Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Sienna Minivan and the Perception of Masculinity. #VivaLasSienna

Last month I was invited to come to Las Vegas with a group of other bloggers and writers, all male, mostly dads, to experience driving the new models of the Toyota minivan, the Sienna. Now, here's the thing: Some men see driving a minivan as a compromise they have to make when they become parents. They don't think they're driving a "man's car" anymore, but a "parent's car." Personally, I do what I need to do and I drive what I need to drive. Letting the popular perception of a car determine the level of your masculinity doesn't make you more of a man, you know?

Here's our story, which might explain our next car-buying move:

A Toyota Family
We bought our first Toyota in 2003. It was a 2004 Prius, back when you had to wait for weeks/months (depending on how well you knew the dealer) for one of those. We loved our Prius, which made us love Toyota, so when it was time to get a second car, we got another Toyota--this time a Camry Hybrid. We leased that one, and when the lease was done, we leased another Prius. Now we had two Priuses. Last year, when the 2004 Prius was getting old, we leased yet another Toyota: the Prius V--the station wagon version of the Prius. And then, a few months ago, when we were trying to buy a house, our lender told us we would get the loan if we ended one of our leases. The 2010 Prius lease was almost done, so we returned it and became a one-car family. Our loan was approved, we bought the house, and now we need to decide whether we stay a one-car family or buy a new car. We've been with Toyota for the last 10 years, so it is likely that if/when we buy or lease a new car, it will be another Toyota.

"A Real Man's Car"
The last car I drove before we got the Camry was a pickup truck, which I hated, because no matter how many sandbags I packed in the back, the truck would always slide on frozen roads. Then I got the Camry and now the Prius V, and I'm happy. The only compromise I can think of with hybrids--they don't accelerate as quickly as non-hybrid cars--has nothing to do with masculinity or with self-identity. Every car has pros and cons, and if we end up buying a minivan, we will give up the gas-mileage we could get with the Prius, and get instead tons of space, folding seats (7 or 8 seats, depending on the model), remote controlled doors, better acceleration, and a bunch of other optional things (sunroof, dual freakin' video screen, heated side mirrors, and more). If we decide to get a second car, the decision will have everything to do with the pros and cons of the specific car, and absolutely nothing to do with the perception of the car according to the self-described arbiters of popular culture. There's no such thing as a "real man's car," because "real men" only exist in the minds of people who have something to gain from reinforcing silly stereotypes.

And that's that. We're kind of in the market for a new car, and we've been with Toyota for 10 years. And driving the Sienna for these 3 days in Vegas made me think that maybe--and here's that "compromise" word again-- we've compromised for too long: maybe we deserve to stretch our legs. Maybe our kids deserve a freakin' foot rest and their own cup holders. Maybe when it's time to move, we can do a lot of the moving in our minivan with seats that can be folded and pushed in.

But I know that for some parents, a minivan is a parenting-related compromise. When you become a parent, you drink less, you sleep less, you play less video games, and you buy a car that fits your new lifestyle. And if you're a dad who's worried that the car that fits your new lifestyle may not be the car that fits the self-identity you're trying to portray, then Toyota wants you to know the Sienna might be the car for you after all, which is why, as a blogging dad, I ended up on a 3-day Vegas adventure.

Here's what we did:

We officially started with a walkaround, introducing us to the latest Sienna models, which included a more sporty, aerodynamic model as well as a limited model with 19" tires and all-wheel-drive. Some of the cars had 8 seats, and others had dual video screens. Siennas had power sliding doors, windows (even on the third row), and moonroofs. They had power outlets. They had blind spot monitors. They had three-zone climate control... The more I write about it... It's nice to have triple-zone climate control, is what I'm saying.

But like I said, the issue here is not that the cars have or don't have everything we need. The issue here is perception, and changing the minds of those who think the fun of driving ends in the delivery room. Which is how we ended up racing the Siennas at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

But that came later.

Before that, we spent the day at the Bass Pro shop, where we had a friendly Outdoorsman Challenge competition.

We kayaked in a pool outside the store, practiced casting fishing (?), archery, shooting a (pallet) rifle and a handgun, and having lunch surrounded by stuffed animals, including tiny deer heads. By this point, I was already miles beyond the borderline of my comfort zone, but hey, an adventure is an adventure, and every once in a while, I can allow myself to live someone else's idea of masculinity. This is me, with a pretty good spread. I wasn't trying to kill the target--just scare it.

After lunch, we divided into groups for a scavenger hunt, where each group had to drive a Sienna to a number of spots, including the amazing Red Rock Canyon, the Welcome to Las Vegas sign, and the Mount Charleston Lodge.

The next day we went to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where we had a chance to push the Siennas to their limits. After we drove the Siennas, the owner of the track (who was a former Formula 1 winner) and another race car driver took over, and showed us how fast these cars could really go.

