2017 Toyota Sienna Limited AWD

2017 Toyota Sienna Limited Premier AWD (Staff Photo)

2017 Toyota Sienna Limited Premier AWD (Staff Photo)

Writer : Bill Boekholder - Photos : Toyota USA

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing the new 2017 Toyota Sienna minivan for a working trip up north to Battle Creek Michigan. This being a 4.5 hour trip, one way, I knew I would be able to use most, if not all the bells and whistles this minivan provided, and I was correct for the most part, but yet, it was a minivan

Photos provided by Toyota USA

Photos provided by Toyota USA

First impressions where, it’s a minivan, another young couple (with kids) or older persons (with grandkids) mode of transportation. To say the least, I wasn’t happy because I was expecting a vehicle with a little more pop and pizazz, some flash, some cool rims and a kicking stereo, not a minivan. It didn’t take long for me realize how nice a vehicle it was to drive and relax in.

Let’s talk a little about the nuts and bolts of this minivan. The 296 horsepower, 3.5 litre V6, AWD, makes it more than a minivan. This vehicle has a lot of get up and go, something I was seriously surprised by. For just putting around the town it does seem a little lacking in power, as it should, you’re just going to get groceries or pick up the kids from soccer. Once you get it out on the highway, the surprise comes the first time you go to pass a vehicle and you smash the gas pedal down. It might not be necks snapping speed, but it did get my attention and put me back in my seat a bit. Combined with the AWD, this so called minivan, handled like a sports car on rails. Power was there, steering was tight and neutral. It got around cars and trucks with no problems at all running at the speed limits provided and all with the giddy up and go of a smaller car or a luxury sedan.

Photo provided by Toyota USA

Photo provided by Toyota USA

The exterior was typical minivanish, solid color paint job; maybe a two tone paint or body strip would break it up a little, boring rims are just that, boring. What I liked was coming up on the van at night and pressing unlock on the key fob. The exterior lighting for the driver and passenger side lite up the side door areas real well. The passenger back doors take a little getting used to; I’m not used to using door handles with a delay in the door actually opening. The same can be said of the rear hatch style door. It would be nice if it was motorized like the side doors are when you manually opened it. It’s not a heavy door and is motorized, but if you don’t use the key fob to open it, it can be a little awkward. The roof rack really needs to have some cross bars to help with the various attachments you might need to haul a kayak or maybe some bikes. The two sun roofs are both adequate in size and are a nice feature for the passengers in the back to have their own.

The interior is spacious and accommodating. The third row of stow and go seats are easy to store and just as easy to put back up. The second row of seats move all the way up for easy entry and egress from the third row. With the second row seats all the way up, you have massive amounts of room to put stuff in the back. Since the seats move independently of each other, you can still haul one person and have plenty of room to haul stuff. The front seats are comfortable with plenty of electric adjustments to fit virtually anyone. The nice feature of two preset positions for the driver seat will definably come in handy if you are 6’ 2” and your wifey is 5’4”.

Photo by Toyota USA

Photo by Toyota USA

Sitting in the driver’s seat is like sitting in your own little world of funness. The gauges and controls are strikingly easy to read and operate. Nothing seems out of reach of any driver of any size. Knobs, buttons and the touch screen are well marked and easy to operate. I had to reset the clock because of the time zone changes; it was an absolute snap to do, just like the rest of the controls. The rear doors and rear hatch buttons are in their own little overhead console, combined with the sun roof controls, make this a nice feature. The steering wheel controls are also easy to use, but I wish they would put the cruise control on the steering wheel as well. My only complaint about anything is the location of the cruise control stalk, it’s awkward to use and when you’re on the highway and have to constantly use it, it becomes a bit annoying. The driver’s cockpit is generously equipped with the usual collision avoidance switches that are easy to turn off and on if they become a bother. The headlights are bright, maybe too bright as I was flashed at a couple of times while the lights where on low beam, but they did what they were supposed to do and that is to light up the road.

My only complaints were the cruise control, which I feel Toyota could and should do better. The other would be the outlets for plugging in 12 volt chargers and such. The middle passenger had none in the back of the center counsel or on the sides. There are plenty up front and in the rear of the vehicle. The 110/120 volt plug in the back area would be much more useful if it was a three prong grounded outlet. The USB ports are easily accessible and there are enough to go around, except for the middle seated passengers.

