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New Toyota minivan lets parents use built-in microphone to scream at unruly kids in back seats

DETROIT - Toyota wants to help you scream at your unruly kids.

The latest version of the company's Sienna minivan has a feature called "Driver Easy Speak." It uses a built-in microphone to amplify a parent's voice through speakers in the back seats.

Toyota says it added Easy Speak "so parents don't have to shout to passengers in the back." But chances are many parents will yell into the microphone anyway.

And the feature only works one way, so the kids can't talk back. At least not with amplified voices.

The feature is an option on the 2015 Sienna, which is being refreshed with a totally new interior. It also has an optional "pull-down conversation mirror" that lets drivers check on kids without turning around.

Automakers are trying to come up with creative ways to make the out-of-fashion minivan more appealing, said Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst at the Edmunds.com automotive website. Last year Honda unveiled a vacuum cleaner built into the back of its revamped Odyssey minivan that got a lot of attention.

Such features are important because there's little automakers can do to make the practical but bland vans more stylish, Caldwell said.

"I think they're on the right lines of trying to find these features that people are going to talk about," she said.

Minivan sales peaked at 1.37 million in 2000, but fell as low as 415,000 in 2009, when auto sales bottomed during the Great Recession. Sales have risen as the market rebounded, and last year people bought just under 519,000 of the vans. But Caldwell said the minivan share of the market now is holding steady at 3.4 per cent, less than half the share from peak years.

Some new products are entering the minivan market despite its decline. Ford is rolling out a new family hauler based on the Transit Connect small commercial van and Chrysler is working on a revamp of its Town & Country minivan.

Toyota is unveiling the new Sienna mainly through social media and at a Baltimore arts festival this weekend. It's due to hit showrooms in the fall.

"Driver Easy Speak" is available only on vans equipped with Toyota's Entune premium audio systems. Prices of the van and the voice feature were not announced.

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