By on February 16, 2021

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.

Image: 1994 Toyota PreviaA 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]

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41 Comments on “Rare Rides: A Supercharged 1995 Toyota Previa, Mystical Minivan...”


  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    “Consumers did not warm to the egg-shaped design”

    I dunno – my 96 and 98 GV and GC were pretty egg-shaped, and they sold like crazy. They were simply bigger vehicles with more power, plus they had “cab forward!” technology.

    Mid-engine layouts like this often present service and maintenance nightmares. The infamous VW Vanagon is another example. The idea of lifting the hood means pulling a cover from the interior, similar to the older RWD vans from the Big Three. That prospect may have scared off many buyers.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Not to repeat what I just posted below, but I got a fair amount of seat time in one of these, and it’s no wonder why this model didn’t sell – it was very, very slow, and it was expensive, particularly if you opted for the supercharged engine.

      Also, if I remember correctly, the Chrysler vans of this era had introduced dual sliding rear doors, and the Previa only had one.

      But if you spent the extra the extra money on one, and you could put up with the lack of power, you definitely had something that would run forever, if that’s your bag.

      • 0 avatar

        while it’s true the Chrysler vans had four doors, it was not until the 1996 model year. So by then Previa was already doomed.

        • 0 avatar
          Kyree S. Williams

          Right. Also, the GM minivans got an optional sliding door somewhere around 1997, which was made standard in 2000.

          Ford didn’t put a sliding door on the Windstar until it was redesigned in 1999.

          The Nissan Quest/Mercury Villager also didn’t get a sliding door until their 1999 second generations.

          And of course, the second-gen Odyssey, replete with driver-side also debuted in 1999.

          I’d say a driver’s-side sliding door wasn’t an important factor until the late nineties, by which time the Previa had been replaced. Toyota was on-time with that one.

          • 0 avatar
            SCE to AUX

            The double sliding door of the 96 C-D-P vans was a huge selling point when we shopped as a family with 3 kids then, which grew to 5 kids by 2000.

            Everyone else raced to add that feature ASAP, but it really increased Mopar’s lead in minivans back then because 3-door vans suddenly looked antiquated – even unsafe – by comparison.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    My ex-in laws had one of these, and Lord, was it s-l-o-w. But it ran forever.

  • avatar
    3800FAN

    These cost close to 50% more than a comparable chrysler TC and had no v6. Right there is the recipe for failure. People who bought them did so because they wanted a minivan that lasted forever and they did. These customers were a tiny slice of the market though. Most minivan families use them as disposable family transporters, the black and decker toaster oven of family transport and the chrysler vans have always fit the bill best. Look at any used minivan and see how trashed the interior STILL is AFTER being detailed and youll know what i mean.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      Chrysler offered a Mitsu sourced turbo 4 for a while on the first generation Caravan. It was not a big seller.

      • 0 avatar
        C5 is Alive

        The engine you’re thinking of was Chrysler’s own 2.5L Turbo. The Mitsu engines were a normally-aspirated 2.6L “Hemi” four-cylinder and the later 3.0L V6.

        • 0 avatar
          3800FAN

          I had the mitsu 2.6 in my plymouth reliant. It was a gas guzzler and i couldn never get it to stop running rich. In the end it was dying from timing chain guide failire so i junked it before it self destructed.

          • 0 avatar
            golden2husky

            The “silent shaft” Mitsu engine was not a bad engine, but the Mikuni carb was a very expensive POS. We had this engine in a 84 New Yorker – and every 15-20K miles it would develop horrible idle problems. The fix, which a factory rep showed the dealer, was fairly easy to fix – you removed three screws, removed this plate and cleaned the plastic bits in there with carb cleaner. Sadly this was after we paid for a replacment – which was $700 plus for the carb alone, which is in late 80’s dollars.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    We’re finally realizing the packaging promise of underfloor mechanicals with EVs. The Previa was flawed but ahead of its time.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    Facebook link? No thank you.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      Same. I’ve added years to my life by not having a FB account, especially considering the last 12 months.

    • 0 avatar
      jkross22

      While my browser has retained my login and password for FB, I visit probably twice/year when I get links like this.

      Not sure what FB is really getting from that type of data.

      Although I do enjoy giving Zuck something to do and search for chupacabras, flaking teflon and early man made tools to help their algorithm out.

      They know me so well.

      • 0 avatar
        ToolGuy

        Ah, good old PTFE. I was told it was invented as part of the Manhattan Project – I was lied to. (It was used in gaseous diffusion but was ‘discovered’ earlier – by ‘accident.’)

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polytetrafluoroethylene

        (If you try really hard, you can kill two birds with one pan.)

        [Personally, I use non-stick pans for low-heat cooking – i.e., eggs – other members of my household seem to have issues grasping this concept (as evidenced by heat warpage), but I should be quiet now.]