Overall I thought this was a well-equipped and well laid out vehicle that would suit any number of people. If I were to scale it, I would give it a solid nine out of ten. It was pleasant vehicle to drive and it didn’t disappoint me, my passengers or my equipment.

Like to thank Toyota USA for the opportunity to review this vehicle.  Any questions please contact your nearest dealership. 


2015 Lexus GS 350 AWD F Sport

Since 1991, The Lexus GS has gradually become one of the most popular vehicles in a very competitive mid-size luxury market.  We had an opportunity to review the 2015 Lexus GS 350 AWD F-Sport.  My opinion has always been that this is a good size sedan with plenty of room, catering more to comfort but keeping a sporty look.  

The Lexus GS line was redesigned in 2013, and only slight updates have been made in each model year since.  The GS serves as a sporty luxury sedan with the sharp edges and comfort seen in the IS and ES.  The car I received was a beautiful Obsidian Black which, in my opinion, is the perfect color for such a powerful and luxurious look.  The very first thing that stood out to me was the grill.  Lexus has slowly been making their grills bigger and more aggressive looking throughout their lineup, and it’s really growing on me. 

The sleek LED daytime running lights directly under the headlights and chrome border around the upper front grill were my favorite exterior features.  The massive front grill is complemented with headlights that wrap around the fenders, and a lower bumper that follows that line for an aerodynamic look.  I like the added sport feel of the dark graphite alloy wheels and low profile tires.  These are complemented nicely with lowered side skirts and a small trunk lip spoiler.  Dual chrome exhaust tips give the final touch.  

With such a great appearance, I knew Lexus would continue the theme with a good power plant under the hood.  They didn’t disappoint with the 3.5-liter V6 pushing out 306 hp.  They offer a 6 speed automatic for the AWD model, and an 8 speed automatic for rear wheel drive models.  Lexus got away from the V8 engine but believe me, the V6 is no slouch. 

Don’t think that by having a sporty looking sedan with a powerful motor the car would lack in comfort when driving it around town.  The GS has very comfortable seating for both driver and passengers. As you might have guessed, the driver side has a 10 way power adjustable seat.  If you go with the premium upgrade package, you would then have 18 way adjustable seating.  The premium upgrade allows you to really customize your seat with heat and cool ventilation, which I’ve learned to love throughout various models I’ve driven. 

The back seat is pretty comfortable, but like most back seats, a taller person riding in the middle would likely hit their head on the roof and be uncomfortable.  A nice available option is to upgrade to rear heated seats, which is always welcomed in the wintertime.  The rear doors are larger which is nice to be able to get in and out, and really helpful when strapping in the kids.  I have a toddler and infant seat that were a breeze to install.  Really easy to latch on and with the bigger rear doors, easy to fit and strap them in tightly.  Despite having the baby seats installed, both my wife and I still had plenty of room in the front seat.  We are taller so we tend lose some leg room in most vehicles, so we are always happy to retain that.  In comparison, we found the IS model a bit tight upfront, but had no issues in the ES. 

I found the trunk to be smaller than I would have liked.  You can fit good amount of bags, but it’s not really big enough for a full family outing.  I had trouble fitting my Britax stroller and much of anything else.  Unfortunately the back seats don’t fold down, and the cut through to the rear seats is small and narrow.  Not that we would fold the seats down with the kids there, but in general I don’t think there was quite enough room for a family of four on long trips.  For city and everyday use you would manage just fine.  

The fun part is seeing how it performs in a big metropolitan city like Chicago.  First off, you can throw the city gas mileage out the window.  I averaged 14mpg to the manufacturer’s recommended 19mpg.  I have yet to have any car I’ve tested give me close to what the manufacturer recommends.  Granted, my average speed in the city was 15mph with lots of stop and go.  Having the 3.5-liter V6 didn’t help much with regards to mileage, but would say I had plenty of power when I needed to get up and go.  The roar of the V6 and dual exhaust really put a smile on my face when having to accelerate quickly.  As my son would say, “Faster, faster!”  He might have gotten spoiled when we tested the RCF a few months ago. Spoiled kid.  

