Traction control for minivans?

Sad to say, my good running, very high mileage 1999 Toyota Sienna is beginning to feel tired. So the time has come to let it be my in-town “truck” and buy something with more power for road trips and higher elevations.

First choice – by far – is another Sienna. That’s based on my experience with this one, and because I’ve found a “Toyota only” specialty shop that I like and trust. But oh - the prices on used cars!!!

In my search for first or second-generation Siennas, I’ve seen reference to “traction control,” but I would think that only applies to 4 wheel drive vehicles. Is that correct? Maybe I’m mistaken, but I think I’ve seen this in a few ads for 2wd second-gen Siennas. Can anyone clarify this?

If some kind of traction assist is an option for 2wd minivans, what does it do? Is it all hype, or is it actually useful in snow or ice, or that odd spot where you stumbled into mushy ground and can’t pop out without a tow? Or on a very steep slope that’s not paved? (Been there, heard the tires slipping, but dodged the bullet).

BTW: my odometer shows 326,371 – but that’s misleading. The instrument cluster came from a junkyard 6 years ago because the original odo was blank when I took a chance on this car.

But info I acquired recently from the dealership that had serviced this car since new until a year before I bought it, suggested that the car had 10 or 15 thousand more miles on it than the replacement cluster I bought. So it’s probably closer to 335 or 340k. Yet it starts easily, oil consumption is trivial, and gas mileage is 23-24 mpg on highway, even with a kayak on the roof.

Next week I’m going to treat it to having the carpeting professionally cleaned at a local detail shop. Just because…

Traction Control isn’t really a good name for it, but that’s what everyone calls it.

What it does, is if it senses one wheel spinning it reduces engine power and also applies partial brake to the spinning wheel to try and get both drive wheels to rotate at the same speed.

It’s considered a safety feature and all newer vehicles have it.


Thanks @It_s-Me.

So is this modern solution equivalent in effectiveness to “limited slip differentials” in old muscle-cars?

My first thought on what you wrote was that braking the spinning wheel would be counter-productive, but I assume it’s just so much more sophisticated that it might be superior. Are they creating the same effect as posi-traction?

In 1964, my dad bought a Chevy Impala 4 door sedan. He had to wait two months for it because he wanted posi-traction. Shortly after we took delivery, a few hours into a new snowstorm, he said let’s go try it on the steep road right behind our house. We used to hear cars on that hill in the snow all winter long, their wheels spinning wildly, mostly going nowhere.

So that night, dad pulled up to the bottom of the hill…and stopped. He wanted to be cautious before he committed to being part way up and sliding down backwards and out-of-control. The car marched up the slope as if it was on perfectly dry pavement.

He went maybe 15 feet and stopped on the slope. This was the test - starting on the hill with zero momentum.

The car just slowly marched on up the hill. We were amazed.

Two years later, with a shiny new driver’s license, I discovered something dad would never have tried: it was awesome for donuts in a snow covered empty parking lot!

Yes traction control is similar to limited slip , the mechanism is different but the effect is similar. Modern cars use the ABS system to reduce the speed of the spinning wheel, allowing the differential to power the non spinning wheel. It is very effective and an elegant way to improve traction. Traction control won’t overcome bad tires, decent tires are still required

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Modern traction control is light years ahead of the old limited slip differentials.

FWD cars can not have the same kind of limited slip differentials that were in old rear wheel drive cars back in the 60s and 70s. They would not turn well at all if they had them. There are gear-type limited slips (Torsen) that could be used but generally are not.

Engine based traction control has been around for 30 years. The engine and ABS based systems as @It_s-Me described have been around for nearly as long. Your Sienna might actually have traction control…there would be a button to disable it somewhere on the dash. Looks like the back of a little car with 2 squiggly lines below it.

A FWD minivan with 300 hp (the V6 Sienna) can do some serious burnouts without traction control. A lotta weight behind those front wheels when fully loaded and plenty of hp to break the tires loose.

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A first generation Sienna is going to be what you have now, and very possibly in worse condition. IMO you should look for a late second generation Sienna with low mileage. I would classify anything that old with 150,000 miles or less as low mileage. Also, used car prices are starting to come down. Since you already have one, you can afford to be picky. A private, one owner sale may give you the best chance for success. Don’t worry about traction control. I’ve never found it to be a problem and you can usually (always?) turn it off. A 3rd generation Sienna will be up to 14 years old and maybe you should expand your search to early 3rd gen vans.

Thanks all.

It sounds like traction control can be found on 2 wheel drive as well as 4wd. That was the key question I had, so I’ll pay more attention to that in my search. There’s no such button on my current car – I just checked to be sure.

I do sometimes venture into more remote places, so having a bit more traction available if needed would be good, but I’m not planning on boony-bashing. Now I know it’s a possibility, presumably an option on top level models. Given some of my excursions, it would be useful now and then, even close to home since we get snow and ice from time to time here at 2700 feet in the Sierra foothills (CA).

You described my preference: late 2nd gen with low mileage. To my surprise, I’m finding the occasional very low mileage first gen cars prices very similar to second gen (around $3500 - $5000). I’ve been leaning that way based on interior cargo capacity being about 18% greater than first gen (according to, while having more horsepower. Those differences would be valuable for my use of the car.

However I think I detected something in a youtube video about a CVT transmission issue in the early second gen – please correct me if I’m wrong since I’m not sure I heard that correctly. Maybe that’s why @jtsanders specified “late” second gen? If so, what year is the first one that’s beyond that issue?

I’m grateful for the comments.

Toyota used the U151E transmission in the FWD and U151F in the AWD. CVTs were never used in 2nd gen Siennas.


OK, thanks for the clarification @jtsanders.

But do you or anyone know anything about transmission issues for the first 2 or 3 years of second gen Sienna?

Also, many vehicles that have traction control also have Vehicle Stability Control, which is essentially an anti-skid system that utilizes the same technology as traction control, but it’s activated only if it detects that you are skidding, and can help to keep you on the road–rather than in a ditch. Because this feature reduces the incidence of collisions, many insurance companies will reduce your Collision premium by ~15%, so looking for a vehicle with this feature is a good idea.

Good info, thank you for explaining this.

Obviously, none of my previous vehicles had such things, but lately I had seen “stability control” in at least one for sale listing, and was likely to just google the term for a definition.

Electronic Stability Control automatically applies the brakes on individual wheels and allows the driver to stay in control of the vehicle.

If I’m in snow I turn the traction control off in my fwd, lest it steer me to the side of the road. Never had an issue with my awd the same way. My rwd posi traction would pretty much go through anything but had to be careful with cruise control on slippery roads.

As far as I’m concerned in winter, they can keep that worthless feature.

If I’m in snow I turn the traction control off in my fwd, lest it steer me to the side of the road.

How (and why) does this happen?

I’m imagining the value of traction control is for cases where you are stuck, not able to get out of a rut, or a patch of ice or snow or mud. What I’d want then is the opposite wheel get power in case it has better traction.

General Motors offered traction control in the 1970s. When wheel spin was detected, the ignition would intermittently “cut out”, resulting in reduced power to the spinning wheel. The EPA put an end to that practice due to the pollutants from the unburned gas.

I remember taking an early 70s Oldsmobile for a test drive after a repair. The car had a 455 cubic inch engine, with horsepower probably up near 400. It was a rainy day, and I could not get the car to spin the tires on acceleration. The intermittent ignition “cut out” worked quite well.

[Update: It might have been a Buick instead of an Olds. But I believe “auto-owner” below is right with the “MaxTrac” name.]

Oh dear the awful MaxTrac. An idea whose time had passed… even then.

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