Since 1996, we’ve always had some version of a Toyota mini-van in our driveway. Some auto enthusiasts would be too embarrassed to admit that – not me. Count me as a van-fan. I’ve always respected and admired vehicles that do exactly what they were designed to do – and you can’t find a better vehicle to economically and efficiently transport people and stuff than a mini-van. Reliability has been our No.1 criteria when van shopping – and it’s likely not a surprise that we were drawn to Toyota. We’ve had seven to date over twenty-seven years – in a variety of different models. Here is an overview of each, and how I’d rank them. Pictures are representative examples from the web.
1980 Town Ace: In 1996 we were living on Okinawa, and had a six and a two year old – and were perfect candidates for a van. We only anticipated being on Okinawa for three years, so our search was confined to cheap wheels. A large used car dealership outside our military base had plenty of choices, but I zeroed in on the cheapest – a 1980 Town Ace. It was pretty worn with over 120K kilometers but ran well. After a short negotiation, we agreed on $850 and I drove it off the lot. After about six months I realized that I made a mistake – the driver’s seat lacked sufficient rear travel and was just too cramped – I couldn’t get comfortable. It had its fair share of rattles too. Never failed to start though.
Rank: #7 – probably OK in its time but a little too small and worn by the time I owned it.
1992 Town Ace Royal Lounge: Back to the same dealer we went to look for something bigger and newer. Fortunately, a low mileage Town Ace had arrived that week with only 40K kilometers. It was pretty much everything the former van was not – larger and nicer on the inside and it had the 1.8 fuel-injected gas inline four with a 4-spd auto (the other one had a 1.6 carbureted four/3-spd). The middle seats would rotate allowing face-to-face rear seating, and it had dual sunroofs. It even came with the lace half-seat covers and drapes. The dealer took the old van back and I gave him $2000. We happily drove it for the remaining two and a half years and were sorry to bid it farewell. But it did have one major drawback that I was never fully comfortable with – the forward control layout and the lack of frontal crash protection. It always made me a little nervous when driving.
Rank: #2 – a really nice van but I was always filled with trepidation that some Hino 10-ton dump truck would come over the centerline.
1990 Previa: Back in the US in 1999 we went van shopping again – and went directly to the nearest Toyota shop, once more looking for something used. There was one base-model 1990 Previa on the lot, with close to 100K miles, but other than that was in good shape. These older used Previas were so scarce and sought after (people tended to hold on to them) that the dealer was unwilling to budge much on price. We settled at $10K – an amount which I could have likely bought a much newer used Caravan/Voyager, Windstar, Odyssey, or Quest. Just like the previous vans, this one did its thing and gave us four years of trouble-free motoring. The only things I had to replace other than regular maintenance were the rear shocks at 110K miles and the starter at 120K.
Rank: #5 – Great van – it’s likely still running around Dayton somewhere.
1996 Estima Lucida: Returning to Japan in 2003, we needed both a car and a van. Japan has a plethora of small used car dealerships – reminding me of ’60’s America. We found one that had a really nice low-mileage 1992 Toyota Crown and a 1996 Estima Lucida. The Estima was the JDM name for the Previa – but Toyota offered two models in the home market – the Estima similar in size to the Previa and the Lucida/Emina which were 4.3 inches narrower and 2.8 inches shorter – easier to wheel around Japan’s narrow roads and also in a lower tax category. The dealer was willing to dicker so we left with both a Crown and an Estima for $7000. The Estima was fine mechanically but fairly well worn inside. The spouse drove it for a year then expressed an interest in something newer and nicer.
Rank #6 – Once again bulletproof mechanically but let down by a worn interior.
1999 Estima Lucida: Somewhat similar to our experience on Okinawa years before, we found a much nicer Estima at one of Japan’s larger national used car dealerships. It had less miles and was a higher trim level – we paid $8000. It gave eight years of trouble-free service when the spouse again got the itch for something newer.
Rank: #4: Not to be repetitive but another great van – I saw it about six months ago here in Tokyo still looking pristine and going strong.
2007 Estima: I’ve always thought the Previa/Estima’s rounded shape was attractive – but the third-generation was in my view a real home run. Just very sleek, and how often can you say that about a van. Besides the styling, two things stood out; 1) the interior was miles ahead of the previous Gen 1 vans – almost Lexus-level quality, and 2); it had the 2GR-FE 3.5 liter V6 putting out 270 hp and 260 ft lbs of torque. It was the first time the wife’s car was quicker than mine. Another eight years of trouble-free driving. So why did I sell it? Well, the spouse cut it a little too close leaving a parking lot in downtown Tokyo putting a good-sized crease down the side from the front quarter panel to the rear, to include a few tears. It would have cost a fortune to fix.
Rank: #1: The pinnacle of our van ownership.
