The minivan: a grocery-getter par excellence, a champion of post-soccer pizza parties, and a baller track toy.
Yep, you read that right. I know it sounds crazy, but see, there are people at Toyota that wake up in the morning, put on a suit and tie, go to work, and go absolutely insane. And I mean that in the best kind of way. They just unleashed a family-sized corner carver that's equal parts pet project, market research, and beacon of hope for anyone who's ever been forced to give up their sports car for soccer duty.
When they invited me to come drive this beast, of course I said yes.
Generally speaking, I don’t do minivans. I have nothing against them as fine pieces of engineering, but I can’t wrap my head around changing who you are to raise your kids. No, I don’t have any myself, but my thinking is if you can safely fit your tykes into a vehicle you actually enjoy driving, that should be the death knell of the minivan.
Enter the Sienna R-Tuned, a race track-ready minivan that shares more in common with a track addict’s weekend toy than it does with your daily driver. That’s it's (slightly) more sane spawn, the S-Tuned, on the left. My first thought was that these two souped up minivans belong more on display in Ripley’s Believe it or Not than on an actual race track. But, to the race track I went -- and walked away with the stunned realization that the most entertaining Toyota I've ever driven is a friggin' minivan.
Climbing into the R-Tuned, cinching down my harness, I’m struck first by a flashback to Get Shorty, and then by the fact that this is the first time I’ve ever felt comfortable in a minivan. As in, I didn't feel like a complete buffoon.
Out on the track, the raw exhaust note comes through loud and clear -- completely obliterating any chance the R-Tuned has at anonymity (even without the stripe). Onlookers can hear this thing coming from a quarter mile away. It turns into corners about as crisply as any street-legal performance car you can buy today, and once you're mid-corner, the only way you're losing control is if you actually try.
Having never driven this particular race track before -- much less a minivan -- I know I didn't come close to extracting the SEMA concept's full potential, but I at least was able to feel what it's all about. I dislike repeating PR-speak, but I'll grudgingly use Toyota's phrase here because it's perfect: Real Performance.
"Real" doesn't necessarily mean blindingly fast. It means that every performance part is supremely simple and straight forward -- the kind of stuff anyone that's ever souped up a car can understand.
It rides on what are more or less street legal race tires, and has literally no interior remaining behind the front seats -- but to prove that this is closer to "reality" than just a flight-of-fancy novelty, the A/C and radio are still intact. Basically, look at the list of cost-effective mods you can make to your car, and Gardner and company followed the time-tested blueprint as far as the Sienna would allow. 200 hours of track testing went into tuning the adjustable suspension. Fully modern tech combined with veteran input from championship-caliber drivers dating back to the 80s, and the resulting handling traits are the epitome of "dialed in."
It's also forgiving -- if you don't know what anything in that paragraph meant and have no clue what you're doing when it comes to performance driving, the R-Tuned will let you go fast without embarrassing yourself.
But for car guys and track fanatics, you have a hall of fame-level sleeper at your disposal -- something DG Spec was all too keen to highlight with a demonstration race against a Camaro SS. During a Top Gear-style shootout on a tight and twisty course, the Sienna clocked in at a half-second faster per lap.
It's the kind of thing that makes sense to a gearhead, but fills laymen with "what in the actual fuck?!?" bewilderment. In fact, during one of the very first test sessions for the R-Tuned, the guys took it to an SCCA event, where it not only beat up on legit race cars, but led more than one observer to think some random dude had gatecrashed the track.
So now for the big question: will Toyota actually produce this thing?
At best, the R-Tuned is a distant forerunner of a production model with legitimate sporting aspirations. A car like that, should it come to be, would be the Ford Lightning of minivans, the first mass produced sport minivan. That's where the more subdued S-Tuned comes in, with its full interior, tires that will last for more than a thousand miles, and a suspension that can handle potholes as well as corners. Toyota's people can't say if it's headed toward production, and I honestly believe they themselves don't know. This whole project is an elaborate experiment, centered on one question: can a minivan be fun to drive?
My opinion? It's very, very good. It needs a better transmission (or at least one with more performance-oriented programming and gearing) and the S-Tuned needs performance seats. But those are no-brainer details. I'm sure there are plenty of car enthusiasts with kids out there who would get a huge kick out of putting a sports car to shame in a fast-as-hell minivan. The answer to your question, Toyota, is yes -- build the damn thing.
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