By on March 6, 2018

Image: 1994 Toyota PreviaIn the first van edition of Buy/Drive/Burn, we inquired which luxurious minivan from 1994 you’d relegate to each category. Using typical One Simple Trick methodology, I lured everyone in with a picture of the Previa (above). Then, when the Previa was not a choice in the transportation trio, you all doused me in Haterade.

Well, here you go. Import vans — including the Toyota Previa. Douse me in clicks!

All of our 1997 contestants today are considered alternative minivans. In ’90s guise, no member of this group ever made a huge dent in the oligarchy controlled by Ford, Chrysler, and GM. In 1997, each of these vehicles were near the end of their respective iterations, and each was about to achieve more success by losing some quirkiness and picking up more conventional qualities. Get ’em while you can. Note: All of these are two-wheel drive and automatic.

Mazda MPV

Image: 1996 Mazda MPVThe first generation MPV had a very long lifespan, offered in North America between 1989 and 1999. Based on a Japanese luxury model called the Luce (you’d know it as a 929), the MPV featured rear-drive (real 4WD optional) and a smooth V6 engine in upper trims. The MPV had an optional bench seat for middle row passengers, meaning full eight-person seating was possible, rather than seven in other vans. Biggest disadvantage: No sliding doors. Originally a three-door, another door was added to the driver’s side in 1996.  Entry and egress was still less than ideal for rear seat passengers.

Honda Odyssey

Image: 1995 Honda OdysseyThe Odyssey was (and is) Honda’s only foray into the minivan market in North America. Debuting in 1995, the Odyssey utilized the Accord’s platform and inline-four engines. Seating configuration was for either six or seven persons (2-3-2 or 2-2-2). ABS and dual airbags were standard, as was dual-zone climate control. Honda spent extra time engineering a third row seat which folded flat into the floor. Isuzu also had a turn selling the Odyssey, as the oft-forgotten Oasis. Biggest disadvantage: Seating for seven was only available in the lower trim LX. The EX came with the power equipment families wanted, but only six seats.

Toyota Previa

Image: 1996 Toyota PreviaNoticing the scale of the minivan market in the United States, Toyota wanted a piece. The company brought its new JDM Previa minivan to market for model year 1991, taking the place of the boxy and rather dynamically challenged Van. The Previa stuck to the same formula as the Van, though: rear-drive (AWD optional) and engine in the middle, underneath the front seats. Starting in 1995, all models featured a supercharged 2.4-liter inline-four. 1997 was the last year for the Previa in the US market.

Toyota had been readying the Camry-platform Sienna to take over, which would prove much more suited to American tastes. Biggest disadvantage: The mid-engine layout did not allow room for a V6, and even supercharged engines only provided 158 horsepower for the heavy, expensive Previa.

So there you have it. Three Japanese vans, each with a flavor that wasn’t quite what the American market wanted. Which one depletes your bank account, and which one becomes a hot mess?

[Images: Toyota, IIHS, Honda]

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44 Comments on “Buy/Drive/Burn: Alternative Japanese Minivans From 1997...”

  • avatar

    I’ll buy the Previa. They run forever.
    I’ll drive the Odyssey.
    I’ll burn the Mazda.

    • 0 avatar

      I am opposite.

      Buy Mazda… well, its Mazda. ha-ha. No, it has real room and optional real AWD and real elevation.

      Burn Previa -any frontal crash would chop your limbs off. In fact, I just checked, it is poor in crash

      Drive Honda, if you go somewhere alone. How fast 2.2L can take you with 6 passengers anywhere? What kind drive is this?

  • avatar

    I remember a friend in the 90’s had a Previa.

    It was a great vehicle, I loved the view of the road it gave you. Like looking out of a bubble.

    Also just a perfect size, almost a reinterpretation of a VW MicroBus.

  • avatar
    01 Deville

    Id drive Previa, slow as it might be, buy the Odyssey (seen less of them rusted compared to Previas) and burn the Mazda.
    It would be interesting to see someone who wouldn’t burn the Mazda when pitted against the other two

  • avatar

    Buy Toyota for the likely low depreciation and a TCO

    Drive MPV (give me 4wd and post 1996 for the extra door).

    Burn the Honda and wait for them to build a real van.

    • 0 avatar

      You gotta read better, man! We’re talking ’97 so you have a fourth door. You do not have 4WD as these are all 2WD automatics.

