COAL Capsule:  Seven Toyota Vans – Livin’ LaVida Van-Life

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.