The ride was very smooth.  The double wishbone suspension really absorbed most of the pot hole ridden roads Chicago has to offer. This is the F-Sport model, so it was equipped with a stiffer spring, roll bar, bushings, adaptive shocks, variable rate steering and bigger front brakes.  This is also an all-wheel drive model, so the power is distributed 50/50 but will adjust to 30/70 as needed.  An added bonus of the F Sport performance package is an upgrade to 19” alloy rims and low profile tires to grip the road better. 

Driving on the highway and during longer stretches in town improved the gas mileage to an average of 24mpg, which was close to the advertised highway 26mpg.  I’m sure the mpg would be better on the RWD model, but in the Midwest we would absolutely want the AWD for our harsh winters.  The road noise was at a very minimum, and the overall ride was very enjoyable. 

Overall I really liked the 2015 Lexus GS350 AWD F-sport.  It’s a nice upgrade from the IS & ES in combining both to give you performance and comfort with an aggressive look.  It will be slightly tight for a family of four.  For a single person, couple, or a family with one child it would be a great vehicle to own.  The performance was superb and it really fun to drive.  With the snow that we get here in the Midwest, I am sure it will have no issues at all.  This model competes with Cadillac CTS, Audi A6, Mercedes Benz E Class, and BMW 5 series.  The GS only comes in a 3.5 liter V6 but you have your choice of rear wheel drive or all-wheel drive.  (You also can opt for a hybrid model for better gas mileage – the GS450h giving you 29 city and 34 highway starting at $61,000). The 2015 Lexus GS350 RWD F-Sport starts at $48,000 and can be upgraded to AWD for just $2,000 more.  The vehicle we tested was priced at $61,000.  

I’d like to thank Lexus for the opportunity to test out this vehicle and please visit your local dealership for more information.

2015 Toyota Rav4

Here’s a mind boggling stat for you: Toyota has been building the Rav4 for 20 years.  This vehicle opened a new market in the SUV crossover world with its 1995 debut. A vehicle that would provide the consumer a dream combination of increased cargo room with fuel economy close to that of a compact car.  Curiosity got the best of me, and I did some digging to see what Rav4 actually stands for.  Well, it’s straightforward and makes a lot of sense: Recreational Active Vehicle with 4 wheel drive. 

The introduction of the Rav4 inspired competitors to create their own similar vehicles.  Other popular models that come to mind are the Ford Escape and the Subaru Forester.  A vehicle of this size is really ideal for city life, to have just a bit more room without driving a huge vehicle and spending a fortune.  This class of vehicle is one that is right up my alley since I have a full house with a wife and two little boys.  Having the opportunity to review the Rav4 was perfect for us.

 I received a bright Barcelona Red Metallic Rav4, and it was certainly not what I expected.  As I was doing a walk around, I noticed how much Toyota had upped their game.  In the past, I always thought of the Rav4 as a basic 4 door small SUV, but no more.  The 2013 redesign really took it to the next level, and each year it gets more attractive than the last.  It looks like a much more expensive car to me, with a sleek front end, integrated turn signals on the side mirrors, projector headlights, fog lights, and bigger wheels; it really was the total package.  I hadn’t thought about the price of one of these in a while, and guessed it would be in the mid to high $30k’s.  As you will later see, I was definitely wrong about that.  One of the most convenient things that I noticed about the exterior was that the tail lights stuck out about 4 inches from the body of the car…they made a great cup holder for me while I was loading and unloading the back.  Thank you Toyota!

As I got into the Rav4, I was expecting the same as I had seen in previous models – basic interior with cheaper feeling plastic dash, door panels, etc.  I was wrong again.  The dash was well designed with double stitched leather in the middle.

The 6.1 LCD screen on the middle of dash was easy to operate, and the dual climate controls were right underneath of it.  The dash had a bit of padding to it, and Toyota added some carbon fiber accents to the center console and door panels.  There was also a big convenient pocket in front of the passenger, which was perfect to store phones, snacks, wallets, etc. Overall it was really well laid out and attractive. 

The back seat had good amount of room.  It’s not a large SUV, so I wasn’t expecting a huge seating area, but I was impressed that it was big enough to fit my son’s massive Britax car seat without sacrificing a ton of leg room for the front driver/passenger.  The back seat reclined and folded down in a 60/40 split.  Trunk area was also large and had a convenient privacy cover.  Though the tailgate wasn’t motorized on the model we reviewed, the Limited edition does offer that feature.  

