Normally, automotive journalists are often forced to assess vehicles based on just a few days’ experience – the equivalent of that honeymoon period. There isn’t much time to discover a new vehicle’s warts.
No such luck for Toyota’s Sienna SXE. A road trip through the ice-encrusted roads of northern Alberta during a recent cold snap provided a chance to put this all-wheel-drive hybrid minivan to the torture test. Is it really an all-purpose family vehicle made for Canadian winters? Here’s what we discovered after driving the Sienna more than we would typically go in a month.
Day 1 – Calgary to Edmonton (338 km)
My wife and I left Calgary Saturday morning, facing –23C temperatures as we headed north on the controlled-access QEII highway. At those temperatures, sensible people would plug their vehicles in overnight to ensure they would start, but this Ontario-registered vehicle came without a block heater. Like a faithful dog, however, this van did not want to let us down.
At those temperatures the heated steering wheel and heated seats were nothing short of essential, especially since it took 15 to 20 minutes of driving before the cabin began to warm up.
At -23C, road salt is completely ineffective, so many of the ramps and some of the roads we drove on were snow compressed into ice. The AWD Sienna, shod with Bridgestone winter tires, remained sure-footed throughout, and even the slight drifts on icy on-ramps were predictable and completely controllable. While FWD vehicles crawled slowly away from traffic lights, the Sienna overtook them like a cougar after a rabbit.
Bitter cold is also a known fuel-economy killer. But once the Sienna reached operating temperatures, it settled into a remarkably thrifty 8.2 litres/100 km on the highway.
As a hybrid, Sienna’s drivetrain includes a CVT (continuously variable transmission). It has taken me a long time to warm up to these transmissions, and I still don’t love them. But this one worked very well on a vehicle that puts smoothness and efficiency ahead of performance. Toyota has been at the hybrid game since the Prius debuted in Japan in 1997, and the CVT in the Sienna is highly evolved, keeping the revs down when cruising and gently pushing revs up when climbing hills.
Day 2 – Edmonton to Vermilion (194 km) to Lac la Biche (225 km)
We left Edmonton in a bone-chilling -22C, with blowing snow and ice-encrusted roads. The digital rear view mirror – which connects to a camera sheltered by the rear spoiler – stayed miraculously clear, providing a panoramic view of traffic from behind. In fact, I didn’t even realize the rear window was covered with snow until I flipped to the regular mirror. Still, the digital rear view mirror takes some getting used to. The “mirror” – actually a screen placed in the rear-view mirror spot – presents an unobstructed view but also has a wide angle that distorts the proximity of cars you are passing, just as your right-hand mirror does. You need to be mindful during lane changes to provide extra room.
We reached Vermilion in eastern Alberta after two hours of moderate but very stable travel, even when no pavement could be seen beneath the ice. Still, 4X4 pickups were roaring by us with no apparent regard for the weather conditions. At Vermilion, we headed to the Beckie Scott cross-country ski trails in Vermilion Provincial Park. The snow on portions of the access road was a foot deep, but the Sienna just dug in and pulled itself through.
It’s another 240 km northwest to Lac la Biche. The radar cruise control kept the vehicle safely distanced from the car ahead, but I switched it off when we got into continuously rolling roads. The roads were so icy the wheels started to spin on uphill climbs as the engine raced to maintain speed. With the steady ups and downs, average fuel consumption slipped to a still-very-respectable 8.8 litres/100 km.
Day 3 – Lac la Biche to Spruce Grove (244 km)
We took the Sienna across a wide-open winter causeway to Sir Winston Churchill Provincial Park, located on an island in the middle of the lake for which the town of Lac la Biche is named. The road has barely been travelled and showed no sign of having been plowed, but the Sienna had no difficulty maintaining traction on the hard snow surface.
Heading south, the temperature settled into a stubborn -15C, which it turns out is too cold for the rear window defroster to keep the ice melted. In fact, it didn’t do its job until temperatures rose above -10C.
Day 4 – Spruce Grove to Jasper to Hinton (355 km)
It’s a long, long drive from this suburb on the west side of Edmonton to Marmot Basin, Jasper’s ski hill, located about 20 km south of town. The Sienna is in darkness for the first hour of our trip, and it’s actually on reasonable pavement for the first time in the journey. The Yellowhead Highway was wet, with patches of slush, but, for the most part, it was absent the ice that has posed such a challenge until now. With warmer temperatures ranging up to 7C, the average mileage improved to 8.5 litres/100 km. Climbing the 14 km up the access road to Marmot Bain was a slushy mess, but the AWD handled it with calm resolve. Coming back down at the end of the day gave the battery a chance to charge, and by the time we reached the highway, we were able to travel a short distance on pure EV mode.
Day 5 – Hinton to Grande Cache to Young’s Point Provincial Park (Grande Prairie) to Valleyview (289 km)
The road to Grande Cache in northern Alberta follows the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. It is twisty, with lots of ascents and descents.
The day I drove it, the road was also thick with muddy slush from the sand that had been applied to give the lanes grip during the deep freeze of the previous few days. Huge transports, almost the only vehicles on the road, coat our front and rear windows with a brown mist that must constantly be cleaned. Once we reach Grande Prairie, the road becomes prairie flat, and we’re able to cruise with minimal stress. The AWD comes in handy once again, though, as we take a detour to the Young’s Point Provincial Park, 10 km down a snow-encrusted road. We get there and back with minimal fuss.
Valleyview to Calgary (605 km)
We left this small industry town three hours north of Edmonton in darkness and a light rain. Halfway to Edmonton, however, we encountered a substantial winter snowfall. In sections, large transport trucks slowed to 40 km/h climbing up long hills. Passing required moving into the snow-laden outline lane, but the Sienna remained as sure-footed as it had been throughout the trip.
The road slush was vicious, coating the front parking assist and collision sensors with brown slush to the point they stopped working. This set off annoying warning signals on the dash that didn’t go away until I stopped the van and chipped away the muddy Slushie.
By the time we reached south of Edmonton, we finally escaped the storm and drove the last two hours in the only consistently dry pavement we’d encountered during the entire trip.
Thankfully, the Sienna is equipped with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto because Toyota’s proprietary navigation system is not quite up to the task. Google Maps, for example, chose a shorter, more efficient route than Toyota’s nav software.
SO . . . IT IS READY FOR A CANADIAN WINTER?
- TOTAL KILOMETRES TRAVELED: 2,600
- ROAD CONDITIONS: GOOD to POOR (icy, snowy)
- AVERAGE FUEL CONSUMPTION: 8.4 l/100 km
- OPERATIONAL ISSUES: none
With its long wheelbase and modest ground clearance, the Sienna is no off-roader. Those honours belong to the likes of TRD and Wrangler, which can handle truly deep snow. The Sienna doesn’t have the clearance for the really deep stuff.
Yet Sienna’s performance through consistently adverse winter conditions inspires confidence. If you drive sensibly, this vehicle will get you wherever you need to go, in comfort and with a very light environmental touch.
The manufacturer provided the vehicle for this test but did not review the content of the article.
Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media. For interview requests, click here.
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