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In the ’19’90s, Toyota joined the white-hot minivan market that was taking the American public by storm. Rolling off the line in 1990 as a 1991 model year vehicle, the Toyota Previa was a quirky, unconventional, cult classic minivan. It tried to lure the American public away from the top-selling Chrysler and Dodge minivans of the time. While it wasn’t the first van produced by Toyota, it was the first mass-market minivan produced by Toyota for the American market.

But what exactly made the Toyota Previa so different? If the Previa is remembered as a good piece of automotive history, why did it ultimately fail? How did the competition fare against the Previa? Here is everything you need to know about the Toyota Previa and the competitors that eventually led to the discontinuation of this Toyota-built minivan.

A black and white photo of a Toyota Previa.
Toyota Previa | Rick Eglinton/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The mid-engine minivan

Yes, you read that correctly, the Toyota Previa was a true mid-engine minivan with the engine placed almost directly under the front seats. This mid-engine layout served several purposes.

As the design team at Toyota was engineering the Previa throughout the ’80s, Calty, a California-based design studio created a minivan design with a midengine platform that would allow for extremely easy access to the full engine with the removal of the front seats. This design that would eventually become the Previa contrasted with the Dodge Caravan’s engine, which was not always the easiest to work on.

The mid-engine design of the Previa also allowed for a near-perfect weight distribution between the front and rear axles, giving the Previa a near sports car-like driving experience. Adding to this experience was an optional supercharged 2.4L four-cylinder engine paired with a five-speed manual transmission, delivering power to the rear wheels of the Previa.

Yes, Toyota made a supercharged, manual transmission, rear-wheel drive sports car in the 1990s. However, that sports car was built into a minivan. The Previa failed to capture an audience in America throughout its production run from 1990 through 1999.

Its best-selling year was 1991 with 52,099 units sold according to Compare this with the Dodge Caravan sales, which reached over 300,000 units in 1996 and 1997, and it is clear that the Previa just had no chance.

Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth buried the Toyota Previa

While the Toyota Previa had some excellent features for the time, the Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Caravan, Dodge Grand Caravan, and Plymouth Voyager just had an absolute grasp of the market.

The 1984 model year brought the initial run of these Chrysler minivans, and the Toyota Previa was designed to best this malaise, square-body minivan with sporty performance and a radical exterior design. Unfortunately, just as the Previa was released, the Chrysler family of minivans entered their second generation of production with fixes to nearly every glaring issue the Previa hoped to capitalize on.

These American minivans entered the 1991 model year with new, updated aesthetics, optional all-wheel drive, and optional antilock brakes, and by the middle of the production run, a 162 horsepower V6 engine was offered, which was almost just as powerful as Toyota’s supercharged four-cylinder.

The Dodge and Plymouth minivans were essentially the same vehicle. Still, the top-of-the-line Chrysler Town & Country buried the Previa’s progress even more with leather seats, woodgrain dashboard and door trim, digital gauge cluster, alloy wheels, and chrome grille. Chrysler brought luxury to the minivan market, and Toyota brought performance. Sadly, the Toyota Previa went unnoticed.

The Toyota Previa had success… just not in America

Despite the Toyota Previa’s low sales in America, production continued overseas for multiple generations. For its second generation which lasted from 2000 through 2005, the Previa was known as the Estima in Japan.

This second generation ditched the mid-engine layout from the first generation and instead went to a front-wheel drive, Camry-based platform. The Previa’s third generation lasted from 2006 through the 2019 model year. While it may not be in production anymore, the Previa’s forward-thinking attitude led to success overseas for decades after its initial sales.


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