In the three years since its introduction, the Toyota Previa has made its mark with innovative design. Its interior spaciousness is due in part to the midship mounting of the engine beneath the floor. That structure allows for a potential 157.8 cubic feet of storage space, making it among the top two or three roomiest minivans on the market.
In the Toyota Previa, the driver can comfortably leave his or her post to referee a rear-seat rug-rat ruckus without having to step outside. That ease of passage, combined with sleek aerodynamic styling and ahead-of-schedule adherence to federal safety standards helped the Previa earn Best Compact Van honors in J.D. Power and Associates' 1993 Initial Quality studies.
We tested an Evergreen Pearl-colored model with a 2.4-liter, twin-cam, 16valve, four-cylinder engine with electronic fuel injection. For driving on slippery surfaces or on rocky terrain, the All-Trac feature combines full-time AWD capability with a limited-slip differential that monitors wheel slippage and distributes power to the wheels that have the best traction at that moment.
Our Previa All-Trac LE's base MSRP was $28,848. Although four-wheel ventilated disc brakes are standard on the LE, the anti-lock brake system was a $950 option. Other optional amenities, such as swiveling captain's chairs, a premium seven-speaker stereo system with a CD player, aluminum alloy wheels and bronze privacy glass, brought the price of our vehicle to $32,842.
Like most new things, the Previa's eardrop-shaped body design provoked mixed reactions when it was introduced. Now that it's been around for a few years, we wonder what all the fuss was about. It's an attractive vehicle that looks as if it will slice through hurricane-strength winds with its aerodynamic build.
Our All-Trac LE stood a distinctive 5 feet, 10 inches tall-one of the factors that accounted for its spaciousness.
In addition to increasing interior space, the engine's 75-degree slant mounting also distributed the vehicle's weight more evenly between the front and rear wheels in order to aid in handling and maneuverability.
A pop of the hood allowed access to engine service points for oil, coolant, windshield washer solvent and steering fluid, but, unfortunately, not to the engine itself. The front-mounted oil feeder with reservoir-which automatically tops off the oil level when it gets low-was a nice touch.
On the safety front, the side doors were fortified with steel beams that, in some side collisions, are designed to help deflect the force of impact away from the passenger compartment.
Our first impression upon settling into the driver's seat was that we were on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.
The front end's sweeping downward design, however, put the Previa's space-age dashboard beyond arm's length of the driver's seat. Fortunately, the Toyota design team brought all of the necessary controls within easy reach by mounting them on five separate stalks that sprouted from the steering column. Consequently, our driver could operate the heater, air conditioning, stereo system, cruise control and rear defroster without having to continually lean forward.And for smoother navigation, the steering column was mounted at a sedan-like angle, nearly 30 degrees.
The front seats, which could swivel to face the middle and rear seats, were plush, roomy and equipped with three-point seat belts and dual air bags. We liked the location of the Previa's hand brake; it was mounted on the floor between the driver's seat and the door, instead of interrupting the space next to the ear shift as the hand brake does in the Volkswagen EuroVan. Also, the clock was positioned over our driver's head, so it could also be seen by middle- and rear-seat passengers.
Those middle seats, by the way, were cushy and comfortable command chairs, complete with cupholders, storage pockets, armrests and a mounted light that fully illuminated the backseat area without distracting the driver.
The three-passenger split rear seat folded against the sides to increase cargo space by about 30 cubic feet. In addition, the middle seat could be removed to attain the maximum amount of space-an impressive 157.8 cubic feet. Also, the rear liftgate could be opened to allow more than six feet of clearance for loading cargo from the rear.
Sureness of ride is especially important when you're hauling either loved ones or heavy items-or both. So to create a buffer between you and the hard road, Toyota has bolstered the Previa with independent MacPherson struts up front and a four-link coil spring suspension in the rear. The front stabilizer bar came in handy when we went into a sharply curved exit ramp with a bit too much juice: The Previa leaned a little, but overall it performed admirably. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering was excellent; our Previa All-Trac LE really did handle more like a car than a van.
The engine performance, however, was somewhat problematic. The 2.4liter, four-cylinder engine seemed undersized for a 3,950-pound vehicle-especially if there are going to be seven people on board and the advertised 3,500-pound load in tow. The Previa gained speed reasonably well in a passing situation that required quick acceleration from 60 to 75 mph, although we felt some gas-pedal vibration typical of a four-cylinder, 16-valve engine. At 35 mph we pressed the pedal to the metal and downshifted into second; the engine made a big fuss and lots of noise when shifting back-another indicator of being under powered.
After our road test, we were still unsure of our opinion of the Previa All-Trac LE. It was wonderfully designed and smartly appointed, and the liquid handling and plump suspension made it more fun to drive than any other minivan we've tested. It had plenty of room, but it was disappointingly low on power.
Granted, those who make up the minivan market generally don't care much about engine muscle, and they're likely to compromise on power in exchange for other amenities. But these are the same folks who like a smooth engine-and they might wince at the Previa's dissonance. We couldn't shake the feeling that, had Toyota added another 30 or 40 horses to the 138-hp engine or upsized from a 2.4 liter to a 3.0 liter-the Previa wouldn't whine so much when in the passing mode.
This was a letdown, because this vehicle handled well, and its brake system was efficient and responsive.
Toyota could easily have packed more power into its Previa.