Buy/Drive/Burn: Alternative Japanese Minivans From 1997

buy drive burn alternative japanese minivans from 1997

In 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

The 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

The 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

Noticing 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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5 of 44 comments
  • Gtem Gtem on Mar 07, 2018

    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.

    • See 2 previous
    • Rolando Rolando on Mar 11, 2018

      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.

  • Rolando Rolando on Mar 11, 2018

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

  • Scott Mopar4wdthanks for those stats. But if 40% of suv buyers are 65+ that is not a long term strategyat 70 I’m perhaps not germane as I have only 2 cars now and replace only when they’re stolen
  • Mopar4wd I think the real question is when every EV can be optioned to be startlingly fast, you need something else to differentiate. Handling features etc, outright acceleration may not be as much a measure as it once was. That's the real problem I see for Dodge, their best bet would seem to be making them look way better than the competition.
  • Dukeisduke The wheelcovers with all the little round holes are from Pontiac, like the Catalina.
  • DungBeetle62 "Mark III would make its branding as exclusive as possible... " Meanwhile, 40 years on down the road every single Lincoln product was "MK _____"
  • FreedMike It is kind of refreshing to see an off-roader that is focused on the basics of off-roading, versus convincing its’ owner that he’s the real-life incarnation of the Punisher, and the owner of the largest penis in human history.