There's been some buzz building around a race-spec minivan out of Toyota HQ... Wait a minute, how can "race-spec" go together with "minivan"? Upon seeing the stripped and 'caged Sienna at SEMA '15, we questioned whether this minivan concept was built for show or would it actually be something impressive around a racetrack. In a bit of disbelief, we assumed this was an overinflated PR stunt—not something that was actually designed for the circuit. However, as it turns out, Toyota had something fast on its hands and we were proven wrong after a full day behind the driver seat at the Streets of Willow in Southern California.
I'd like to say that I've never taken a stock minivan around a racetrack before, but I would be lying. I used to own an '06 Honda Odyssey when I worked for a tire company and I beat the living hell out of that van. I even clicked off a few laps at Sonoma Raceway! With that said, I was slightly impressed when Toyota handed us the keys to some bone-stock Siennas first thing in the morning. Despite its size and weight, they really hugged every corner on the track.
Quick side note, one of the beauties of the Sienna minivan is that you can get it in front-wheel- or all-wheel-drive configurations. The FWD Sienna was my favorite because the pucker factor on it was huge. There were many corners where I thought I just wasn't going to stop in time, but it did! I think I even returned one of the minivans with smoking brakes. Sorry, Toyota...
After a couple hot sessions in the stock Sienna, it was time to jump into the all-wheel-drive S-Tuned Concept. This particular minivan follows a tried-and-true approach on how to modify a car for better performance and occasional track days. It retains the full interior, and the exterior remains untouched; however, the suspension, brakes, wheels, and tires have been upgraded. According to Toyota, the company recorded a fastest lap of 1:35 seconds in the S-Tuned Concept. When I was behind the wheel, I wasn't being timed, but I can attest that this Sienna can take a beating!
Last up was the R-Tuned Concept, and it really kicked ass! The R-Tuned is a front-wheel-drive model and is as close to a "real performance" build as you can get. It's completely gutted and fitted with a four-point rollbar, adjustable coilovers, camber plates, race pads, limited-slip, and Nitto NT-01 tires. Engine upgrades only include an intake and exhaust, but the curb weight has been brought down to 3,750 pounds. With only 310 hp, it's really astonishing what this Sienna has accomplished. The R-Tuned is so good that according to Toyota, it was 3 seconds faster at Streets of Willow than a Camaro SS with a 1:27-second lap.
I'm not sure why Toyota decided to pick on the Camaro in this exercise, but now when you're going through a midlife crisis, you might want to consider a race-spec Swagger Wagon. I had a complete blast hammering these minivans all day, and I really hope that somehow I can convince Toyota to hand me the keys to the R-Tuned for some midnight grocery runs in the mean streets of Orange County.
Q&A with the mastermind behind the Toyota Sienna Real Performance Project, Dan Gardner
How did this whole project start up?
The start of the project goes back to the introduction of the Sienna SE model, which now represents a nice percentage of the total Sienna mix. Toyota worked hard to get that concept approved, and it's a car you can obviously go out and buy today. It's not just aesthetics, but mechanical changes as well that affect the way it handles and performs.
The Sienna REAL Performance project was something Toyota Technical Center (TTC) brought DG-Spec into. From there, we collaborated and were able to help shape the program and the vehicles.
Part of what REAL meant to everyone was that the outcome needed to be unknown, so although we all were excited at the prospect, no one really knew what was going to happen. But the more we got into it, the more we started seeing shocking results...in the best of ways. I think it opened a lot of eyes, making people do a double take about what was really possible out of the least likely car in the lineup to take to a road course. It's a journey that continues even today. The whole program has really inspired a great number of people. Toyota is continuing to explore possibilities of a Sienna a little more spicy than the current SE.
What were your biggest challenges in building both concept vans?
There were myriad challenges, but they also brought out the best in the whole team. One was the rapid R&D and testing phase. We had about 90 days to get it all done. Of course, there were many parts that didn't exist. We took a three-tiered approach: There were parts from other cars that just happened to fit, parts from other cars that didn't fit but we could modify to fit, and then parts we had to create from scratch. Nothing was done in a vacuum, though, and again everything needed to really perform. Spending the near 200 hours on track to refine the setup was critical.
Another point worth mentioning is that we needed the Siennas to work well for many different kinds of drivers who came in many different shapes and sizes. So things like seating position and adjustability, rollbar placement, as well as making the car forgiving from a handling and driving perspective were all key. One of the great tricks TTC and DG-Spec pulled off was making the car extremely fast in the hands of a top pro driver, while also making it very easy to drive for a total novice. It's the best of both worlds, really.
Why was power not addressed on the R-Tuned Concept?
You know, it would have been easy to just put a turbo or supercharger on the van and make a 500hp machine. But again, this was Sienna REAL Performance, so we wanted to keep the powertrain stock. This whole program was never intended as a marketing stunt; it had to be very real. It had the added benefit of really proving to people that power isn't necessarily the most important thing out on a road course. Handling and braking are critical elements. When you talk about a Sienna with a stock 2GR V-6 engine doing 1:27 lap times at Streets, it's hard for many people to understand how that's possible. And then you drive it, and then your world changes!
What do you feel was the most important change to the R-Tuned concept?
It really was the whole package, but if you want to talk about the number one most important thing...it was proper wheel and tire selection. That was a long process in terms of looking at three different diameter options, five width options including possibility of wheel stagger front and rear, and a whole bunch of offsets, and that's just the wheel! For tires, we looked hard at which tire and then section width and aspect ratio. Once we settled on the width, we tested multiple aspect ratios to also sample the effects on gearing and what would be most advantageous. The package is more than just handling, but also acceleration and braking. The gearing change was significant, as was the way we could change ride height due to sidewall height reduction.
You can't ignore the weight reduction and the suspension. Those were really critical too in order to achieve what we wanted to. Keep in mind that the R-Tuned is still 3,750 pounds even with the weight reduction, and the S-Tuned is 4,750, so it's not like either of them had an advantage in that regard versus a bona fide sports car.