It's surprising that the normally creative Japanese have had so much trouble figuring out the formula for a successful minivan. Their products have been too small or too tall, underpowered or just plain strange in a niche where utility, function and safety are the guiding principles.
It looks like Toyota is about to finally crack the code with Sienna, its third-generation minivan due out this fall. Sienna will, in many ways, be a clone of the ever-popular Chrysler minivans, the market leaders and style-setters. Perhaps more important, it will be American-made, and that has both political and economic ramifications.
But some minivan fans aren't all that enthused about the arrival of the Sienna. There's a small, but loyal, following for Toyota's current entry into the market, the Previa. And with good reason.
The Previa's spaceship-shaped package is quirky, but far more functional, lavish and well-mannered than other Asian imports. True, the price tag of the Previa is high for the segment. But it is a Toyota, which means rugged reliability. And that's an important attribute in a vehicle that's bound to see use as the family bus. So, while it's tempting to dismiss a product entering its last year of life, the Previa is worth one last look.
Available in both DX and LE editions, we chose the upgraded LE with the All-Trac full-time All-Wheel-Drive system to test.
The unusually short nose gives an instant indication of one of the more unusual aspects of the Previa's design. Its engine is mounted almost amidship, under the front seats, and that has some pluses and minuses, as we'll get to shortly. The minivan's egg-shell shape improves its aerodynamics, which pays off in reduced wind noise and enhanced fuel economy. The ovoid shape's expansive glass area also yields excellent visibility.
If Previa's design is dated in any way, it's in the minivan's lack of a fourth door. That has become a must-have feature for most of today's buyers, a solid selling point for such competitors as the Honda Odyssey and Dodge Caravan.
It's clear that ergonomics weighed heavily on the minds of Toyota's interior engineers. Five separate stalks rise from the steering column, letting you tilt the wheel, turn on the wipers and lights, set the cruise control without having to move your hands very far. But it takes some groping around before you've grown familiar with where everything is located. Despite Previa's sci-fi styling, the instrument panel appears low-tech. There are only three gauges, for speed, temperature and fuel.
We had to gulp for air after looking at the $37,168 price tag on our test vehicle. It reflects the hefty penalty manufacturers must pay to import vehicles from Japan during the era of the strong yen. But it is also a result of some premium features, including the All-Trac all-wheel-drive system, a CD sound system, power-operated leather seats and center-row captain's chairs. Still, even a base Previa DX is no econobox at $25,228.
The one-size-fits-all body has plenty of room for passengers and cargo. There's a 32.5 cubic foot well behind the split bench rear seat, and just folding the bench out of the way adds an extra 30 cu. ft. In maximum cargo configuration, you'll have enough space for 157.8 cubic feet worth of boxes, bicycles or antiques.
Previa is cramped in one way. The center-mounted engine results in a much higher floor than on most minivans. It's possible, but not easy, to walk through from the front seats to the rear.
The minivan's extensive greenhouse allows plenty of visibility. That same visibility allows a lot of heat in from the sun. Fortunately, Toyota makes air conditioning standard equipment. There's also plenty of glass to defrost during the winter. And on an especially cold, damp morning, we put Previa's defroster to the test. It kept things clear, but only with the blower on full speed.
Dual airbags and side impact door beams are standard. But ABS is an option, something a bit hard to swallow considering Previa's base price.
The engine is smooth, but a bit noisy, especially under heavy acceleration. Though it set the standard in 1991, Previa is showing a bit of its age and some of its competitors have surpassed it in terms of overall noise levels.
By mounting the engine in the middle, Previa has a better front-to-back weight distribution--and that results in better-than-average balance and handling. The suspension is taut, at least by minivan standards, but did an amazingly good job of minimizing the impact from Michigan's vast pothole population.
Roadability is further improved by the available All-Trac all-wheel-drive system. We had the opportunity to test our Previa during one of Michigan's worst winter days and found it surprisingly sure-footed on unplowed roads, even more impressive given its stock all-season tires.
The mid-engine location does make things a little more difficult to service. And were it not for Toyota's reputation for bullet-proof powertrains underscored by Previa's real-world service record we might have considered this a fatal flaw. But the simple fact is you're not likely to find much reason to get into the engine during the normal ownership cycle. And Toyota has located all the critical fluid check points under the hood, where it's easy to gain access.
But there are good reasons to keep the Previa on your shopping list. It's got a solid, reliable powertrain that has stood the test of time. And with its optional All-Trac system, you'll have to work hard to get yourself stranded in a snow drift.
The styling is quirky, but you certainly won't look like you're driving yet another minivan clone.