2017 Sienta: It’s 2020, and the kids have all flown the coop – but we’re now assisting the wife’s elderly parents, one who uses a wheelchair, so a van is still the vehicle of choice. In replacing the Estima, we wanted something tidier dimension-wise so we settled on Toyota’s smallest JDM three-row seven-passenger van – the Sienta. We found a nice, low-mileage one at the Toyota dealer. It’s fine for the wife and her parents but a little too constricted for me. It’s certainly innovative in terms of its use of space – the third row seats fold underneath the second row leaving a flat floor. The 1.5 liter 2NR-FKE engine is also interesting – it uses Toyota’s “Variable Valve Timing – Intelligent” which permits operation in the Atkinson cycle, and a fairly high compression ratio of 13.5:1.
Rank: #3: Very nice and space efficient, but a little too small for my long torso. Not a real fan of the front end either.
Summary: It’s still hard for me to believe that a guy that lusted after 428 Cobra Jet Mustangs in his youth has spent 27 years driving Japanese-made, box-like, mommy-mobiles. Life takes unexpected turns. But these Toyota vans have served my family and I well – and none of them failed to start or left us stranded. Even the ‘90 model gave early warnings of needing shocks and a starter so they could get replaced before failing. Each one earned my utmost respect, and a couple actually elicited a little passion.
The 1986 Pontiac Trans Sport concept, appeared to significantly influence Previa and Previa variant styling, as much as the GM concept impacted the production Trans Sport.
I remember when I was living in London (E7) in the ’90s to 2013 the ‘grey’ import Estima Lucida and Eminas at least equalled if not outnumbered the Previas, probably for the same reason as in Japan given the number of busy and relatively narrow roads.
I visited Japan with my wife about a decade ago and was van-struck by all of the cool Japanese vans that we never got here in the US. Some were full sizers like the Ace, and others were tinier Kei vans that look perfect for an adventurous single person.
Of all the vans listed here, I have a soft spot for the Previa, because it’s the only one I got to drive. A friend’s mother had it when we grew up in the 90s, and it eventually became his when we reached motoring age. We took it everywhere, to Joshua Tree and Tahoe. It was a little slow and underpowered, but it drove like a champ. It had a bizarre, mid-engine design that probably made it a challenge to work on, but how much work does a Toyota minivan need?
I will happily count myself as a member of your minivan fan club. Had I lived in Japan, it would have been hard for me to pass up one of the several generations of Japanese Odysseys (with the hinged doors) that were newer versions of the 1996 version I owned in the US.
I came late to the minivan party, but am still having a great time.
Count me as another minivan fan. We’re on our second now, though no Toyotas yet.
And like you, I find it amusing that a longtime car enthusiast such as myself would become a fan of one of the auto world’s most utilitarian market segments.
But these things are just so dang versatile. Our family of four takes several long-distance trips per year, and no other vehicle can match a minivan’s utility for those trips, especially when factoring in the generally reasonable cost.
Our 2010 Odyssey now has 155,000 mi., and serves as my daily driver. Meanwhile, our 2018 Sedona has 65,000 mi. and has been to 38 US states.
Oh, and I find myself longing for that 2007 Estima… if a vehicle like that was available in the US, I think our next vehicle purchase would be settled!
We looked at Honda and Toyota Minivans before we bought our Town & Country. My wife and I are very different sizes and it’s hard to find vehicles that we can both comfortably drive. We spanned 17 years with 3 minivans. One bought new, two bought used. When our eldest went off to college we no longer needed regular seating for 5 and decided that we’d just rent on those rare occasions that we do. Minivan’s are still our vehicle of choice when we rent for a family trip.
It’s well known that I consider vans/boxes the epitome of automotive evolution. I’ve been driving them since 1975, starting with my ’68 Dodge A100.
I really wanted a Previa in 1992, but got outvoted for a Grand Caravan. Three transmissions and four ABS pumps later, I wish I’d been a bit firmer at the time. But I still liked the GC.
There’s still a pretty healthy number of Previas here, and I’ve seen one or more JDM import Esteemas in town.
I have a 91 Previa with half a million kilos on it, what a great van.. Funny how Chrysler pumped out 100 times more minivans than the Previa but you never see them on the road anymore but I usually see a Previa once a week. I worked in a transmission shop 20 years ago and sometimes the whole shop was filled with Chrysler minivans but we never saw Pevias.. Quality over quantity
Price. Vastly more Chrysler vans here in Ottawa and Toronto, as the Chrysler vans were much more affordable.
Count me in as a minivan fan also. Replaced our ’84 Cougar with a new Dodge Caravan when we had our third kid. Kept that 10 years, then I found a van to really please me, a ’97 Town and Country LXI. It was really a nice van, with four doors and Capt’s chairs, rear air etc. I kept that for almost ten years, but after 100k, had quite a bit of trouble with the transmissions, note plural. Until then I loved it and it was great for family trips.