Driving the vehicle in the city was exactly how I imagined it would be in a cross over vehicle.  I felt like I was driving a compact car but sitting higher.  I did notice that the engine was a little loud.  Toyota only offers one engine size across all Rav4 models, but they do offer a choice of drive train, either a front wheel drive or an all-wheel drive for an added $1,400.  A 2.5L 176hp engine is what powered the Rav4, which was perfect to give me the get up and go I needed, especially since I had the AWD model.  I personally think it’s well worth the all-wheel drive, especially if you live in a winter weather prone environment like Chicago.  It didn’t do badly on fuel either; I averaged about 23mpg in the city and 28mpg on the highway, which was not far off from the advertised amounts.  The navigation was really easy to operate, and I am happy to say that the Entune audio and back up camera come standard.  

I really enjoyed driving the car.  It wasn’t jaw dropping comfort, but for the price it is right where it needs to be.  It really fulfills the needs of the driver looking for a smaller car with more room, and really exemplifies what a crossover was designed to be.  If you want more power or more space, jump up to the 4-Runner or Highlander.  I am sure either of those two models would certainly meet your needs. 

Overall I would recommend this vehicle to anyone looking to purchase something slightly bigger than a compact car.  The model I tested was the XLE awd, which falls in the middle of the line.  The base model LE starts at $24k, XLE $27k and the limited at $30k.  Depending on what your needs are, the XLE gives you everything you could want.  Earlier I mentioned that I though it be around mid $30k’s, well as you can see, I was definitely wrong.  This is a great vehicle that won’t break the budget, and you get lot of bang for your buck.  Style, reliability, comfort, space and handling.  I had plenty of room traveling with my family, and if my cat liked to take a drive, I would have room for her too.  If you are in market to purchase a crossover, make sure to head over to your nearest Toyota dealership and test drive one today.

Click on image to be re-directed to Toyota official website.  

Click on image to be re-directed to Toyota official website.  

I would like to thank Toyota USA and Drive Sti for opportunity to review this vehicle

Click on image to photo album.  

Click on image to photo album.  

2015 Mazda3 5-Door Grand Touring

The Mazda3 received an exterior face lift and new interior in 2014, which took the industry by storm and became popular very quickly.  Last year I reviewed an automatic Mazda3 Grand Touring, and now I’ve had the chance to review a 2015 S model with a 6 speed manual transmission.  There were not many differences to note, so I’ll focus on the things I really enjoyed about the car.

The Mazda3 I received featured a Meteor Grey Mica paint color, which is definitely one of my favorites to date.  I could really see the pearl in the grey base.  From the exterior perspective, I didn’t notice many changes from the 2014 model.  It had the perfect blend of sport and luxury, highlighted by the sporty front end with aggressive looking grill.  The HID projector headlights certainly flowed well with the chrome trim running along the center.  As the Grand Touring edition, it was equipped with a lower front splitter, as well as a rear hatch spoiler, rear bumper skirt, side sill extension and scuff plates.  All of these features contributed to the awesome sporty look of the car.

The interior was stellar.  It featured a sleek Almond leather with black inserts and red stitching on the seats, steering wheel, and part of the door panels.  It really stood out and was the first thing everyone noticed when getting in the car.  The dash was mostly black except for a small silver trim.  The center dash was pretty basic and featured easy to find controls for all adjustments, from climate to the heated seats.  Along the center console was a main control knob, which was used for making adjustments on the 7 inch monitor located on the center dash, as well as a volume control. 

I have to be honest in that I wasn’t too impressed with the aforementioned monitor.  I looked to me like an iPad mini holder was just placed on the dash and that was it.  I don’t think it would stand the test of my 3 year old sitting in the front pretending to drive (while the car is off and in park, of course). It was begging to be tugged on, which I’m not 100% sure would be covered under warranty.  Other than that, I loved the interior.

