Buy/Drive/Burn: Alternative Japanese Minivans From 1997

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis
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?

  • Dusterdude @El scotto , I'm aware of the history, I have been in the "working world" for close to 40 years with many of them being in automotive. We have to look at situation in the "big picture". Did UAW make concessions in past ? - yes. Do they deserve an increase now ? -yes . Is their pay increase reasonable given their current compensation package ? Not at all ! By the way - are the automotive CEO's overpaid - definitely! (That is the case in many industries, and a separate topic). As the auto industry slowly but surely moves to EV's , the "big 3" will need to be producing top quality competitive vehicles or they will not survive.
  • Art_Vandelay “We skipped it because we didn’t think anyone would want to steal these things”-Hyundai
  • El scotto Huge lumbering SUV? Check. Unknown name soon to be made popular by Tiktok ilk? Check. Scads of these showing up in school drop-off lines? Check. The only real over/under is if these will have as much cachet as Land Rovers themselves? A bespoken item had to be new at one time. Bonus "accepted by the right kind of people" points if EBFlex or Tassos disapproves.
  • El scotto No, "brothers and sisters" are the core strength of the union. So you'll take less money and less benefits because "my company really needs helped out"? The UAW already did that with two-tier employees and concessions on their last contract.The Big 3 have never, ever locked out the UAW. The Big 3 have agreed to every collective bargaining agreement since WWII. Neither side will change.
  • El scotto Never mind that that F-1 is a bigger circus than EBFlex and Tassos shopping together for their new BDSM outfits and personal lubricants. Also, the F1 rumor mill churns more than EBFlex's mind choosing a new Sharpie to make his next "Free Candy" sign for his white Ram work van. GM will spend a year or two learning how things work in F1. By the third or fourth year GM will have a competitive "F-1 LS" engine. After they win a race or two Ferrari will protest to highest F-1 authorities. Something not mentioned: Will GM get tens of millions of dollars from F-1? Ferrari gets 30 million a year as a participation trophy.