(first posted 8/3/2015) Rover Sterling. Ford Scorpio. Nissan Cube. These are all cars that have been successful in one market, but have flopped in another. You can add to that list the Toyota Previa/Tarago. Toyota’s daringly styled and intriguingly packaged minivan failed to eke out a significant portion of minivan market share in North America, and yet simultaneously became Australia’s best-selling minivan for many years.
Of course, the minivan segment has never been a big segment in Australia. There doesn’t even seem to be accord as to what to call them. “Minivan” is becoming more popular, but automakers seem to like “MPV” and journalists like “people mover”. We followed the American market in embracing the SUV, but we never really mimicked the minivan explosion of the 1980s.
Australia received no Mopar minivans until 1997, and the equally significant Renault Espace never arrived. Commercial van-based offerings didn’t die out as they did in America, and well into the 1990s you could buy an unsafe “people mover” fashioned out of a delivery van and wearing a Mitsubishi, Nissan or Toyota badge. The 1983 Toyota Tarago (Van in America) was based on a delivery van, but for 1991 would shift to an entirely new platform which shared only its name. Toyota’s American arm wisely decided “Van” wasn’t a satisfactory name for this daring new vehicle, and dubbed it Previa.
Toyota’s first proper minivan was conceived during an unprecedented time of experimentalism and creativity in the Japanese automotive industry. Rather than simply fashion a garageable van out of an existing passenger car platform, à la the Mopar minivans, Toyota got creative.
Visually, the Previa/Tarago looked like nothing else. Designed by Calty, Toyota’s California design studio, the new minivan was rounded and curvy like no van had ever been before. It was also more aerodynamic than most passenger cars, with a Cd of 0.33. The interior featured a sweeping dash that curved outwards in the middle, a design aspect that was simultaneously stylish and ergonomic. Five or seven-seat layouts were available, and an eight-seater option was available in some markets. Seven-seat vans could either have two swivelling captain’s chairs in the middle row, or an offset bench.
In the Japanese domestic market, there were 4.3 inch narrower variants available, known as the Estima Emina and Estima Lucida. These vans were also 2.8 inches shorter, and the smaller dimensions allowed these vans to fall into a lower vehicle tax band in Japan.
A lot of these JDM Estimas have wound up in Australia and New Zealand, and are commonly used as camper vans for backpackers. The narrower body also makes them look a little more conventional.
It wasn’t just the ovate styling that made these vans unique. Underneath, the engine lay flat underneath the floor between the front seats. Regularly serviced items like the cooling fan, air-conditioner compressor, power steering pump and alternator were mounted in front for easy accessibility, as was an oil reservoir.
This layout was unconventional but it aided practicality. Front leg room was abundant and occupants could walk between the rows of seats thanks to a flat cabin floor. There were plenty of practical features in the interior, like a rear bench that split in two. The halves could be folded up against the side of the cabin. A flat load space could then be created with room for a 4×8 sheet of plywood. One major downside of the engine layout was it necessitated removing one of the front seats to change the spark plugs.
All this body made for a heavy minivan. With all-wheel-drive, the Previa/Tarago weighed a portly 3780 lbs. A 2.4 DOHC four-cylinder engine provided the motivation to either the rear wheels or all four wheels. Although this was a decently powerful four-cylinder for the time – its 138 hp and 154 lb-ft not far off its contemporary rivals’ V6 engines – it had a tough time moving the van with any authority. The best it could muster was a 0-60 of 13.6 seconds when equipped with the optional all-wheel-drive, although fortunately it had a decent amount of low-end pull. Transmission choices were a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual.
About the only low-tech aspects of the Previa/Tarago were their live rear axle and rear drum brakes, although up-spec models in Australia and other markets received an independent rear suspension and rear discs. However, even with the live axle, all Previas boasted a smooth ride and car-like handling. Weight distribution was a near-even 52/48% front/rear. Anti-roll bars featured front and rear, and the front suspension was a MacPherson strut setup. The van’s excellent weight distribution and low center of gravity provided neutral handling with an inclination towards understeering.
The innovative layout had one major flaw, though: it didn’t allow for larger engines, which proved to be a problem in the American market. The first Mopar minivans may have been propelled by four-cylinder engines, but by the Previa’s launch there were various V6 options. Toyota’s solution was to supercharge the engine for 1994, upping power to 161 hp and 201 lb-ft with little penalty to fuel economy; an automatic was the only transmission, as the manual was dropped for 1993 and the naturally-aspirated engine would depart shortly thereafter.
At launch, the Previa was priced slightly above rivals like the Mazda MPV and Chevrolet Lumina APV. By the end of the Previa’s run, the rising yen had forced up the price: a base model was around $24k, $7k above the base Plymouth Voyager and lineball with the more powerful and luxuriously-appointed Chrysler Town & Country.
The rising yen and the commensurately soaring price of the Tarago spurred Toyota to offer a budget offering in the Australian market. The 1993 Spacia was simply a TownAce van with windows, and thus was little more than the first-generation Tarago/Van with more aerodynamic styling. Despite its lower price – a whopping $AUD10k lower – it was outsold considerably by the pricey Tarago. The high price of the Tarago seemed to be no roadblock to segment domination. The discontinuation of the all-wheel-drive variant did little harm to the Tarago’s sales figures: it would continue to dominate the admittedly niche minivan segment in Australia, before the first-generation Kia Carnival (Sedona), Honda Odyssey and Chrysler Voyager would start to chip away at its sales. It didn’t help that the Tarago stuck around mostly unchanged until it was finally replaced in 2000.
The Previa would disappear from North America after 1997. The much more conventional, Camry-based Sienna minivan was engineered for the American market; it featured more sedate styling and a standard V6 engine.
While its virtues were appreciated in markets like Australia, the Previa/Tarago was a rare flop for rising juggernaut Toyota. It had excellent build quality, a spacious interior, competent dynamics and striking styling in its favor, but its unique engine layout proved to be its Achille’s Heel. The platform just wasn’t flexible enough, and Toyota couldn’t even amortize costs across a range of vehicles.
The parallels with its GM rivals – the Chevrolet Lumina APV, Oldsmobile Silhouette and Pontiac Trans Sport – are clear to see. Chrysler had created a whole new segment in America, and everyone else was playing catch-up. Both GM and Toyota thought that the way to succeed in the market was to be different. Toyota went with a mid-engined, egg-shaped van, and GM went with a dustbuster-shaped van with plastic body panels. Neither idea was bad, per se, but it wasn’t what the market wanted.
The next-generation vans to wear the Previa and Tarago names in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region would, like their American Sienna counterpart, be based on the Camry platform. Toyota had engineered new vans that would be well-received by consumers in all markets. None of these next-generation minivans were particularly innovative or exciting but they sold well, and the Sienna in particular would prove to be far more successful than the Previa ever was in the American market. Chrysler had determined the correct formula for a successful minivan in America: spacious with simple styling and an available V6. Those that didn’t follow the formula were destined to fail.
N.B. The featured Previa was yet another minivan I shot in my old, minivan-crazy neighborhood of Washington Heights in Manhattan. The Tarago was shot in beautiful New Farm Park in Brisbane.