    • 0 avatar
      SaulTigh

      Agreed. Not gonna do it, to quite G.H.W. Bush via Dana Carvey.

  • avatar
    JMII

    The father of a college buddy of mine had one of these. The interior was super weird thanks to the mid-front-engine setup. The dash had the same egg-shape and flowed between the two front seats. This setup gave it a Star Trek like vibe as you sat in captains chairs surrounded by controls. Visibility out the front was a little too good, it felt like you riding in a fish bowl. We used it road trip to Disney World. I remember it being comfortable, as vans tend to be, but it cornered and accelerated like the Titanic. At the time it seemed futuristic with its space capsule / pod-like shape.

    • 0 avatar
      C5 is Alive

      Speaking of that Star Trek vibe, the ovoid speedometer still reminds me of the Enterprise-D saucer section.

    • 0 avatar
      golden2husky

      I referred to that dash bulge as being pregnant, after all it was a minivan. Friend’s family had one, they only bought Toyotas. It was well made and it had really good interior materials. Chrysler’s vans had much cheaper interior fitments in comparison but they also were thousands less, so there’s that. The midship engine did make for more costly service, and the only real repair that I remember my friends father grousing over was a what I believe was a seal on the engine.

  • avatar
    CKNSLS Sierra SLT

    My wife and I owned two of these when our three children were small. We even towed a pop up tent trailer behind it. Yes it was slow-but no issues what so ever. As a matter of fact-when we bought our second one and traded in the first Previa-it was just a few dollars out of pocket due to high resale values even though they were not that popular. But we were living in Southern California and there were many on the road-so that probably helped. Traded in the second Previa later on a Chevrolet Venture mini van. That was a BIG MISTAKE.

  • avatar
    jmo

    They were expensive. A 1994 Previa LE SC All-Trac was $31,298. That’s $55,998 today. The cheapest DLX option was $22,818 or $40,826 today.

  • avatar
    gasser

    I remember a neighbor had a non turbo model which was not impressive. In 1995, we traded a Sable station wagon in on a then brand new Ford Windstar. Even with a few options, like front/rear air conditioning; tinted glass; a bathtub sized 25 gallon gas tank and few other baubles, it was about $22K after a dealer discount of $2K. It came standard with the 3.8L V6 and had the most comfortable front seats I’ve ever experienced. The only other thing we considered was a Caravan, but the Ford dealer here had a better track record. The acceleration of the V6 sold my wife on the van.

  • avatar
    thekevinmonster

    Ahh yes, the Previa, the first car I owned (by way of my parents titling it to me when I graduated college). The second minivan my family owned, the first being the Toyota Van (HighACE elsewhere). The Previa was a huge improvement over the Van: it was nicer inside and out, the accessory drive in the front ‘hood’ area meant you could do various services without opening up the ungainly engine cover inside, and it was built relatively like a tank (minus rust issues). The Van was not compatible with many quick oil change places, because apparently their liability insurance depends on the customer not leaving their vehicle.

    Yes, it was underpowered. The driver also sat directly upon the intake manifold and throttle body, which meant when you’d put the engine under high load, it sounded like it was going to explode. It being underpowered did not stop us from packing ours to the absolute gills to go on summer vacations. The replacement V6 Windstar was astonishing what with its 2x the horsepower – it accelerated! You could watch the gas gauge go down when you floored it!

    Mine eventually went the way of “I want to buy a brand new car”, mixed with, “the dealership damaged the radiator drain plug and I didn’t want to pay several hundred dollars for a replacement on a car with 180k miles”.

    I do have to say that the underfloor mid engine design did make for a space efficient vehicle.