This model featured a 2.5-liter I4 engine with FWD and a six-speed manual transmission.  This was the major difference in the models I tested, with the 2014 model featuring an automatic transmission and shift pedals.  I had a lot of fun driving the automatic, so I knew I would have even more fun with the manual transmission.  Driving around Chicago was nothing but thrilling for me.  It’s the perfect car for a big city in the size, power, and convenience for your everyday commute.  I liked the heads up display that was located just above the dash cluster.  Once you turn on the car, a small reflective mirror raises and shows you your speed and navigation, which is a big plus for keeping your eyes on the road at all times.  The 6 speed transmission was flawless.  It shifted really smoothly and the short throw made it fun shifting gears.  I did finally get into 6th gear once I hit the highway, but at that point the 184hp just didn’t have enough to really give you that big rush you might expect when you are able to get on it. 

The only time I had trouble during the review was when I hit traffic, which reminded me why I now prefer an automatic to manual transmission.  Traffic in Chicago can be overwhelming, and it sure took a toll on me sitting in rush hour for over 2 hours.  Other than losing feeling in my left calf, the car grove great.  It had good acceleration and smooth gear shifting, along with the tighter suspension you would expect in a compact sports car.  If you would prefer a smoother ride, you could look into the Mazda3 4 door, Toyota Corolla or the Nissan Sentra, but I guarantee you would miss out on the thrill and sporty feeling of the Mazda3 S Grand Touring.

A few final points to mention.  My average gas mileage was 21mpg in the city and 35mph on the highway, both which were close to what the manufacturer advertised.  It’s almost impossible to reach the advertised city rate in Chicago, but the Mazda3 got close which was impressive.  It was super easy to add the car seats in the rear, and I still had room for all the gear necessary to travel with a toddler and an infant.  The hatch was really convenient for loading and unloading. 

Click on Image to be re-directed to Mazda USA official website. 

Click on Image to be re-directed to Mazda USA official website. 

Overall, the Mazda3 Grand Touring was a great car to drive, and I can see why it was rated as one of the top 10 cars by Car and Driver.  It compares to the Ford Focus and the VW GTI, but truly feels like the winner in that class.  You get everything you need at a great price.  The starting price on a new 2015 Mazda3 5 door is $18,000 for the base model.  We drove the S Grand Touring model which starts at $26,000, but with the added features the test model sticker was $28,000.  If you are looking for something slightly bigger with same features check out the Mazda CX-5.  

I’d like to thank Mazda USA and Drive Sti for the opportunity to review this vehicle. 

2015 Toyota Sienna XLE AWD

As a husband and father of two, sometimes I think about what it would be like if I bought a minivan.  That jump from having a 2 or 4 door vehicle cool looking car to a big minivan is a leap I don’t often think about.  Well this week I had opportunity to spend some time with one of the best-selling mini vans in the market, and now my wheels are turning.

The new 2015 Toyota Sienna XLE AWD showed up and I was pretty excited to have the opportunity to spend some time with this vehicle and tow my family around Chicago.  First off, yes it was a minivan, but it had a nice appearance to it.  The sleek front headlights and chrome grill really set it off.  Some minivans I’ve seen just look stretched out or look like a bad plastic surgery job.  Not in this case.  This year it received a face lift adding a different grill, LED driving daylights integrated with the headlights, turn signals on side mirrors and a slightly updated front bumper.  Toyota left the rest of the vehicle with minimal changes from the previous year. 

The biggest changes I noticed were in the interior.  I had opportunity to review 2014 model and I wasn’t too impressed.  I thought it was too boring and there was not much that stood out to me.  Now, a year later, I stepped inside this new model and I was blown away.  It’s a night and day difference on what they changed, especially with the dash.  The pictures do all of the talking in this case.    

Overall this vehicle is great for a large family and/or those needing the extra space.  Living in downtown Chicago, it did give me some issues due to size but nothing that I wouldn’t get used to.  It drove really nice and my family really enjoyed the massive amount of room and the added bonus of the entertainment/multimedia features.  The flip down wide screen monitor was a big plus with its split screen viewing.  Might be a bit much on having two video sources being played but great to entertain the age difference on long trips.  Big plus is that this model is equipped with all-wheel drive and run flat tires.  Great for areas that receive a lot of snow like Chicago.  For gas mileage I was averaging 22 mpg in the city and high 20’s in the highway.  Not bad for a large vehicle. 

Check out the 2015 Toyota Sienna…it might just get you thinking about a minivan too!  I'd like to thank Toyota and Drive Shop for the opportunity to review this vehicle.