With a mid-ship slant engine layout, the Toyota Previa is one of the most unusual vans in history but why and how did Toyota actually build it?
The Toyota Previa, as of late, is getting increasing amounts of attention because of a renewed interest in this Rad (or Radwood) era of cars. With popular YouTubers like Doug DeMuro, Tyler Hoover, and Car Wizard all coming out with videos on the Previa, a new generation of car enthusiast gets exposed, for the first time, to this radically designed van.
But, how the heck did Toyota ever greenlight such a, in hindsight, revolutionary new design? Although my blog post does not have concrete evidence and real quotes from the head honchos and designers of the time, my guesses are backed up by the design of the actual Previa and the time period which the Previa was birthed.
It was the 90’s, baby.
A healthy Japanese export economy and companies like Honda, Mazda, and Toyota had a ton of cash to inject into R&D. Enter the Golden Age of Japanese cars.
It seems like the motto of the time was “spare no expense.” The Mazda Autozam AZ-1, Subaru SVX, Honda CR-X etc, these are all cars that exemplified the time period of having your cake and eating it too. Here’s all the function AND form.
By the time the Japanese economic bubble of 1989 popped for several reasons but mostly for investors pumping up the prices of Japanese company stock well beyond what it was actually worth, the Previa project was already in full swing.
Van market at the time
Lee Iacocca and his 1984 Dodge Caravan certainly didn’t make the van market but the Caravan boosted the simple van into the garages of millions of Americans seemingly overnight, coining the term Mini-van in the process. The Caravan diverged from the cab-over design and truck-like handling of earlier vans and maximized space, gave Americans good fuel economy, and afforded them a handling experience they’d be familiar with, the Carvacan using a car-like front wheel drive layout.
Toyota had a van during the time dubbed simply “The Van” in the United States. In foreign markets it was called the TownAce (MasterAce, Surf Van etc.)
It was a minger (ugly, utilitarian, edges everywhere.) The Toyota Van was already small to begin with. Throw an engine in the front, a RWD configuration that raises the floor, and barely enough cargo room when you crammed seven in it, and it was truly a Japanese van trying to make it in an American market. The Toyota Van was no match for the Dodge Caravan and subsequent offshoots of the time.
Toyota needed something new, fresh, revolutionary, and, reflective of the 90’s. Toyota had the money and the cojones to throw money at something. This was the era that brought us the Merc’ killing LS400, the third-gen Toyota Camry, and the seventh gen Toyota Corolla.
In stark contrast to the Toyota Van, the Previa had all of the space. It’s like Toyota said, “Yo dawg, I heard you like space so we put space in your space so you can have more space.” The Previa’s design was downright spacious.
Chrysler boasted 150 cubic feet in their Caravans with both seats removed.
The Previa in the same configuration? 158 cubic feet.
Even the current Sienna only bests the Previa by 6 cubic feet, 30 years later.
Researching the Previa, I’ve “dug up” the original patent filed in 1987 for this van, it was a joint collaboration between Japan Toyota designer Tokuo Fukuiichi and American Toyota designer at Calty David Doyle.
There are three photos below so be sure to click left to scroll through them.
By moving the engine underneath the van, smack dab in the middle, and going away from a boxy to a more aerodynamic egg design, Toyota gave mini-van owners all the space they needed. And unlike its competition, Toyota remained RWD. Toyota was not coy about its egg design. Check out two of these commercials which sum up the Previa below.
In order to make this Estima/Previa work, no ordinary engine from Toyota’s current lineup could fit, so, Toyota designed and engineered a totally new 2.4L 16-valve in-line four-cylinder engine mounted horizontally. According to Toyota in an official paper they published I’m don’t have the bread to shell out for at the moment
“This engine has the TOYOTA original compact 4-valve DOHC system (scissors gear mechanism), and TOYOTA’s newest technologies, such as 75 deg. slant cylinder and Separated accessory Drive System. The compact configuration reduces the height of this engine to only 44Omm (17.3-inches). Engine location is under the flat floor on the midship rear-wheel-drive vehicle and allows the PREVIA to have a spacious cabin with a walkthrough.”
Just take a look at photos of this engine. This thing’s flat, yo.
Even though American buyers loved the space of the Previa, ultimately, this NA engine and all 133 HP and 152-lb-ft weren’t enough to satisfy American needs. Six years later, they had a solution. Enter the 2TZ-FZE with the Z standing for a Supercharger.
“Engines in other companies’ mini-vans in the U.S. market, however, have gradually been increased in capacity; V6 engines of more than 3-liter capacity are the mainstream today. This trend has generated a growing demand for a larger displacement engine for PREVIA.
To meet these market demands, Toyota has developed a
new supercharged engine, the 2TZ-FZE, for the PREVIA.
This engine uses an electronic boost control system to
attain high fuel economy while maintaining acceleration as
smooth as with a naturally charged large-displacement
engine. The following sections outline this engine and its
various technological features.”
This new 2TZ-FE now had 160 HP and 190 lb-ft, V6 power with four-cylinder MPG kind of.
The United States enjoyed this S/C for three years before it was ultimately replaced by the Camry based Sienna.
By the time Toyota tried to resurrect the Previa with more power the writing was on the wall because of poor sales and Toyota was already knee-deep in their Sienna program, a traditional van with an engine in the front. Sure, it wasn’t as spacious as a Previa but at least you didn’t look like you were driving around in the future.
Partly to blame for the Previa’s design was IIHS tests like this which freaked out a lot of buyers.
No engine up front without specific engineering to mitigate high-speed front crashes meant a poor rating for crashworthiness.
What’s old is cool again
Just like fashion, what once was old is new again and vans, specifically among the Radwood crowd, are coming back into style, at least on the used market.
The Previa is one of those vans.
Unloved by consumers when it did come out, only through the nostalgic lens of our childhood do people with a bit of money to burn finally appreciate these vans for the marvels of engineering that it is.
Did you ride around in a Previa as a kid? Want to buy one? Let me know your thoughts on this cooler-than-life van in the comments below.