The minivan was once the road trip royalty of Canada’s highways. The suburbs were dotted with the seven-seaters, loaded with hockey bags, groceries, crushed goldfish crackers, and spoiled milk. In my own close family, all six families with vehicles had at least one minivan in the driveway at the same time. Today the minivan’s star has faded but the vehicles are better than ever. With high tech and comfort that 14-year-old me couldn’t have dreamed of. The Toyota Sienna and Chrysler Pacifica are two of the best, one all-new and one completely redesigned for 2021. We look at which one rules the seven-seat roost, and which one will leave you asking, “are we there yet?”
When it comes to the minivan, there’s not much styling to do. Short hood, squared roofline, loads of glass. It’s in the details where the designers play, with the Sienna getting surprisingly scalloped rear flanks and the Pacifica wearing a subtle and handsome mesh grille. There’s no winner here, though Sienna’s bumperless rear has us worried about the inevitable parking curb bump despite all of the cameras and sensors.
On the inside, the Pacifica is miles ahead of the Sienna as far as making you feel like you’re in a luxury ride and not a van. More wood and softer tones make for a much more calming place to be than the Sienna’s acres of plastic. On the other hand, Sienna’s dashboard shelf is a triumph of interior design and practicality and absolutely deserves your full attention. And your phone as it charges wirelessly.
Performance, Ride, and Handling
These are minivans. Both are far more capable than you’ll ever use in the corners (the Pacifica wears Pirelli P-Zero tires, for goodness sake), but neither one will ever give you the slightest encouragement to try. What matters is that both are equally stable on the highway, both are comfortable over bumps, and neither gives you that endlessly floating feeling of older vans that ends up in car sickness. Likewise, both have steering wheels that are attached to the road wheels, but the connection might as well be via Bluetooth.
Performance is a different story. Chrysler offers the choice of a 3.6-litre V6 by itself or combined with a large electric motor and 51 km of range as a PHEV. The gas-only van makes 287 hp and 262 lb-ft while the PHEV makes 260 hp total.
The 2021 Toyota Sienna is hybrid-only with Toyota’s familiar 245 hp (AWD models get another motor in the rear but the same power) and CVT. It will crush the gas Pacifica at the pumps, but the Pacifica is less thirsty than just about any three-row crossover so that’s not the benefit you might expect. Our observed economy was 6.5 L/100 km for the Sienna, 10.5 for the Pacifica AWD (expect mid-8’s for FWD models).
The Pacifica’s V6 feels much more satisfying on the road, especially the highway. Sienna feels sluggish in comparison, with the hybrid’s lag between throttle opening and power delivery (plus the unrefined noises it makes at full throttle) not helping.
This is the bread and butter of the minivan. The reason they exist. To haul people and cargo more effectively than anything short of a box truck. Sienna packs 2,860 litres of total space, with 949 litres behind the third row and 2,129 litres when you’ve got it folded. The Pacifica crushes those figures with 3,979 litres when all of the seats are gone, though it’s closer at 2,478 behind row two and just slightly behind with 915 litres behind row three.
In these high-spec vans, both let you fold the back seats flat into the floor and when the seats are up there is a cargo well that nearly touches the roadway.
Where Toyota has missed for years is the flexibility of its rear seats. The second row slides fore and aft, and you can’t actually slide them all the way back with the third row in place meaning that there is more available second-row legroom than a living room. But you can’t fold the seats flat. We don’t mean flat into the floor; we mean they won’t fold flat at all. They just sort of scoot forward. And the seats in this XSE couldn’t be removed, so forget about fitting a sheet of plywood back there or a long box from Ikea.
Chrysler’s third row powers down into the floor (on Limited and Pinnacle, it’s manual on the others) and the seats lock in place. All Siennas have a manual third row, and it doesn’t lock down so if there’s not cargo on top then the folded seats bounce around and make lots of noise. They’re also uncovered, meaning it’s easy for even larger items to fall into the mechanism. Chrysler has covers that automatically side into place to stop that.
On all but Pacifica Pinnacle (even with AWD) and PHEV models, the second row folds into the floor giving you a completely flat load space. The second row of all models folds flat, so even if you can’t stow the second seats, you can have a large flat platform that will hold a sheet of plywood or a mattress. This Pinnacle trim gets massive in-floor storage compartments where the seats on lesser trim levels would go.
For legroom, give Toyota the win. For everything else, Chrysler is putting on a Masterclass on how to make the most functional vehicle on the market. There’s even a vacuum so you can clean up quickly while you’re on the road. Both will comfortably fit at least six adults, with Chrysler offering more headroom.
Driver assistance features are big here, with blind spot monitoring and pedestrian emergency braking standard on both. Sienna has rear cross-traffic, lane departure, lane keeping, auto high beams and full-speed radar cruise standard across the board while Chrysler puts some of those on all but base and others in an optional package. Chrysler gives you the optional vacuum as well as a rear seat camera that lets those in the front see exactly who is touching who in the back.
When it’s time to embarrass the kids by playing the music of your youth far too loudly, both vehicles offer Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – it’s wireless on Pacifica – while Sienna offers a 9.1-inch standard screen and Pacifica 10.1. Chrysler’s Uconnect 5 is a much more user-friendly and advanced system, and it looks better too. Despite both models having upgraded audio, JBL for Toyota and Harman/Kardon branded for Chrysler, neither exactly offers you an audiophile experience but at least Chrysler’s is suitably loud
Both have loads of hard plastics covering the inside walls of the vans, but Chrysler’s plastics feel far more solid and durable. They also have much less flex and slop when you touch them and the Chrysler squeaks far less on the road.
Similarly equipped, a base Pacifica Touring starts for about $7,900 more than Sienna. But Chrysler has the Grand Caravan waiting for you across the showroom if you need a lower price. At the top, this Pinnacle trim is $62,295 versus $58,190 for a loaded Sienna (and our XSE tester with tech pack was $51,190. While we normally stick with MSRP comparisons, Chrysler is currently (and has been for some time) offering 15 per cent off of Pacifica making this one just $59,628 at your dealer today and giving the two very similar payments. With that in mind, Chrysler seems like a slightly stronger value.
Chrysler invented the modern minivan and claims more than 116 segment firsts over the history of their vans. It feels like there is as much passion in this as there is the 700+ horsepower V8’s on the other side of the company’s engineering department. While Toyota is no stranger to the van, their insistence on a utility-sapping and strange second-row arrangement, cheaper-feeling interior trim, and a frustrating infotainment system can’t overcome the delightful dashboard shelf and put the Sienna firmly in second place. Toyota has just missed out on the details here, giving Chrysler the top spot.