February 28, 2011 By Kevin C. Limjoco

2011 Toyota Alphard 3.5

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Words by: Kevin C. Limjoco    Photos by: Kevin C. Limjoco and Isabel N. Delos Reyes

Living Large

I can understand now why Toyota chose the brightest star in the constellation Hydra as the name and inspiration of their flagship luxury MPV, the Alphard. Toyota really aimed very high since 2002 to create the most luxurious mini-van possible for the Asian and Middle Eastern markets. Finally, the model range is available in left-hand drive so we can enjoy what the other markets have been riding and driving in for years. In the US, this duty falls on the shoulders of the Sienna, which shouldn’t be confused with the Alphard or its even more exclusive sibling, the Vellfire. Although both vehicles are mini-vans/MPVs and are based on reinforced Camry platforms with torsion beam rear suspensions instead of independent systems, the Sienna is significantly larger and heavier to accommodate the needs of US consumers.

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In other markets, consumers have further choices aside from powerplants; they get to choose trim and seating configurations from 4 to 7 and 8 seating capacities broken down to three distinct models, which can also have 4WD systems on some units. The Alphard G uses the 2.4 liter engine, the Alphard V uses the 3.5 liter V6 and then there is even an Alphard Hybrid, which has a long list of amazing kit.

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I’ve been a big fan of minivans for years since my university days; they are so practical and comfortable. In the early 90’s, I put in over 30,000 kilometers on a family-owned 2nd generation Dodge Grand Caravan with a 3.3-liter V6 that only produced 150bhp and 180 lb.ft of torque. I learned to appreciate the merits of the Dodge through my father who genuinely enjoyed the effortless long distance comforts and the commodious interior space, which we used heavily through the years transporting loads of people and cargo. The Chrysler group under Lee Iacocca and Hal Sperlich are the fathers of the modern minivan but I have to recognize that the Japanese have taken the concept even further with the Koreans not far behind.

Let’s not forget that the concept as well as the actual vehicle type breathed life in Europe first since 1950 with the Volkswagen Type 2, or more affectionately known as the Kombi. It and other vehicles like it in the US and Europe were categorized as minibuses or full vans though, and were mostly used for commercial purposes. Sporadically, the Europeans have thrown in a few, great products besides the iconic VW Vanagons, like the brilliant Renault Espace range which is only a few months younger than the American Dodge/Chrysler minivans and the Lancia Phedra. But their markets do not extend in significant numbers to Asia and North America.

Some of my fondest memories as a kid in the 70’s to the early 80’s was riding in the back of a 1st generation Dodge B-series Ram Van and a 2nd generation Ford Econoline, both were custom vans of my friends, which we would use to go to the beach or shuttle from village to village around the city. There is something about vans that make passengers, especially children feel at home almost instantly, and that something is space. Well, the wall-to-wall carpeting helped too, in my case as a kid!

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Now the execution of that space is the single most alluring feature of the new Alphard. Whether in 2.4 or 3.5 guise, the second row captain’s chairs and unique to the model front passenger seat have fabulous ottomans! This feature alone makes most adults swoon! But wait, the Previa also has the second row ottomans too, but they’re not as opulent as the units in the Alphard, the simple analogy is likened to a commercial airline’s First and Business class seats. That extra 2 inches of legroom and wonderful 5 inches of headroom compared to the Previa makes the Alphard feel like it’s a rolling apartment. The standard dual moonroofs and full cabin interior ambient lighting further exploits the sensation of roominess and luxury but in a very tasteful and elegant manner.

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Compared to its Korean competition, the Hyundai Grand Starex Limousine, both have their strengths and weaknesses. The larger Hyundai is PhP 297,000.00 cheaper than our cover test vehicle and is based on the multi-award winning new Starex, which is still the best in its full-size van class and does have a long list of standard equipment too from a huge LCD TV screen to its own yacht-like custom fitment and excellent CRDi engine. However, it has its own set of waterloos or deal breakers. The first issue is its height and how it was achieved. The Starex in this form can enter fewer garages and looks exactly as it is, an afterthought. Ironically, the Limousine is not only the tallest Starex but also the model with the least road clearance too because of the added bodywork and stepboards further limiting the destinations/intended routes of the vehicle. Sadly, the top range Starex can easily be perceived by the uninitiated as a knock-off and looks even cheaper than its siblings. Though the custom seats do function better than stock, they are hardly elegant and look inappropriate. The extra weight and custom fitments, which remove the more rigid metal roof, also create more flex and interior noise, which isn’t luxurious and is certainly less safe. The standard window blinds look nice as long as you don’t handle them often, as they are really flimsy.

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There are a lot of new gadgets too, the Starex Limo also has a navigational system, although it barely works, is not integrated and looks very cheap. The audio/video unit cannot be accessed or manipulated remotely from the steering wheel either, which is both an inconvenience and a safety issue. Then, there is the actual audio and video quality, which are both sadly subpar; the large screen only makes the flaws even more obvious. A high-definition LCD screen means nothing if you cannot play HD material and the sound quality is also hugely disappointing even when playing music with very little depth and very narrow range. The Starex Limousine is supposed to be the epitome of passenger comfort; it falls far short of that. I would recommend you stick to the top range Gold variant of the Starex to fulfill your needs for a capacious multi-purpose full size van.

