After too long of a respite, let us resume our examination of the curious development of the American minivan. Yes, I know it has been a long time. Perhaps I was ground down by one failed attempt after another in tries to duplicate Chrysler’s success. Or perhaps it was an (extended) attention span problem. In any case, we are back with one of the most splendid failures in minivan-dom.
Did I just use the words “failure” and “Toyota” in the same paragraph? Yes I did. But let us make this one thing clear: This Previa was not a failure in and of itself. It was actually pretty fabulous in many ways. But when the yardstick is the iconic Chrysler minivan of the 1990’s (and the kinds of sales numbers they racked up year after year) the Previa was certainly not a success, in the way success would have been measured by American Toyota dealers back in the day.
When we left off, Chrysler was The Minivan King. All comers, large and small had tried to wrestle the crown from the company. But none of them got even close to Chrysler’s kind of success. Ford and GM tried smaller versions of big vans. Honda tried a bigger version of its popular Accord. GM tried a second track with the spacetastic dustbusters. Then Ford and Nissan tried to combine the best America and Japan had to offer. Each found its niche, but those manufacturers were not aiming to build niche vehicles. They wanted the multi-hundred-thousand-annual-unit kind of acceptance that Chrysler had lucked into. Bzzzzt – Sorry, thanks for playing.
Toyota had actually been one of the very first to join Volkswagen in offering a small van in 1980’s America. Its cleverly named “Toyota Van” was a variant on the Japanese TownAce and came to market at roughly the same time as Lee Iacocca’s Magic Wagon. It did not take long for all to see that Chrysler had found the secret sauce while Toyota had not.
In coming up with the Previa, Toyota had the luxury of hindsight to understand the way Chrysler’s concept of the minivan had been like a gold strike in the U.S. This was undoubtedly why Toyota’s Calty Design Research facility in Newport Beach, California was tapped in the project to come up with a successful minivan. After much work with trucks and sporty cars, this appears to have been Calty’s first effort at a serious, mainstream vehicle.
Calty began with a clean sheet – something that Chrysler had never had the luxury of doing in the early 1980’s. It is not unreasonable to assume that Toyota had the same idea that GM had grasped: Chrysler designed its minivan as a compromise, born of available platforms and unavailability of funds. How much more successful could a minivan be if it began with a fresh concept that went to the next level (as everyone is so fond of saying).
And the Previa was nothing if not “next level.” Using a layout shared with nothing else the company built, the Previa would be a rear drive setup with its 2.4 liter four mounted amidships below the van’s floor. Certain service items would be under the tiny hood up front but most of the van’s space would be devoted to the family in a dimension package that compared closely to that of the Chrysler triplets.
The vehicle would be built in Japan beginning in 1990. In addition to a U.S. version (first sold here as a 1991 model) the van would be offered in multiple markets around the world.
Design-wise, the van was an unmitigated success. It was as durable and trouble-free as anything the company made, and possessed a balance from the mid-engine design that made it a highly engaging drive. It was comfortably fitted out, and even luxurious in its higher trim levels.
The van was available in an all-wheel-drive version as well, and for those who sought more power there was a supercharged version of the basic four that bumped power from 138 bhp to 161.
Beyond the car’s winning chassis was its groundbreaking looks. Remember that the Previa was in showrooms five years before the third generation Chrysler minivans , so this highly aerodynamic ovoid was like nothing else on the market. And unlike the GM dustbusters, the Previa did not waste a lot of space under an oddly exaggerated hood and windshield. So Toyota had assembled the total package – A thoughtful and solid chassis, a practical and useful interior that was comfortable and attractive, all rolled into a daringly styled van. But.
U.S. sales figures tell the sad tale. The long 1991 model year would be the best-ever for the Previa, with a significant drop every year thereafter. Until the third generation Chrysler effort came along for 1996. That was when U.S. Previa sales went into a free fall, generating numbers that would have embarrassed AMC or Studebaker in their final years. For comparison, the three flavors of minivans from Chrysler managed sales of around 395,000 in the recession year of 1991 (all numbers coming from carsalesbase.com).
So what happened? How did one of the biggest and most successful companies, at the top of its game and with all the resources it could want manage such a poor showing?
Was it the lack of V6 power? To the American consumer of the 1990s the V6 engine had become the equivilent to the V8 engine of the 1950s. Never mind that Toyota’s supercharged four was more powerful than Chrysler’s 144 bhp V6. Though in fairness, the heaviest versions of the Previa outweighed the portliest Chryslers by six or seven hundred pounds. In the popular view, “everybody knew” that six cylinders was better than four, especially for the prices Toyota was charging. This was an un-solvable problem in that there was simply no room to accommodate a V6 in the engine bay. At least not without turning the interior into something that resembled an inboard-powered ski boat with its large engine housing in the middle of the seating area.
And about those prices. The Previa was a really, really expensive proposition. In 1995 (to pick an example) the basic DX model started at $23,338. A high end model with AWD and the supercharged engine carried a base sticker of $31,568 – with plenty of opportunity for added options. In contrast, a really loaded AWD Grand Caravan could be had for about $5k less, certainly enough to pay for the eventual transmission rebuild and any other post-warranty repairs the Dodge buyer might experience. Even my 1994 Ford Club Wagon Chateau, built with virtually every option Ford would hang onto it, could not get the sticker price up to $30,000.
It is arguable that in the Previa Toyota built one of the best minivans ever. They were comfortable, well-built vehicles that have often racked up insanely high miles for their owners. But the typical American minivan buyer was not interested in a high-priced van that would run for 500,000 miles. That buyer was interested in a reasonably priced van that would ferry the kids to ball practice and dance lessons and the rest of the family on cross-country vacations until it started to get a little old and grungy, when it would be traded on a new one.
Toyota would, of course, eventually discover this formula for the Camry and Corolla – cars that have been perennials on the best-seller lists. And it would put the lessons learned from the Previa to work on the Previa’s successor, a van that would finally join the VIP circle of minivan makers.
However, for most of the 1990’s Toyota would find that the answer to the question asked in this series was “Harder than it looks.”
Previous Installments of the How Hard Can It Be series