Vans are great for carrying passengers, but prior to Stow and Go, I had to wrestle the seats out for large loads. I wanted a more wagon like vehicle that I could just fold down the rear seat, so I tried an older Ford Explorer. I will admit that the van was more practical for passengers, and got better gas mileage, but Home Depot trips for lumber were much easier with the SUV.
I never paid any attention to the soccer mom stigma, my vans did their jobs, and I enjoyed driving them. A van usually has the most spacious and easiest access third row seat.
I’ve always had multiple vehicles, so I have a long bed F150 for serious work, and a couple of Mustang convertibles for fun. I’ve got my Ford Flex as my primary daily, the good car. It combines the best features of a van with easy access to the first two rows of seats, and the seats all fold for an almost level load floor. The footroom in the third row is kind of tight for adults, if I needed to use the third row regularly, I’d have stayed with a minivan. I’ve also got my big SUV which is one of my hobby cars, and I enjoy driving it. Gas mileage is only a few mpgs less than I used to get with my minivans. You can call me Mr. Feather Foot.
I understand the base etymology, but I’m not surprised Toyota didn’t use the Emina name in the US.
Thank you for the nice and informative article. The question I have and perhaps it deserves its own article is, how did your used car buying experiences overseas differ from those in the US?
They were fairly similar in both locations. The biggest difference was used cars in Japan are much more plentiful and cheaper than in the US, even today.
Most Japanese smaller used car dealerships were willing to negotiate on price – which is different from buying a new car where negotiating doesn’t typically occur.
Estimas of all ages are still common here people with medium to large families buy these EX JDM vans and just run them into the ground they buy another Nissan vans have become popular too you can get a range of engines in them a fried had one with the 3.5 V6 thats used in Skylines but it drank fuel so now she has a Previa hybrid
a mate of mine bought a Estima with a factory invalid lift seat his father is nearly imobile but his father hates it so its now doing grandkid duty.
Great article, I too have the love that usually dareth not speak its name. We were firmly in the “no vans for us, thank you” camp until we actually tried one. Funny how that works….A week in a rental Dodge Caravan with two little kids (our two little kids at the time, to be clear) in the Niagara Falls area around 2007 had us looking for a van soon after getting home. The first was an ’05 Sienna which was surprisingly powerful and supremely comfortable but was sadly lost in a house fire. Then a Honda Odyssey more out of a curiosity if we were missing out on something Honda-magic related (we weren’t), it too served us well for a few years. Its biggest negative was only being FWD, even with winter tires it wasn’t that great in the snow/ice.
Having driven the current Sienna (Hybrid only) and the Chrysler Pacifica Plug-in hybrid, I can’t (myself) imagine purchasing new either the Odyssey or the Kia Carnival nowadays, both our minivans were on the thirsty side and getting 30+mpg in a van was a revelation. Most minivan buyers aren’t shopping them for the much more than adequate performance, might as well give them fuel economy.
Here’s your #1, in gold. 🙂
I’m salivating at all these minivans not available here in Canada partly because of the taste of u.s. customers for suv .Even the dubious reliability of an nv200 is no longer available . We are not even able to get the a wagon Corolla . Only thing of interest is a hybrid Sienna but rank unobtanium by price and availability.
For the last 26 years I have had Toyota vans. The first was a 1985 Toytota Van, the Hi Ace in the rest of the world. A hand me down from my cousin, it was a understeering bucking bronco that I loved to drive as fast as I could on the curves of highway 1. That is to say, I liked to keep up with traffic! Perfect in town cargo or passenger vehicle, acceptable ride if loaded on smooth roads, otherwise a bit uncomfortable, but what a cargo hauler! Carried a motorcycle inside no problem, lots of hold downs, seats came out easily. Rear hatch was big, as was the dent i the side door. Pretty good mileage with the 5 speed manual, and there was no shame in driving with the foot to the floor as it was so slow otherwise. It was a magnet for thieves, broken into many times, via the sliding window, and stolen 4 times. Always recovered, usually drivable. Finally moved up to the Previa in 2014? A completely different car! Very little understeer, best handling minivan I have ever driven or been in. Terrible cargo vehicle. Rear hatch is smaller than what will fit inside. Automatic and supercharged, so 18 mpg is a good day. Much safer, though not especially safe to crash. Huge front windshield and rather obtrusive A posts. Thought it had 200,000 miles, it has been much more reliable than the Van, though I hardly ever drive it. I love the oval shape.
I have spent a lot of time rafting, kayaking, camping, and I find it odd that folks buy SUVs but hardly ever go off road. A mini van is way more practical, but just not butch enough for most.
I really liked this phrase, …”and a fairly high compression ratio of 13.5:1.” When is the compression ratio high? How far engines have come since VW’s whose 7:1 compression ratio was normal!