Usually, the word ‘classic’ conjures up images of old Bugattis, British Minis, or first-gen Broncos. Rarely is a minivan called ‘classic’. But going just by pure age, there are quite a few vans and minivans that are old enough to be classics. And long before Mercedes gave a minivan 500+ hp, there was another unconventional minivan available: the Toyota Previa.
The Toyota Previa was an unusual minivan
The 1991-1997 Toyota Previa was the predecessor to the modern Sienna. On the outside, that can be difficult to imagine, given the Previa’s egg-shaped design.
Inside, it’s a slightly different story. Like the Sienna, the Previa had 3 rows of seats. However, the Previa’s 2nd-row seats swiveled, like the Mitsubishi Delica’s. That’s an option the current Sienna doesn’t offer. The Sienna, though, does have the Previa beat on 3rd-row seating. The Previa’s 3rd-row seats fold to the side, taking up some rear cargo room. The Sienna’s, meanwhile, fold down into the floor.
In addition, like other contemporary minivans, the Previa only has 1 sliding rear door. The Sienna, though, is a modern minivan and has 2. However, Hagerty reports the Previa one-upped the Sienna by offering a refrigerator, again, like the Delica.
But, underneath, the two minivans do have some common characteristics. Until the 2021 Chrysler Pacifica debuted, the Sienna was really the only all-wheel drive minivan available. And just like the Sienna, the Toyota Previa was also available with AWD. The two minivans also offered four-cylinder engines.
But that’s where the Previa’s drivetrain sharply deviates from the Sienna’s. For one, the base Previa was rear-wheel drive, not front-wheel drive. For another, the Previa’s engine wasn’t where you’d think it would be.
The Toyota Previa’s drivetrain
The Sienna, like every minivan on sale today, has an engine mounted at the front of the car. But if you look under the Previa’s hood, you won’t see an engine.
That’s because its engine is mounted in the middle. Between the two front seats is a raised, covered ‘hump.’ Underneath that is the engine. If you want to check or add oil, you lift up the driver’s seat and move a carpeted flap to reveal the engine.
The engine itself is also somewhat unusual. Today, the Sienna only comes with a 3.5-liter V6, making 296 hp and 263 lb-ft, linked to an 8-speed automatic. But there wasn’t room for the Previa to have both AWD and a mid-mounted V6, Autotrader reports. Instead, to preserve the Previa’s exterior design, it got a 2.4-liter four-cylinder with a manual, which in base form made 138 hp and 154 lb-ft. However, to help the Previa compete with V6 minivans, the AWD version’s engine was supercharged to make 161 hp and 201 lb-ft.
So, to sum up, in the mid-90s, Toyota made a mid-engine, AWD, supercharged minivan.
Why this minivan is cool again
For one, Japanese vehicles from the 90s are rising in value and popularity. The 80s-90s were a time when Japanese automakers had so much cash, they could freely pursue oddball ideas like the Toyota Previa. It’s the era that gave us the Nissan Skyline GT-R and Mitsubishi Pajero.
In addition, as Petrolicious reports, the Previa is actually an effective driving tool. Racing driver, screenwriter, and helicopter pilot Niki Byrne first learned racing habits from driving the Previa around.
Much like the Miata, the Previa is lightweight but not particularly powerful, meaning you have to maximize speed going around corners. And because the brakes are fairly small, Byrne learned how to deal with brake fade, something endurance racers also have to understand.
But because of the AWD and mid-engine design, the van is actually very well-balanced. Byrne reports dropping WRX STIs in the past. And because it’s a 90s van, it has lots of visibility and room inside. Then there’s the design, which doesn’t look like anything else on sale today. Even when Byrne went to a prep school where students parked Bentleys and Porsches in the lot, people still loved the Previa.
The Toyota Previa, then, is an unconventional classic. But its design and the joy it inspires undoubtedly makes it worthy of the ‘classic’ title.
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