Now, driving the Siennas on the racetrack was an amazing experience, where we could all witness the sporty nature of the minivans. Everyone knows minivans have plenty of cup holders, but few people can imagine them speeding down a racetrack.

And then we drove a Ferrari.

I'm not good enough of a writer to even try to describe what it's like to drive a race car at 180mph. When I was done, I thought of it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but a couple of weeks have passed, and I feel like this is something I'm going to have to do again. Besides, I look damn good in a racetrack suit.

Then we had a poker tournament, where I won $30,000. Fake money.

So what else? Beyond the incredible experience provided for a few lucky guys by the Toyota people, and beyond the unquestionable fact that I look dreamy in a racetrack suit, what did I learn?

I wish no one were affected by perception. I wish we could all judge items by actual value rather than by the way items potentially reflected on our attempts to create our identities. I hope everyone reaches that point, eventually. Me included.

Until then, all we can do is tell ourselves that a car is a car. The Toyota SUV is not more masculine than the Sienna. The hybrids I've been driving don't make me a better person. If I want a comfortable car with automatic sliding doors and enough cup holders for my entire extended family, and if MPG is not a big deal for me, I'll get a minivan, and the hell with the perception of minivan as a "parent car." What's wrong with being a parent, after all? Since when is being a parent something we need to hide or overcome? And if I've been with Toyota for 10 years, and I've had a good relationship with the brand, then my next car just may be a Toyota Sienna. Until we make that decision, though, we'll always have Vegas...

Thanks for hanging out with me, Aaron from Daddy Files, John from Daddy's in Charge?, Fred from Mocha Dad, Jeff from Out with the Kids, Colby from Days of a Domestic Dad, Dan from, Pete from dadand, Troy from Dadventurous, Chris from AskMen, Scott from Gear Patrol, and Shawn Parkin, who is the photographer responsible for all the great pictures on this post.

And a huge thanks to the people at Toyota and to the people at Golin Harris!



  1. Sounds like a hell of a lot of fun.

  2. Love your review. Sounds like a great trip and a great vehicle. The pictures are fantastic!!

  3. Sienna FTW! I love mine - I NEVER cared what the image of the minivan was. I love the damn car. :)

  4. That's really cool. I was so jealous of all of you when reading the FB posts from your time there. I have a KIA minivan and it's pretty cool. If Toyota wants me to get one of theirs I'll gladly take a trip to Vegas (or wherever) to test them out next time. Haha.

  5. I have the Honda Odyssey. The perception thing is a small matter- after all, we're stay at home dads, not parachuting fire fighters. We were considering a new car and down to deciding between the Sienna and the Highlander, but the Sienna is much more functional all around.

    I don't recommend spending the cash on built in video. Get each kid an iPod touch and everyone is happier. Built ins cost a fortune- same thing with navigation packages that are done just as we'll on your phone and don't cost an extra $1000.

  6. Yea, and the fact that I knew half the people there had a lot to do with that too.

  7. Thanks. The photographer was a great guy with a cool life story. I'm sure he'll be happy to know his pictures turned out so well.

  8. Thanks! Since we're now in the process of moving from our tiny Baltimore rowhouse to a nice house in Owings Mills, we've been on a "Why haven't we done this 10 years ago?" roll, and getting a minivan pretty much fits the same category...

  9. You know, I have no idea what happened and how it happened. Until I was on a plane, I was sure it was a scam. I'm open for any future trip to Vegas. Vegas owes me money!

  10. Ha, I'm more of a "You're bored? Count trees!!!" person. We had a lot of road trips when I was a kid, and looking out of the window is probably my best memory from these trips. I really don't want to get a video (or an iPod), although I might change my mind when my wife and I get sick of not being able to chat in the car (pretty much impossible to chat without a video/tablet for the kids).

    And I also agree about the GPS. I love having a GPS on my car now, but I would have been just fine with Google Maps.

  11. Nothing like being halfway through your own Toyota review to see Oren has said everything you wanted to say. Oh well, I'll chalk it up to great minds...

  12. LeticiaTechSavvyMamaAugust 29, 2013 at 11:47 PM

    I've never been a minivan person but am going to be driving a Sienna courtesy of Toyota for 3 months and am wondering if it just might change my mind!

  13. 3 months? That's a long time. I feel like there's no turning back to a smaller car after that...

  14. A minivan is one of those things that is just so dam practical life would suck a little bit without it. We have had a Sienna for the past 10 years and love the vehicle. Safe, dependable, and comfortable. As for my image when driving it, I stopped caring about that stuff years ago...

  15. Ha, I'm driving a Chevy Traverse for a few days, and it's cool, but it seems too small now... I'm spoiled.

  16. Glad to see this perception.Its really a very lovely car and i like it.I like it so much.Awesome work done on the blog,its very interesting about the hybrid cars.However,if you want to check the Vin of your car so have a look on isuzu vin number.

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