With all the world agog about Toyota’s abrupt and cataclysmic (Dare we say Tigeresque?) fall from grace, many people are wondering just what in the name of all that is holy (and some stuff that isn’t) happened to what for so long seemed to be the goodiest of car company twoshoes. There are plenty of theories, but as someone who firmly believes that all cars should be at least a teensy bit fun, I can’t help noticing how the Japanese juggernaut’s meltdown neatly coincides with (plus-or-minus a decade) its phase-out of virtually all models that were sporty, quirky and altogether un-appliance-like, including the Celica and Supra. One standout product from the years leading up to vanillafication is that most orthodoxy-challenging of minivans, the Previa.
Toyota’s first U.S. market van, which was sold under the skull-shatteringly clever and original name “Van,” was configured in a way similar to most American vans of the 1960s: the driver and front passenger sat atop the front axle, while the engine – which sat more or less between the front seats under a cover – drove the rear wheels (A drool-worthy 4WD version of the Van, replete with increased ground clearance, skid plates and a two-speed transfer case, was offered from 1987 to ’89.). Of course, as with any forward control van or truck, you were the first to arrive at the scene of a head-on collision. Crumple zone? That would be you, friend. As a result the Van, like its rivals from Mitsubishi and Nissan as well as the rear-engine Volkswagen Vanagon would be replaced with peoplemovers that placed the front seats behind the front axle. The competitions creations used thoroughly conventional front-engine, front-wheel-drive arrangements. Toyota, on the other hand, chose a decidedly different route. The new van’s 2.4L inline-four remained longitudinally-mounted and driving the rear or all four wheels (though the transfer case was replaced by a locking center diff). However, the engine was tilted to starboard a full 75° from vertical and placed under the front seats (There was room for seven altogether.), creating a nearly flat floor from front to back, not to mention nimble-for-a-van handling. The engine featured two camshafts and four valves per cylinder, and produced 138hp and 154 lb.-ft of torque. However, even with the 5-speed manual offered on 1991 to ’93 examples (the overwhelming majority of American Previas were fitted with 4-speed automatics), performance was little more than acceptable, even by early ‘90s standards. Due to the packaging constraints imposed by the Previa’s unique layout, Toyota couldn’t simply drop in a V6; instead, beginning as an option on the 1994 LE trim and made standard on all American Previas beginning in 1995, they added a Roots-type supercharger and intercooler to the base engine, which upped output to 160hp and 190 lb.-ft. However, the supercharged versions (identified by the “S/C” badge on the left side of the tailgate) were only available with the automatic transmission.
The Previa sold pretty well, helped in large part by Toyota’s now-rather-shaky reputation for quality and reliability; however, most customers wanted more power in a roomier, more conventional package. Thus, the Previa’s time on the North American market came to an end after 1997; for 1998, Toyota released the Sienna, a Camry-based family hauler following the widely accepted “V6 in front driving the front wheels” formula and designed specifically for fulfilling American and Canadian wants and needs. However, the Previa remained available abroad through 2000, when it too was replaced by a cookie cutter front-drive design.
If you’re willing to start with a basket case, Previas can be had for around $1,000. However, if you want a nice one with comparatively low miles, be prepared to shell out closer to four or five grand. Typical trouble spots include the air conditioning system, rust on vans that have spent time in the Snow Belt, and the engine’s supplemental accessory drive (SAD) shaft, the factory replacement for which costs about $1,000, though there is at least one company that will sell you a repair kit that is much cheaper. I see quite a few Previas still puttering around here in SoCal, so they’re definitely out there. Best of luck with your "egg hunt!"