I'm a car guy, and I don't just mean that cars are my job. Sure, I'm lucky enough to drive and write about them for a living, but it runs deeper than that: my entire outlook on life revolves around the joy of driving. There's one type of vehicle, though, that's a complete and utter mystery to me: that rolling suburban monolith that everyone loves to hate, the scourge of the road that is… the minivan.
To me, minivans have long represented a sliding door-equipped white flag of surrender to the pressures of parenthood. But why? Why choose the minivan when an SUV can fit the kids AND the soccer equipment just as easily, and still function as an off-road toy on the weekends?
It started off as sort of a challenge. "Make the car guy drive a minivan!” they said. When Toyota dropped a 2017 Sienna off on my doorstep, I shuddered at the thought of driving it -- and only it -- for an entire week. But I did it. I survived. And I learned a thing or two about what life is like with a minivan.
Turns out, other drivers treat minivans like garbage.
In a minivan, nobody looks at you
I'm no stranger to driving flashy cars on public roads, whether it's a quarter-million-dollar Rolls-Royce, or a drop-dead sexy, loud-as-hell Alfa Romeo 4C. I've also got a gutted-out BMW 3-Series track toy that gets its fair share of attention, but my daily driver goes largely unnoticed by the non-enthusiast. But really, it doesn't matter what kind of car you're in, you tend to look at the other drivers around you, and they look at you, right?
That didn't happen in the minivan. At all. I mean, soak in that photo for a second. I drove around wearing my helmet and gloves and not a single person even noticed.
In fact, they want to stay as far away from you as possible
And when they did notice me, it was because they assumed I would hit them and wanted to avoid me as much as possible. I first noticed this phenomenon while driving on a very flat, very straight stretch of road with a 40mph limit. Some drivers -- not all, but more than usual -- would move over, giving me a wider berth than usual, as if I were an 18-wheeler on the highway.
When I turned left, that's when people really lost their shit. I was in the right-most of two left-turn lanes, and the red Mazda RX-8 on my left turned as sharply as possible, as if the driver assumed that I, a lowly minivan driver, wouldn't respect the striped turn line.
The next morning I went for a drive during morning rush hour -- that's prime minivan time, right? This time it was a middle-aged man in a Suburban next to me in the turn lane. He didn't cut over to avoid me. Instead, he just stayed back when the light changed and waited for me to turn first. Seriously, he'd rather piss people off behind him than turn by a minivan.
People cut you off, and it sucks
If the wide berth was a funny quirk, people cutting me off was at best rude, at worst outright dangerous, and generally irritating. The first time it happened was a red Jaguar F-TYPE R that looked absolutely gorgeous and glimmered in the sun. Then came the myriad sedans that simply could not wait the extra three seconds to pull out behind me. I'm not talking one or two here. It was as if there was a blinking sign above me saying, "It's a minivan. It's going slow." By day two, literally every time I came upon a cross street, my hand defaulted to the horn, primed in case I needed it.
Do people in huge trucks and SUVs experience this kind of inhumane treatment? Well, I've driven those too, and no, generally, they do not. People in minivans get branded as bad drivers because we assume they're distracted by crying kids throwing their Happy Meal toys around, but how much of that is actually rooted in truth? Honestly, the hardest thing about driving a minivan was the general disdain and lack of trust from my fellow drivers.
Maybe there was a silver lining to this minivan thing? I decided to put the thing through its paces.
How does it drive? Pretty OK, actually.
Prior to this, I'd only driven a minivan once before in my life... and that was on a racetrack, in a prototype Toyota built specifically to prove a point that minivans can be fun -- and yes, it was an absolute blast. This minivan, though? I'll admit: it surprised me with its competence. With 266 horsepower and all-wheel drive, I'd be willing to bet it would win its fair share of races against classic American muscle cars.
In normal traffic, it behaves, unsurprisingly, like a normal car, albeit a fairly large one. You sit high enough -- almost truck level -- to watch what everybody else is doing in their cars. In traffic, that was probably the most fun aspect of it.
Get out on the back roads, though, and that's where the surprises really kick in: it still feels like a normal car. The weakest link is actually the tires. The chassis is, believe it or not, alright when you start to push its limits. I'd say it's good, but I'd have to include the for a minivan caveat, which would mask the fact that it's not a sports car and simply doesn't aspire to be one. I found myself actively enjoying my time on the back roads, engaged in a surprisingly spirited dance with this mover of mothers.
But does it rally?
I'm not stupid. I know this isn't the vehicle to take if you want to cross the Mojave. Still, I wanted to know if it could handle something simple, like a dirt or gravel road, with aplomb. The answer? Well, when you realize you're doing 50mph, off road, in a friggin' minivan, you pretty much have to say yes, you know? Considering its mission statement for hauling kids and crap around, the vehicle itself is a marvel.
OK, so it's practical
I almost said it's like a small truck, only in van form, before I realized the idiocy of saying that a minivan is like "a small van." Seriously, though, I must admit it's truly a practical vehicle. I took it for a swing to Home Depot and was able to load everything I needed in the back, and the fact that the rear and sides open on their own at the touch of a button is a legitimate help.
Also, it's secretly a shaggin' wagon
In retrospect, this seems obvious. Toyota itself calls the Sienna the "Swagger Wagon," which is clearly code for something its marketing team dares not say. You can, very easily, park somewhere secluded, hopefully with a good view, toss in a movie (I chose the car-guy classic Ronin, naturally), and pull out some popcorn. The back is more than spacious enough. Sneaking away during those never-ending baseball practices for a little minivan alone time is something 30-something parents might consider to spice things up.
You're in a minivan, remember? Nobody will notice you.
Want more of the world's best Cars delivered straight to your inbox? Click here to sign up for our daily email.