The battle of minivans has new rivals.
Drivers that wouldn't be caught dead behind the wheel of a minivan are happy to haul their families around in crossovers and SUVs. But this year, there's been a new injection of life in the minivan segment, with two new models that look to make shoppers think twice about buying an SUV. The 2021 Chrysler Pacifica received a major refresh for the new model year while the 2021 Toyota Sienna entered a new generation.
Both models take different approaches to reinvigorate the minivan market, and each excels in different areas. No matter which one you choose, Chrysler and Toyota have proven that the humble minivan can still be cool in 2020.
These two vans take drastically different approaches to styling. The Sienna, much like every other Toyota, shuns the company's past reputation of boring design with tons of sharp creases and bold body lines. Shoppers who think Toyota has gone a bit overboard with models like the Camry and Avalon may not like the Sienna, especially with its massive front grille. Still, it's hard to argue that this isn't the most dynamic Sienna yet, especially compared to the dull outgoing model.
Chrysler's design skews more towards a luxury feel, with soft lines and sweeping curves. The Pacifica offers plenty of attitude, with the S Appearance Package adding cool black accents and wheels. Compared to the outgoing model, this new Pacifica boasts a more handsome front end and a cool connected taillight bar in the back.
It wasn't so long ago that minivans were built only to withstand having snacks and drinks spilled all over them with no regard for comfort or luxury. The facelifted Pacifica is the most luxurious model yet, especially with the new Pinnacle trim level. This top trim boasts excellent materials, including Nappa leather seats and two quilted leather lumbar pillows. All of the controls are laid out easily, and Chrysler has included plenty of small storage areas for various sundries.
The new Sienna can't match the Pacifica on luxury, but it's much nicer than the outgoing model. It also boasts a more practical dashboard layout with many cupholders and storage areas to put items both large and small. This being a Toyota, all of the controls are intuitively placed and easy to find on a first drive.
Chrysler and Toyota have each crammed the best available technology, including safety features, into these minivans. The IISH gave the Sienna a Top Safety Pick + rating and with up to 116 available safety features, the Pacifica earned a Five-Star rating from the NHTSA. Toyota also packed in some cool tech toys like a rearview camera mirror, driver talk function, hands-free sliding doors, and an available built-in refrigerator and vacuum.
The Pacifica also gets an optional vacuum, plus Chrysler's excellent new Uconnect5 infotainment system. Buyers can opt for a rear-seat entertainment system with built-in games and the Pacifica also has a cool FamCam feature to check in on the kids in the second and third rows.
Minivans excel at hauling passengers, with most offering more space than even the largest full-size SUV options. Both options can be had with seven or eight seats, the former offering captain's chairs in the second row. We were more impressed with the Sienna's captain's chairs because they not only offer greater adjustment but they also include an optional ottoman piece for passengers to put their legs up. The Sienna also offers more space in the third row, meaning parents will hear fewer complaints from kids who have to sit back there.
While we prefer the Sienna as a people mover, the Pacifica crushes it as a cargo hauler. Both vans offer impressive storage behind the third row, thanks to deep trunk floors. The Sienna is slightly more useful with all three rows engaged, but with the third row folded, the Pacifica dwarfs it with 87.5 vs 75.2 cubic feet. In terms of total cargo capacity, the Pacifica holds a major advantage with its Stow N' Go seating function that can hide the second-row seats in the floor. This opens the total space to 140.5 cubic feet.
The Pacifica Hybrid and the all-wheel-drive model lose Stow N' Go, but still offer the ability to remove the second-row seats from the vehicle. There is no way to remove the second row in the Sienna, meaning its total capacity is limited to only 101 cubic feet.
For the 2021 model year, Toyota made a bold move to only offer the Sienna with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder hybrid drivetrain that's shared with the more expensive Highlander. With the electric motors, the hybrid system combines to produce 245 horsepower going to front-wheel-drive or AWD. The Sienna is more efficient than most compact hatchbacks, yielding up to 36 mpg, though it feels much slower than the Pacifica.
Chrysler still offers the Pacifica with a 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 producing 287 hp going to the front or all four wheels. It's much smoother and quicker than the Sienna but only averages around 21 mpg. There's also a plug-in hybrid model, which produces 260 hp combined with its V6 engine. The hybrid can travel around 32 miles on electric power alone and still achieves around 30 mpg when running with the engine.
As we revealed in our 2020 CarBuzz Awards the Pacifica trumps the Sienna. That being said, Toyota does a few things better than Chrysler. We prefer the interior layout in the front of the Sienna and its superior passenger space in the second and third rows. Although it doesn't offer any all-electric range, Toyota's hybrid system is more efficient and works better for families that take long trips and can't always find a plug to charge.
Overall, we prefer the Pacifica with its less controversial styling, more premium interior with nicer materials, top-notch infotainment, more lively driving experience, and better cargo-hauling capabilities. It's a close race, but we think both options prove that minivans can be cool and buyers have other options besides crossovers and SUVs.