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It's hard to believe it's been just a dozen years since the first modern minivans hit the market. Since then, they've revolutionized the auto industry and largely replaced that mainstay of the "Leave It To Beaver" era, the station wagon. During this relatively short span, a flood of minivans has come, and a significant number has gone. That includes the Dustbuster-like APV models from General Motors and virtually all the original products from Japan.
It's surprising that the normally creative Japanese have had so much trouble figuring out the formula for a successful minivan. Their products have been too small or too tall, underpowered or just plain strange in a niche where utility, function and safety are the guiding principles.
It looks like Toyota is about to finally crack the code with Sienna, its third-generation minivan due out this fall. Sienna will, in many ways, be a clone of the ever-popular Chrysler minivans, the market leaders and style-setters. Perhaps more important, it will be American-made, and that has both political and economic ramifications.
But some minivan fans aren't all that enthused about the arrival of the Sienna. There's a small, but loyal, following for Toyota's current entry into the market, the Previa. And with good reason.
The Previa's spaceship-shaped package is quirky, but far more functional, lavish and well-mannered than other Asian imports. True, the price tag of the Previa is high for the segment. But it is a Toyota, which means rugged reliability. And that's an important attribute in a vehicle that's bound to see use as the family bus. So, while it's tempting to dismiss a product entering its last year of life, the Previa is worth one last look.
Available in both DX and LE editions, we chose the upgraded LE with the All-Trac full-time All-Wheel-Drive system to test.
In its original configuration, Previa was equipped with an undersized, 2.4 liter four-cylinder engine. It was smooth, durable and dependable, but notably underpowered, particularly considering its price tag. In 1994, Toyota came up with a solid solution by bolting on a supercharger. The now-standard supercharged engine develops a competent 161 horsepower, well up from 138 hp in the original Previa.
The engine is smooth, but a bit noisy, especially under heavy acceleration. Though it set the standard in 1991, Previa is showing a bit of its age and some of its competitors have surpassed it in terms of overall noise levels.
By mounting the engine in the middle, Previa has a better front-to-back weight distribution--and that results in better-than-average balance and handling. The suspension is taut, at least by minivan standards, but did an amazingly good job of minimizing the impact from Michigan's vast pothole population.
Roadability is further improved by the available All-Trac all-wheel-drive system. We had the opportunity to test our Previa during one of Michigan's worst winter days and found it surprisingly sure-footed on unplowed roads, even more impressive given its stock all-season tires.
The mid-engine location does make things a little more difficult to service. And were it not for Toyota's reputation for bullet-proof powertrains underscored by Previa's real-world service record we might have considered this a fatal flaw. But the simple fact is you're not likely to find much reason to get into the engine during the normal ownership cycle. And Toyota has located all the critical fluid check points under the hood, where it's easy to gain access.
There are some drawbacks to buying a Previa as it enters its final year of production. There's the orphan syndrome, of course. And you'll pay a premium for the Made in Japan badge. You'll pop for some options, like ABS, that other minivans are now including as standard equipment. And you won't be able to order a fourth door, one of today's hottest options.
But there are good reasons to keep the Previa on your shopping list. It's got a solid, reliable powertrain that has stood the test of time. And with its optional All-Trac system, you'll have to work hard to get yourself stranded in a snow drift.
The styling is quirky, but you certainly won't look like you're driving yet another minivan clone.