  • avatar
    KOKing

    These remain wildly popular with certain demographics here in SoCal, and there are still plenty on the road, and the ones that end up at the local pick-n-pulls get picked over VERY quickly. You can always hear em coming from blocks away from their tell-tale belt squealing.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    This was the only mini van we ever owned. When the third kid was on the way, it was clear that we needed something bigger than the Jeep Cherokee/Wagoneer that we had owned sinced 1984. So, we bought one the first year they came out (1991). It was true that the normally aspirated engine worked hard to push it around, but in the era of the 55 mph highway speed limit, it was adequate; and did not seem materially slower than the Wagoneer, which had a 4-speed manual. The interior had a lot of cloth on the door panels and elsewhere (common to Japanese vehicles of the time). After a routine servicing, the dealer wet-cleaned the entire interior, leaving it a bit damp, although not noticeable at the time. We parked it in our garage during a 2-week vacation and returned home to a petri dish of mold and mildew . . . to which my wife is highly allergic. After multiple unsuccessful remediation efforts and threats from me, we resolved the situation by the dealer replacing the 91 with a new, loaded ’94 supercharged version at their cost with full credit for my ’91 as a trade. The leather in the seats (which were as comfortable as anything I’ve ever had and more comfortable than most) was high quality; and the interior was not lined in mouse fur. As proof of that, we did a 1-day drive from DC to Mobile, Alabama . . . at the accepted “legal” speed of 60 mph. The supercharged engine was a much better powerplant, probably because the torque came on quickly; and was also quieter when working hard. I don’t remember any appreciable fuel economy difference between the two engines . . . or between either Toyota and my Wagoneer. We had a house in the highest area of West Virginia at 3800 elevation, so the car got a lot of use climbing mountains. Routine servicing was not a problem there was an access port under the driver seat (which rocked forward) that allowed DIY oil fills. In addition, the car had an oil reservoir at the front (underneath a vestigial “hood”) that automatically replenished the engine oil if it was low. If memory serves, the Previa was shorter than the 3-seat Chrysler minivans but had more interior room. Even the fold-up rear seats were suitable for adults. The one drawback was that there probably wasn’t a whole lot of occupant protection from a frontal collision . . . but nothing like the VW Vanagon of the 60s.

    • 0 avatar
      indi500fan

      That oil replenishment system was interesting.

      We looked at it at GM as a possibility for some commercial vehicles.
      But eventually decided it would probably just stretch out the timeline for neglected maintenance to have its bad effects.

    • 0 avatar
      spamvw

      Well the 80’s Vanagon has the spare mounted under the front for crash protection, but as you said in the earlier split window and bay window buses, YOU are the crumple zone.

  • avatar
    SaulTigh

    I see a guy delivering pizzas in one of these in my city all the time. A bit worn and thrashed out, but he slices and dices in traffic with the best of them. I respect that.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    This van is in really good shape for its age. The owner really took good care of this van. For the shape it is in $3,500 is a very fair price despite having over 238k miles but then these vans can literally run forever.

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      It’ll run forever (or another 100K plus) but the parts availability makes me cringe. It could be the HAVC that goes, or a window or wiper motor. Or god forbid a brake booster, radiator even a belt tensioner.

      Or just a door handle. Never mind body parts, tail lights, etc. I guess it could be worth it for someone that’s a true lover of these.

      • 0 avatar
        Mike Beranek

        You nailed it, the Previa was just too “unique”. My wife’s Sienna uses plain-old Camry parts, and there’s plenty around.

      • 0 avatar
        golden2husky

        DenverMike – you nailed it on parts availability being a concern for any old car. For that very reason I had a new clutch, clutch master cylinder, timing belt, tensioner, and a host of seals, sensors, and parts on my 95 Probe. It took the guy a couple of weeks to get all the parts before they pulled the engine out to do all the work. None of this was necessary at the moment, but I figured since I’ll keep the car in the collection until I die, the $5K was worth it. Cars that didn’t sell in huge numbers can become junk due to lack of support. Contrast that with my old Sable where parts are still readily available 29 years after manufacture. And, they are dirt cheap too!

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    I always thought the mid engine awd platform on these would have made a neat sports or track car. Remove the minivan body and start from scratch.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    “The Previa was Toyota’s overdue replacement for the generally ignored Van, ….it competed directly with the excellent front-drive vans from Chrysler, so it was time for a rethink.”

    I logged a lot of miles in both those vehicles, the Toyota was a lot more fun to drive, but the Chrysler was probably better for family-hauling duties.

    Rented a Previa once for a long road trip, it was nice but slow. As I recall they cost quite bit more than the domestic competition, so no surprise they didn’t take off.

    • 0 avatar

      The ChryCo vans were just so well-designed for American tastes, all the way through the 1990s. It was exactly what the market wanted, and the too complicated, weird, expensive Toyota was just the wrong direction.

      Clearly they fixed that with the Sienna, which was much less cool but a better fit.

  • avatar
    mor2bz

    Maybe they’d run forever if they were take care of, much like most other
    vehicles. I have seen head gasket problems in a few of them; probably
    from neglected oil and coolant changes. When the shaft going forward and
    up from the engine that drives the accessories wears out its bushings, you are in for a pretty substantial job. All in all, a top quality vehicle from when a dollar was a dollar and the Japanese cared. Like Murilee Martin says, they
    are worth fixing.

  • avatar
    notsure

    I bought a 1992 LE in 2002 that had 130,000 miles on the clock. Drove it until 2011 when it had 220,000 miles. I might still have it if a hail storm didn’t total it in 2011 .Right before it got totaled the original muffler failed
    I think the main reason it failed in the U.S. was the 25% chicken tax put on all trucks imported into the U.S. and the reason why the 1998 Sienna was built in the U.S.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    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.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      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.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    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.

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