      • 0 avatar

        I – in a thoughtful and judgemental fashion – reject your constraints as being “no fun” – chill Mr. Moderator.

        I at least stayed within the bare constraints. I’d make an easy money bet that someone crashes the party to tell you how they’d burn all three and that an Astro van is clearly a better choice. ;-)

  • avatar

    Interesting choice in compromises between the hinged rear door on the Honda and the sliding door only on the passenger side of the Toyota.

    Buy: Odyssey
    Drive: Previa
    Burn: MPV

  • avatar
    scott25 You’re welcome.

    Buy the Previa
    Drive the MPV (can’t remember the last time I saw a 1st gen MPV on the road )
    Burn the Honda since it’s by far the least special and unique. I still like them though.

    • 0 avatar

      My neighbor had that MPV for at least 20 years.

      • 0 avatar

        There’s a lot of them still roaching along in California and other rust-free areas, but they just weren’t huge sellers when new. Having said that if you’re ever in Central PA keep an eye out for a rust+maroon colored 1989 MPV with mountain biking stickers and antique plates :p

  • avatar

    Buy the Previa in 5MT
    Drive the Mazda MPV 4×4
    Burn the first gen Oddy, those are junk.

    This is too easy.

    If you throw in the Delica over the Oddy, then it’ll get much harder.

  • avatar

    Loved the gen 1 MPV. Buddy of mine had a 91 he bought new and drove it to 200,000 miles. I’d get the 4wd one with the snow plow.

  • avatar

    Also, check this:

  • avatar

    Buy the Honda.
    Drive the Mazda.

    And burn the Previa. Why? I can give two excellent reasons, both related to my ex in-laws, who owned one. First, the thing was insanely show, and insanely noisy. Second, I hated my in-laws, so BURN THAT F**KER!!!!

  • avatar

    Buy: Previa, always wanted one, and when else are you going to get a mid-engine RWD mini-van?
    Drive: MPV, It was more a truck, like an Astro, than a mini-van. RWD FTW!
    Burn: Odyssey, but only because you have to burn something. I like some of the innovation in this van, gut the hoon in me sees FWD and says pass.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed. I put a few hundred miles on a Previa rental, it was a decent ride. Drive the MPV for the RWD goodness. Never been a fan of the Oddy, and this one’s basically a corpulent Accord, so let ‘er burn.

  • avatar

    Buy one Previa (for a parts van), drive another Previa, burn the Honda and the Mazda.

    Corey, Previas didn’t become S/C only until 1996 – all 1996 and 1997 Previas are S/Cs. The S/C option was introduced for 1994, and both NA (2TZ-FE) and S/C (2TZ-FZE) engines were available for 1994 and 1995. Also, all S/C equipped models are OBD-II compliant, whereas the NA models weren’t OBD-II until 1996, when it became a Federal requirement.

    The acceleration is very good with the S/C – it has decent low-end torque. I owned three of them (a 1994, and two ’95 models), and all were the LE S/C models, with Quad Seating (the second row is two swiveling captain’s chairs, with a separate lap belt to use when the seats are used rearward-facing). The ’94 had the optional leather interior. We drove it about a year and a half, then it was totalled in a hit and run. I parted it out, put the alloys on the next two ’95 models in succession (the first ’95 got t-boned 18 months later – my wife’s fault). I sold the leather interior (seats and all interior panels) to another Previa owner for $350.

  • avatar

    Some of the European Previas had IRS, and a second-row bench that seated three (one-third folds and tumbles formward for access through the sliding door) to make an eight-seater. My kids still miss the way the captain’s chairs and the split third seat reclined, as the pivot points allowed them recline completely flat – the seats in our ’08 Sienna won’t do that.

    I always thought a Subaru boxer six with turbo would be an interesting swap.

  • avatar

    Depends if I need to carry my kids in the vehicle.

    If so:

    Buy Mazda (BOFish 4WD minivan FTW)
    Drive Honda (’90s Honda nostalgia never hurt anyone)
    Burn Previa (death trap)

    If not:

    Buy Previa (they are so damn cool if you ignore safety)
    Drive Mazda on a jeep trail, dent it up
    Burn Honda by default, no grudge

  • avatar

    Buy the Previa – Always wanted to know what driving the “bubble-ship” would be like. Not worried about the lack of HP. My 2000 Grand Caravan (May it rot in Heck forever) with the 3.3L V-6 only had 158 HP. Couldn’t be that much worse
    Drive the Odyssey – Need something reliable if the Previa broke
    Burn the MPV – Looked old and outdated even for the era it was from

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Darn, those are all vehicles that I respect.

