Although somewhat demoralizing to car enthusiasts, it is nonetheless very understandable that the majority of consumers choose cars of more basic, conventional, humble, and for lack of a better term, “boring” nature. For the fact of the matter is, cars are purely a utilitarian object of transportation for most people, which explains why even in segments that prioritize practicality above all else, vehicles that attempt to break the mold with interesting or unique features that add little practical value most often fail. The Toyota Previa was one of those such vehicles.
Conceived and ultimately introduced in an era when the minivan was a rapidly flourishing and profitable, yet unsophisticated and unadventurous segment, the Toyota Previa was a minivan that broke the mold with its exclusive platform, unprecedented for the class mid-engine rear-wheel drive layout, avant-garde styling, and available features such as all-wheel drive and a supercharged inline-4 engine.
Available worldwide, the minivan continued to use its predecessor’s “Tarago” name in the Australian market, while in Japan it was known as the “Estima”, and available in a narrow-body version with either the “Emina” or “Lucida” suffix. A nod to its futuristic nature, for most markets however, Toyota chose to call this new minivan “Previa”, derived from the Italian word previdenza, meaning “foresight”? On that note, props to Toyota for switching traditional gender roles by showing a working mother and stay-at-home father in its promotional video of the Previa.
You see, up until that point, minivans, whether they be front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive, largely made use of existing car or truck platforms, shared a plethora of other components with existing vehicles, and offered little in the way of dedicated styling. Notwithstanding any of its other unique aspects, the very fact that the Previa was a clean slate, designed from the ground-up minivan is noteworthy.
Rather than the traditional front-engine rear-wheel drive configuration of its predecessor and many competitors, Toyota engineers elected to mount the Previa’s exclusive 2.4-liter inline-4 TZ engine at a 75-degree angle beneath the front seats, for a very unique mid-engine, rear-wheel drive layout. Doing this benefited the Previa in several ways. For starters, it gave the Previa a significantly lower center of gravity and a near 50-50 weight distribution, something unheard of for the class, for superior handling than its relatively tall height and narrow width would suggest.
Furthermore, much like competing front-wheel drive minivans, this layout gave the Previa a flat floor for the second and third rows (broken up only by the small hump between the front seats), for maximum interior space and passenger accessibility. Depending on the market in which it was sold, the Previa (or sssssss) was available with eight passenger seating (2-3-3) or two seven passenger seating (2-2-3) configurations, which differed by either an off-centered second row bench or two individual bucket seats. Notable of the Previa, its third row bench split 50/50 and stowed against the sides of the vehicle, while the available second row buckets swiveled, allowing them to be forward-facing or rear-facing the third row.
The Previa’s most obvious difference from other minivans at the time was naturally its styling. Fittingly dubbed “Egg on a box” by its design team at Toyota’s Calty Design Research center in Newport Beach, California, the Previa eschewed the defined two-box shape, straight lines and sharp angles of other minivans for an almost one-box ovoid silhouette, its hood and expansive windshield an unbroken singular curve.
Like its predecessor, the Previa featured a single-rear driver’s side sliding door on either the left or right side depending on the country it was sold in. Somewhat curiously, especially for a vehicle that embraced innovation to such an extensive degree, dual sliding doors were never offered for the minivan’s first generation.
The interior, which was designed by Toyota Auto Body Co., Ltd. in Japan, complemented the exterior design with numerous curves and futuristic elements. The dashboard featured a symmetric “dual cockpit” design, allowing for easy conversion between right-hand drive and left-hand drive. Although the radio and HVAC controls were mounted high on a central pod, contemporary reviews cited other controls as poorly designed and poorly placed.
In spite of its innovative nature, the Previa had its drawbacks, some of which ultimately limited its appeal and success. While its mid-engine configuration was novel and unique, the compact engine bay did not allow for a larger and more powerful six-cylinder engine, something most competitors offered. Toyota responded to complaints and criticism of lack of power from the standard 138 horsepower, 154 lb-ft torque inline-4 by adding an optional 2.2-liter supercharged I4, making a much more competitive 161 horsepower and 201 lb-ft of torque, but it was too little, too late, arriving four years after sales began.
Additionally, neither engine offered fuel economy that could be called impressive for a four-cylinder and regardless of which engine, as its placement underneath the front seats yielded harsher cabin vibrations and noise than a traditional front-engine configuration. Other drawbacks included the Previa’s height and width, for despite being externally taller than the Chryslers by some five inches, its floor was substantially higher off the ground, making for poorer headroom, while its width was narrower for a tighter interior, particularly the rearmost three-seat bench. The fact that the Previa scored a “poor” rating in the IIHS’s offset frontal crash test was also likely a cause for concern to most buyers.
Among other factors, what most likely prevented the Previa from achieving measurable success (at least in North America) came down to two factors. The first of which is something subjective: Style. Alas as style is subjective, in some cases the Previa’s futuristic styling may have helped it, but in retrospect it’s clear that the unusual egg shape was just too unorthodox in a segment that was very conservative at the time, something only exaggerated by the Previa’s proportions.
The second of these two big factors is an objective one: Price. Quite simply, the Previa was an expensive minivan, considerably more so than its competition. For this featured 1995’s model year, the least expensive DX model began at $23,338, while its most costly LE S/C All-Trac (supercharged, AWD) retailed for a whopping $31,568 starting price — which didn’t even include options such as the $1,790 leather interior package — making it the most expensive minivan on the market.
While its base model did lack the same level of standard equipment as the Previa DX, a base 1995 Dodge Grand Caravan started at only $18,605, while its most expensive ES all-wheel drive model listed for $26,265, over $5,000 less than the top trim Previa. Only the “luxury” Chrysler Town & Country all-wheel drive came close, retailing for $29,775. Did the Previa really have enough meaningful unique features that justified its $5,000-plus premium over most of its competition?
While its introduction may have caused execs of Chrysler, who dominated more than 50% of the minivan market in North America, to begin sweating nervously, the Previa soon showed that its presence had little impact or influence on the market, even backed by Toyota’s near-indestructible image at the time. North American-specific sales figures are no where to be found, but total global production of the Previa/Estima/Tarago et. al. never surpassed 173,000 units, in most years much less.
Although it continued in other markets, with the third generation Estima still on sale in Japan today, the Previa was dropped from Toyota’s lineup in 1997, replaced with the more conventional front-engine, front-wheel drive Sienna, which was based on the Camry. So while many of us might drool over that exotic sports car boasting maximum sex appeal and a price tag whose hundreds of thousands of dollars are only surpassed by its hundreds of horsepower, when it comes to daily drivers “conventional” is what appeals to most buyers, even those who buy minivans.
Photographed in Hingham Center, Hingham, Massachusetts – May 2018