the heated front seats (available only on the Titanium trim level) are on the floor near the handbrake lever, but this placement makes room for the windshield deicer and parking sensor switches just below the climate control unit. 

2.5-liter four-cylinder enigne is gutsy, but has to pull around nearly 4,000 lb. Acceleration is good, but mileage isn't that much greater than for the more powerful V6 Sienna.The Transit Connect is built on the same platform as the Focus, but replaces that car’s short-/long-arm front and multi-link independent rear suspensions with MacPherson struts and a U-shaped twist beam. Steering, as on all recent Fords, is remarkably free of stiction and imparts a light but accurate feel. Hustle the Transit Connect around a bit, and you’ll be surprised at how nimble such a tall, long wheelbase van can be. Just don’t expect it to be blisteringly fast. The 2.5-liter four under the hood has 169 horsepower and 171 lb.-ft. of torque, but must pull around 3,979 lb. (The Sienna weighs approximately 800 lb. more than the Ford, but has 266 hp and 245 lb.-ft. of torque.) According to the EPA, the Ford should return 20 city/28 highway/23 combined, which is not significantly better than the larger, more luxurious Toyota, all things considered. Our mileage hovered just below the 23 mpg rating in combined driving. MSRP for our tester was $32,145, which included the aforementioned overhead locking console ($95) and electrically defrosting windshield ($300), 17-in. alloy wheels ($420), front and rear sensing system ($495), MyFord Touch ($840) and delivery charges ($995).

So, a slam dunk for the Toyota, right? Not so fast. These are two very different vans with very different missions in life. The Toyota is more traditional in that it has grown along with expectations for this type of vehicle in both size and equipment. You would think nothing of taking a long trip in the Sienna, safe in the knowledge that the second row passengers were comfortable in their captain’s chairs, and the third row was folded for maximum cargo carrying capability. The overhead video screen would keep them entertained, and more small fry could be accommodated in the third row if necessary. 

The Ford, on the other hand, is a whiz in the city and performs reasonably well on the highway. Any rear cabin passengers would have to bring their own electronic devices for entertainment, and the difference in width might potentially accelerate the onset of the, “He touched me!” yelling and inevitable retaliation. However, the Transit Connect excels in tight confines, urban settings and big box store parking lots. The toys and detritus scattered around the cabin can quickly be stowed in the overhead bins when it’s time to collect the four by fours needed to build a playscape for the kids. It merges with traffic, and its smaller size makes it easier to place on the road. Plus, it’s more fun to drive. That said, there’s a lot to recommend each vehicle. 

Sidebar: The Minivan Image Problem 

There are a lot of decisions to make when you’re a parent, including which mode of transportation is best for your family and things. Increasingly, crossovers have displaced minivans as the vehicle of choice for all but the youngest of families, which is hard to explain in purely logical terms. Minivans are much more versatile than crossovers, carry more stuff and have the convenience of sliding doors on each side. They are the perfect traveling companion for families, yet are the focus of derision. They are the vehicle no one wants to own, but many do. Sales have dropped from a peak of 1.5 million in 2000 to about 500,000 today.

This situation is almost the polar opposite of that which existed when Chrysler pulled the wraps off the first minivans in 1983. The Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager were a revelation to a world in which “family transport” was often spelled s-t-a-t-i-o-n w-a-g-o-n. What the minivan had that the station wagon didn’t was a cavernous interior wrapped in a garageable exterior, and — thanks to the use of front-wheel drive — a flat cargo floor. The occupants sat more erect and higher off the ground than in a station wagon, and parents thought the sliding side door (dual siding doors came much later, even though they were part of the original design) was safer for young kids than a conventional hinged door. In addition, they were easier to park and maneuver, and didn’t carry the stigma associated with station wagons. Station wagons were the family cars their parents “had” to own, while minivans were more modern and youthful.

Crossovers have done the same thing to minivans that minivans did to station wagons. Speak to anyone involved in minivan marketing, and they will tell you that the minivan is “tainted” by the “stigma” of being a family car. As one marketer put it to me, “Unlike when we grew up, parenthood isn’t seen as something positive, something to strive for. It’s a negative in terms of personal image, and this has rubbed off on the minivan.” And no matter how much you might laugh at the thought, the crossover still carries with it at least the whiff of the “go anywhere, do anything” lifestyle authored by the original Jeep, despite the fact that the closest it will get to chasing Rommel across the desert is a suburban dirt road during the school run. Nevertheless, while the minivan’s singularity of purpose has tarred it with a boring image, the market it serves still is important.

Reader Comments (2)

Are you kidding? These two vehicles are in different classes. One is a minivan (V6 standard), the other is a mini minivan (4cyl standard with no optional V6).

May 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSoakee

Yet both are classified as minivans. So the point was to see what you get at either end of the spectrum, and how they compare. Different buyers? Probably. Most Siennas are driven by young families. Most Transit Connects (that aren't delivery trucks), are driven by empty nesters.

May 22, 2015 | Registered CommenterChris Sawyer

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