    Burn: the Toyota Previa. Despite being fairly reliable. And perhaps the most commodious. It was just too slow and wallowy.
    Drive: the Mazda MVP. Particularly if it was the 4WD version. Quite reliable but up here very prone to rust. There is still one being used as a DD in my neighbourhood.
    Buy: the Honda Odyssey. A tall Accord wagon. And for what I am looking for in a vehicle at the moment, pretty much perfect. Although fairly unloved at the time, I believe that if Honda were to re-introduce it, raise it just a little and add cladding and perhaps the Realtime 4WD system, they would have a smash hit. But then isn’t that Pilot? Just like the 1st generation CRV was just a raised Wagovan.

  • avatar

    Whiplash from the sport compacts to these… burn them all on principle?

    Buy the Honda, they were OK back then.
    Drive the Egg, just because it’s weird.
    Burn the Mazda because it’s an SUV in a costume.

    • 0 avatar

      “Burn the Mazda because it’s an SUV in a costume.”

      I’d argue it was the opposite. A van masquerading as a butched-up pseudo SUV (I’m thinking of the Allsport). They were fantastic handling/driving on-road vehicles, based on 929 bones. Steering especially was really excellent for a people-mover, while maintaining good ride comfort unlike the current Mazda obsession with Zoom-zoom at the expense of everything else.

  • avatar

    Buy: MPV. Because Mazda, and RWD.
    Drive: Odyssey. For winter highway trips; because I don’t use cruise control on slippery roads with RWD.
    Burn: Previa. I don’t want to, but I have no choice.

    I didn’t even know you could put three minivans in front of me without me wanting to burn one.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Buy the Previa (I did, actually, but mine was AWD.) Mini vans are about packaging efficiency, and the Previa had more room inside than these others, in fact more room than even the larger Chrysler vans. The supercharged engine had a very flat torque curve, and the car was plenty powerful for the 55 mph speed limit era in which it was sold. It hauled around my family of 5, with stuff, quite happily to our mountain house in W.Va. and on many other family vacations. Like all Toyotas of that era, the quality of the materials was outstanding. The seats were the best of any car I have owned. A child of the 1950s, my inner need for a battering ram in front of me for crash protection is not high. The Previa, with the heavy bits (engine, transmission) in the middle of the car, handled far better than its competitors (see West Virginia mountain house, above, including the Sienna and the big Odyssey. We owned the car for 20 years, its final duty being my daughter’s college car in the mid-2000s (she called it “turtle” more for its shape and color (green) than its lack of speed.

    Drive the MP3. Reasonably decent handling, with RWD and decent power with its V6.

    Burn the 1st-gen Odyssey. A stretched Accord of that generation (about the size of today’s Civic) with high-revving, low torque engine does not make a decent mini-van. The Accord wagon was a nice car; the Odyssey was not.

  • avatar

    Owned an mpv for 3 years, road tripped a friends previa from kitchener to st Pete’s fla, never been in that generation of odessey. Based on that:

    Buy he Mazda. The are comfy and quiet and go down the road well. Big inside small outside.

    Drive the Honda, because I haven’t yet.

    Burn he Toyota. Crap to drive, difficult to maneuver.

  • avatar

    Buy Previa. A mid-engined minivan? Once enough of them are gone, the remaining ones will be classics. Drive whichever one of the remaining ones drives and rides best, and burn the other one — they’re both so bland as to be basically indistinguishable anyway.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    Back in the day I drove a nearly new Previa full of people around the UK as a rental during a vacation. The driving position was horrible thanks to the engine sitting next to my feet. Maintenance was also a nightmare thanks to that horrific architectural decision. Terrible power-to-weight ratio, especially with six people on board. Burn it.

    The Mazda, on the other hand, filled a real niche. It was clearly more compact than the more traditional vans of the era and thus had a market role to fill. It was also a decent driving vehicle for the class, and somehow avoiding the packaging nightmare Toyota foisted on people. Buy it if it suits your needs. Get the V-6 if you like to travel with four people and all their luggage.

    The Odyssey was a meh vehicle. Not horrible, not appealing and damaged by association with Isuzu. Drive one if you must, but don’t go on the hunt.

