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When a car company is able to back a unique de-sign with outstanding quality credentials, the result is likely to be a vehicle that stands out from the crowd.
So it is with the Toyota Previa minivan. In a market that's awash with solid offerings from almost every major manufacturer - even Honda has joined the party - the Previa marches to its own beat.
Whether that beat is entirely in tune with what minivan buyers want to hear is another issue. Are the unique elements of its design important innovations? Or, like 4-wheel steering, are they answers to questions no one has asked?
If you're shopping for a minivan, you obviously have more interest in utility and function than appearance. Still, with so many good vans to choose from, styling plays an important role, and it's a Previa strong suit.
The organic lines are as clean as an egg's, one of nature's perfect containers. The look is futuristic, stopping just short of other-worldly. It's as attractive as any minivan going. And it's a leader in aerodynamic efficiency, reducing wind noise and enhancing fuel economy.
The most unusual feature of the Previa is its powertrain layout. The engine sits in the middle of the van, with the front seats mounted on the leading edge of the engine cover.
This setup has a long history behind it, and it's common to many small Japanese cargo vans sold in Asian markets. Toyota's first U.S. minivan was a direct adaptation of the company's home market van, and it wasn't very successful. The engine ate up lots of interior space, the front seats were almost directly over the front wheels and its handling was awkward.
The current Previa smooths out all those weak points, but the basic concept is the same. With a longer wheelbase than the original van and the engine's mass centered between the wheels, the Previa is well-balanced and provides exceptionally good handling.
Introduced in 1990, the Previa rolled through its first four years with one engine offering: a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder. Like most Toyota engines, it is smooth and durable. But in a minivan, its performance is distinctly deliberate.
Toyota addressed this problem in mid-'94 with a supercharged version of the engine. The advantage of supercharging versus turbocharging is quicker response time and, in this application, a little more power - 161 hp versus the standard engine's 138 hp, 201 pound-feet of torque versus 154 lb.-ft. Torque is a measurement of an engine's ability to do the basic grunt work of motoring - getting the vehicle moving and hauling heavy loads or towing a trailer.
Both engines are bolted to electronicaly controlled 4-speed automatic transmsions.
The Previa is a rear-wheel-drive minivan, another point of distinction from most of its competitors. The Ford Aero-star, Chevrolet Astro/GMC Safari and Mazda MPV are the only others. Rear-drive provides a small edge in dry-weather handling, and is also better for towing.
Front-wheel drive offers traction ad-vantages on slippery surfaces. Toyota's answer to this is a Previa all-wheel-drive option, called All-Trac. It's a sophisticated system, delivering power to the front wheels as needed in low-traction situations, and we recommend it if you live in a region with wet or slippery weather.
Reaching the mid-mounted engine for routine service is a little complicated, but Toyota has addressed this concern by putting the fluid reservoir checkpoints under the hood. Simple, effective and low-hassle.
The Previa is offered in two models: the basic DX and the better-equipped LE. We chose a supercharged LE for our test.
The Previa's double-curved dashboard has a distinctly sci-fi look about it - part lunar lander, part George Jetson. The major instruments are readily visible, and the sliding climate controls are mounted high in the center where they're easy to locate and use.
However, we've seen better ways of managing secondary controls. The Previa's are mounted on stalks, and there are too many of them jutting out of the steering column.
Having the engine in the middle of the van creates a good news/bad news story regarding interior space utilization. The good news is that with no engine up front, there's not much Previa ex-tending beyond the front wheels, which gives the driver an excellent view. The bad news is that the engine housing cuts off the front-seat pass-through that so many minivan buyers like.
Our Previa's seats were comfortable, with high-grade cloth upholstery. The standard seating setup is buckets up front, with two bench seats in the rear. Our van came with optional captain's chairs in the middle.
Even with its optional dual moonroofs, our Previa had plenty of headroom, and its legroom was good at all three seating positions.
Cargo capacity is also a plus, even though the Previa's trim exterior makes it look small. There's a 32.5 cu. ft. well behind the split-bench rear seat, and cargo access through the big rear hatch is excellent. Set up for maximum cargo space, the Previa can ingest more than 150 cu. ft. of stuff.
We expected to be impressed with the Previa's overall quality - it's a Toyota, after all - and we were. Inside and out, this minivan shows careful attention to assembly detail and final finish. That's why it has scored top customer-satisfaction marks with J.D. Powers for three years running.
Safety provisions are also good. The Previa has dual airbags, side-impact door beams and 3-point seat belts in all outboard positions. Anti-lock brakes are available as an option on both models.
Besides providing our Previa with a welcome measure of additional oomph for passing and keeping up with traffic, the supercharged engine had another benefit. It's quieter than the standard engine, largely because it doesn't have to work quite as hard to get the job done.
Even so, there's still a fair amount of noise when you tramp on the throttle. Although the engine is insulated with lots of sound-deadening material, it still lets you know that it's right there with you, instead of out front.
The Ford Windstar is just about the quietest of the bunch right now. The Previa falls a little south of mid-pack.
In terms of ride and handling, however, the Previa is better than most. The mid-van engine layout gives a positive feel to all maneuvers, particularly those you have to execute in a hurry, and the suspension has a hearty appetite for nasty pavement - eats it up and spits it out smooth.
The Previa has lots of glass - that's why air conditioning is part of its standard equipment - giving drivers better-than-average sight lines. In this regard we found the hefty roof pillar just behind the front doors just a little annoying at first, but it didn't take us long to adjust.
The Previa's high level of owner satisfaction says something positive about Toyota, because this is an expensive minivan. A loaded Previa can propel the price into the mid-$30,000 range.
The mid-van engine design has some positive traits - handling foremost among them - but also imposes some arbitrary limits on interior functionality.
And even with rear-wheel drive plus the optional supercharged engine, we think the domestic rear-drive minivans - Aerostar, Astro and Safari - are going to be better choices for heavy towing.
Nevertheless, the Previa's strong track record with owners is hard to ignore. The appealing design is going to look good for a long time, and you can expect the Previa to deliver its smooth, comfortable performance even longer.