Rare Rides: A Supercharged 1995 Toyota Previa, Mystical Minivan

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis

Of all the Good Nineties Minivans, the Toyota Previa (like the Mercury Villager Nautica) stands out. Engine in the middle, driven wheels at the rear, superior build quality, and supercharging all made for a unique minivan offering never seen before or since.

But unique didn’t sell in America (still doesn’t), and the Previa taught Toyota a lesson about its customers.

The Previa was Toyota’s overdue replacement for the generally ignored Van, offered in North America from 1984 to 1990. Called TownAce in most markets, the Van was not well-suited to North American roads with its utility truck origins and tendency to feel unstable at highway speeds. Its dated design and appearance did nothing to earn Toyota market share when it competed directly with the excellent front-drive vans from Chrysler, so it was time for a rethink.

Toyota spent a lot of time and money in development of the Previa, which was intended to showcase the company’s engineering and preview technologies and ideas for the direction of future minivans. The Previa was designed by a two-man Japanese-American team to ensure its market success everywhere.

A mid-engine design was selected; its power arrived via a 2.2- or 2.4-liter inline-four engine mounted under the front seats. The 2.4 was available in naturally aspirated or (eventually) supercharged guises, while the 2.2 was a turbocharged diesel. In its basic form, the Previa was rear-drive, but all-wheel drive was available with or without supercharging as the All-Trac. Transmissions varied depending on the drive configuration and included a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic.

Previa went on sale for the 1991 model year. Though the van’s rear-drive layout and mid-engine placement meant a more even weight distribution, it also meant engine sizes were limited. While other manufacturers could offer six cylinders in their family haulers for the American market, Toyota couldn’t. The naturally aspirated 2.4-liter engine (the diesel was not available in North America) produced just 133 horsepower, and with seven Americans, their cargo, and the potential drag of all-wheel drive that just wasn’t enough. To enhance Previa’s appeal Toyota added a supercharger and an S/C badge on the tailgate. Power jumped to 158 horses, and fuel economy increased from 17 to 23 miles per gallon. In ’94 the extra power was restricted to the options list on the LE model but was optional on all trims in ’95.

But supercharging couldn’t fix Previa’s other issues in North America. Consumers did not warm to the egg-shaped design and passed it by in favor of more traditional-looking offerings from other brands. It didn’t help that the Previa was also more expensive than its competition, even if it was absolutely made of much higher quality materials. For its family consumers concerned with safety the Previa was also a fail and netted an overall Poor rating from the IIHS. Toyota needed another rethink.

After 1997 Previa was finished in North America, though it lived on through the 1999 model year in other markets. For its second-generation internationally, the Previa moved to a front-drive platform with the Camry, and became much more traditional. Toyota learned its lesson about North American minivan consumers, and the Previa’s domestic replacement was the much more traditional Sienna. Built with the Camry in Georgetown, Kentucky, the Sienna’s engine had six cylinders, and its driven wheels were at the front. Dealers celebrated while used Previas soldiered on everywhere, quietly.

Today’s Rare Ride is the typically seen emerald green color, in basic DX plus S/C trim. With 238,000 miles the upholstery looks brand new. It’s for sale in rural Kentucky for $3,500.

[Images: Toyota]

Corey Lewis
Corey Lewis

Interested in lots of cars and their various historical contexts. Started writing articles for TTAC in late 2016, when my first posts were QOTDs. From there I started a few new series like Rare Rides, Buy/Drive/Burn, Abandoned History, and most recently Rare Rides Icons. Operating from a home base in Cincinnati, Ohio, a relative auto journalist dead zone. Many of my articles are prompted by something I'll see on social media that sparks my interest and causes me to research. Finding articles and information from the early days of the internet and beyond that covers the little details lost to time: trim packages, color and wheel choices, interior fabrics. Beyond those, I'm fascinated by automotive industry experiments, both failures and successes. Lately I've taken an interest in AI, and generating "what if" type images for car models long dead. Reincarnating a modern Toyota Paseo, Lincoln Mark IX, or Isuzu Trooper through a text prompt is fun. Fun to post them on Twitter too, and watch people overreact. To that end, the social media I use most is Twitter, @CoreyLewis86. I also contribute pieces for Forbes Wheels and Forbes Home.

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  • Jeff S Jeff S on Feb 18, 2021

    Parts can be an issue for any vehicle beyond 10 years old especially body parts and electrical parts but yes I agree that the Previa would be more of a challenge. For $3,500 it might be worth it if someone really liked this van especially since it appears to be in excellent shape. I have had a few challenging vehicles in my day especially getting parts for my 1985 Mitsubishi Mighty Max even when it was only 2 years old and yes I know that it was the same truck as the Dodge D50 and the Plymouth Arrow but even those were challenging especially if you had to get a new catalytic converter, air conditioning compressor, and body parts such as a new grill. I went thru with all of those challenges but I did put about 200k miles on it and it was reliable but I never want to own something that hard to get parts for and as expensive as the parts were. I was able to use super glue to attach the loose pieces on the plastic grill that cracked with aging.

    • MRF 95 T-Bird MRF 95 T-Bird on Feb 18, 2021

      In the early 90’s I owned a first generation Honda Prelude. Even though it was just over 10 years old there were several items like trim pieces and mud flaps that my local dealer didn’t stock and couldn’t order. I ended up getting them via a mail order catalog.

  • DenverMike DenverMike on Feb 18, 2021

    It's one of those things most don't think about before purchasing. I had to giggle when I went to a national auto parts chain for a power steering pump for my '05 F-150 and not only did they have it on the shelf, but it was just $36. So I asked the girl if their was an upgrade to a better quality one. She said that's just the one. It's been in the truck for a couple years, no problem.

  • Charles The UAW makes me the opposite of patriotic
  • El scotto Wranglers are like good work boots, you can't make them any better. Rugged four wheel drive vehicles which ironically make great urban vehicles. Wagoneers were like handbags desired by affluent women. They've gone out of vogue. I can a Belgian company selling Jeep and Ram Trucks to a Chinese company.
  • El scotto So now would be a good time to buy an EV as a commuter car?
  • ToolGuy $1 billion / 333.3 million = $3 per U.S. person ¶ And what do I get for my 3 bucks -- cleaner air and lower fuel prices? I might be ok with this 🙂🙂
  • VoGhost Matt, I'm curious why you write that inventory levels are low at 74 days. Typically, 60 days is the benchmark for normal inventory.