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Then you have the graymarket/import offerings. We still have in our C! Fastfleet a tuned 2005 Nissan Quest SE, which at the time of importation had cost PhP 2.6 million, fully tax paid and brand new. We imported it in ourselves and regretted it a couple of years later. You see, the Quest was the best minivan in the US in terms of size, design, and speed, so we felt we had to have it. We fell into the same trap that many consumers do. There is no warranty, registration every year is a royal pain, no Nissan dealer nor the plant can service it, and only Car Shack car shop can keep it running on public roads. The car was built for US driving conditions so even with only the equivalent of 40,000 kilometers on the odometer after 6 years, it has already had its brakes replaced 3 times (rotors and pads), the tires changed 3 times and a myriad of things fixed every year. It may still be a standout in the crowd but I wouldn’t recommend getting another.

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I bring this up because the going rate of a dubiously tax paid top of the line 2011 Toyota Sienna 3.5 V6 in the gray market ranges from PhP3.5 to PhP3.7 million WITHOUT the security of a factory warranty. The Sienna looks great and drives extremely well to be sure, but it was designed to be driven specifically in the US, which means the suspension, brakes, electrical system, cooling system and fuel system have been calibrated and deliberately tuned for 4 seasons, lower humidity, and crucially, superior road surfaces and driving conditions-more highway than traffic. Buy at your own risk. Save the money and get the Alphard 3.5, which has 90% of the Sienna for less money backed by a 3-year factory warranty.

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The commonly asked questions by our readers are, “isn’t the Alphard just a higher-end version of the current Previa?” and “which is more opulent/better, the new Sienna or the new Alphard?” Well, here are the straight answers folks: the Alphard does share the same basic platform of the Previa amazingly, however, without putting a significant amount of additional weight, less than a hundred pounds, the Alphard is longer, wider and much taller with a massive improvement in drivetrain and comfort as tested here on these pages.

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For short mostly city commutes, the 2.4-liter four cylinder in the standard Alphard is sufficient with the same engine and transmission of the Previa, but we recommend our cover vehicle powered by the excellent 3.5-liter V6 engine and 6-speed transmission for maximum enjoyment and value for those who will do more than that. The Alphard 2.4 is certainly more luxurious than its Previa counterpart but for a heck of a lot more money. The 3.5-liter version mostly just adds the far superior engine and transmission with a Navigation feature as a bonus, but this drivetrain precisely sets the Alphard apart from anything offered officially in the country. The 3.5-liter V6 in the Alphard is even more potent than the unit used in the US-only Sienna V6, which weighs over 200 pounds more. The larger Sienna is ultimately better than the Alphard but like I mentioned earlier, it is not sold officially in the Philippines.

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Even considering that only 1 out of 10 buyers will be driving their Alphard, I still strongly suggest buying the 3.5-liter version, and I can’t say it enough. You will generally consume less fuel because of the better power-to-weight ratio and the efficiency of the 6-speed transmission, which allows better control of the car’s powerband. The engine note and effortlessness of the Alphard in motion also contributes to its intended purpose.

Now, for that 1% that do want to personally enjoy their investment, you will be rewarded with an excellent family minivan that drives vastly better than any minivan/van I have ever driven or owned. In the past 9 years alone, the C! Fastfleet has had three Chrysler Town & Country’s, two Mercedes-Benz V-Classes, a VW Caravelle, three Ford E150s, and five Hyundai Starexes besides the Quest. The Alphard 3.5 outclasses them all and the current offerings in the entire market. The Alphard 3.5 seems to drive with the same smooth but potent thrust of the Camry 3.5Q even if the same engine is carrying a lot more ballast. I didn’t mind that the rear suspension used is a torsion beam setup, the handling and agility will surprise you and the string of vehicles that you will pass climbing up a mountain road. The modestly sized brakes are overachievers and do their jobs without complaint. The steering feel and precision are the best in its class too.

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In the end though, it’s the other 9 buyers that will enjoy it the most as they are chauffeured around the country in their very own First Class cabin. Their guests or children too will love the versatile and comfortable seating, the power doors and trunk, the simple yet crucial feature of being able to have a fully functioning second row window, and the full entertainment system is fully integrated and works well. I only have three qualms, I wish the Alphard 3.5 had a reverse camera like the Mazda CX-9 and many other vehicles for better parking ease, a bigger trunk because all that comfort is used for the passengers which leaves very little room left for baggage, and a friendlier price. Ultimately, I know the new Toyota Alphard 3.5 is a home run because it was the first vehicle tested in years that had all my children begging me to buy one and they are my staunchest critics.

Specification – 2011 Toyota Alphard 3.5
Engine: V6
Location: Front, transverse
Displacement: 3456cc
Cylinder block: Aluminum alloy
Cylinder head: Aluminum alloy, dohc per bank
4 valves per cylinder, Dual Variable Valve Timing-intelligent, VVT-i
Fuel and ignition: Multi-point Injection
Max power: 272 bhp @ 6200 rpm
Max torque: 250 lb ft @ 4700 rpm
Drag Coefficient: .34cd
Transmission: 6-speed Super ECT Automatic, FWD
Front suspension: Independent, MacPherson struts, coil springs, and anti-roll bar
Rear suspension: Coupled Torsion-beam and coil springs
L x W x H: 4850mm x 1830mm x 1905mm
Wheelbase: 2950mm
Fuel Tank: 65 liters (17.7 gallons)
Brakes: Front 1-piston Calipers Vented 11.6″ (295mm) discs and Rear 1-piston Calipers Solid 11″ (279mm) discs, ABS
Wheels: 6.5Jx16” Aluminum Alloy
Tires: 215/65R16 98H Toyo Tranpath R30
Weight: (kerb) 1800 kg. (3960 lbs.)
0-100 km/h: (0-62 mph) 8.6 seconds
Top speed: 196 km/h (123 mph)
Fuel Mileage: 9.5km. /L As tested overall
Price as tested: PhP 2,995,000.00
C! RATING 9.8/10

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