  • avatar

    Burn burn burn.

    Over 30 years after the original minivan came out, in spite of dodgy transmissions and edgy quality control, Chrysler/Dodge STILL outsells the competition combined.

    • 0 avatar

      When my family went used van shopping in the mid 90s, we compared back to back the ’89 MPV with 90k miles against a lightly used ’95 Caravan (last year of 2nd gen) with much lower miles. The Mazda was just so incredibly far ahead in refinement and quality it was a no-brainer. No rattles, well screwed-together interior are the things that really stood out. On top of that, the Caravan had a price of $8k and the MPV was $5k and that obviously sealed the deal.

  • avatar

    Did you know that the Previa had an odd power take off shaft?
    From Wiki: All engine-driven accessories, such as the alternator, power steering pump, air conditioning compressor, and radiator fan, are accessible from the front hood, driven off the front of the engine by an accessory driveshaft, and is known as the Supplemental Accessory Drive System, or “SADS.” This allows for even front/rear weight distribution, which benefits ride quality and handling.

  • avatar
    Mingo the dingo

    install an ejector seat in each of them and drive them off a cliff.

    cuz you just got to have some fun

  • avatar

    Dang I’m traveling for work and missed this! I’ll make sure to chime in this evening. I will pre-emptively take issue with you restricting to RWD only! Many folks living in snow-country, that availability made all the difference in a buying decision. MPVs particularly, I don’t know the actual numbers but anecdotal evidence suggests the percent sold in the last few years (’96+ with 4 doors) that was optioned with AWD was very high indeed. Ditto the Previa.

    • 0 avatar

      I have a hard time condemning any of these to be burned quite frankly. I’ll also say up front I have no personal experience with the Previa, although I love 1990s Toyotas and have admired Previas from afar for their unique engineering and reputations for freakish longevity despite the unorthodox layout. I have limited seat time as a passenger in an Odyssey (grey market German “Shuttle” that my relatives in Moscow owned). And finally multiple decades of experience riding in and driving and wrenching on MK1 MPVs. My family has owned “bookends” of the Mk1s in terms of age and options: ‘89 RWD 4cyl auto (rare power train, most were v6s and 4cyl was dropped entirely after ‘91 iirc) and a ‘98 Allsport 4wd with the ES luxury package. A few comments on the MPVs: supremely easy to work on. The biggest constraint these days is definitely parts cost and availability given their rarity. Also, they are probably the most rust prone of the bunch (Honda next, Toyota is most resilient). The v6 is kind of a slug, especially when tasked with the 4000+ lb curb weight of the 96+ crash test improvements, extra door, and extra options. The ‘89 with a 4-banger honestly doesn’t feel slower in real world driving and hill climbing scenarios especially. The sweet spot is a pre’96 V6 van as far as performance is concerned. The ’96+ refresh also brought a tighter feeling interior as well as some cost cutting of interior materials. Cargo room behind the third row is quite limited, then again the exterior dimensions of these things is surprisingly tidy, about a foot shorter than a modern midsize sedan. Our ’89 is still in the family with 245k miles, with a lot of rust and a swapped over transmission as of last year (original made it to 243k before losing 2nd gear), as well as a reman head after my brother overheated it at about 180k miles. The ’98 was sold at 170k last year, it was mechanically sound the whole time we owned it, just a few minor oil leaks (valve cover gaskets, dizzy plug), a rear A/C line that corroded in old age, and a few balljoints and some struts towards the end of its life. Oh and we swapped the rear air shocks from the factory units to lesser Monroe air-adjustables and the factory non-air shock steel springs, best of both worlds sort of.

      So on balance, I think I’d have to pick the Previa to drive, MPV to buy (undercoated liberally), and Odyssey to burn although I hold no ill will towards the Honda, my hand is simply forced.

    • 0 avatar

      I had a hard time finding a photo of an MPV that was 96+ (so rear door there) that was not an AllSport. That’s why I had to use the IIHS photo there.

    • 0 avatar

      I think the ones that have survived were the AWD models, because they are so damn useful in the snow and Moutain West. I’ve seen vids of both of them jacked up with big wheels like a jeep and rock crawling, mudding and snowing.

  • avatar

    IS the Mazda a Minivan? RWD/AWD, no sliding doors… Is that an SUV/CUV?

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