The Why, on trying harder

After a fruitless last local search in Houston, #eggquest was ultimately a bust and I’m back on a plane.

I was struck by the number of Toyota Siennas available for sale and in a moment of desperation, I considered pursuing one of those options.

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the Sienna, it’s well made, comfortable, and capable, but despite serving as the Previa’s replacement in North America, they couldn’t be further apart.

The Sienna represents concessions to convention. It subscribes to the American minivan archetype, one of vehicles with front transverse mounted V6 engines, carlike hoods, and FWD. The Sienna caters to market demands, and for all its competence, it lacks whimsy. It fills the need to counter the substantially similar Caravan, Odyssey, Quest, and Sedona, but it doesn’t inspire.

There’s a charm to endeavors that shoot for the moon with thoroughly lateral thinking.

Chrysler’s “invention” or at least reinvigoration of the minivan segment left many manufacturers scrambling to put something competitive in their NA lineups. Toyota’s Master Ace came as the “Van,” Mitsubishi’s stalwart Delica was brought over as the, uh, “Van,” and Nissan brought their C22 Vanette as well, though with a larger engine that led to an unfortunate tendency to self immolate. The Nissan was also sold here as “Van,” time constraints really cramp creative naming opportunities. Domestic offerings also came, with GM’s Astro/Safari and Ford’s Aerostar (Aerostar!).


These rushed-to-market efforts were hastily adapted to the demands and tastes of the North American market, and were largely unsuccessful, but they offered crucial education in what would actually sell. This means the next wave was largely more uniform in adherence to the prototype described above. Nissan’s Quest, Ford’s Windstar, GM’s Dustbuster vans. They all went to front wheel drive with engines mounted up front, usually a corporate V6.

Toyota’s Previa was different.

This was a time when a bubble economy bolstered Toyota was relentlessly pursuing the best solutions, cost be damned. It stuck to a mostly forward control layout, which maximizes space utilization in a given footprint, taking it even further with an inline 4 cylinder engine mounted on its side in the previously underutilized space under the driver. That 4 cylinder engine, the 2TZ-FE, only existed for the Previa, with application specific design elements like dry sump lubrication and the SADS arrangement for auxiliary systems, which lived under the short hood.


Rather than the parts bin marauding that typified GM of the era, Toyota’s products of the late 1980s and early 1990s prioritized making the best possible product, even if it meant more SKUs. It’s the same line of thinking that resulted in the first generation Lexus LS400, and the Lexus-like 3rd generation Camry and 7th generation Corolla.

The Previa was still a distinctly Japanese van, arguably the last one that came to the US. The 2nd row of seats could face backwards for easier conversations, some examples had a dashboard mounted food heating/cooling box, the seats could be turned into a bed for car camping. There were two moonroofs on non-roof rack equipped examples. Aesthetically, it invoked dreams of ground-bound spaceships without being gimmicky.

It should be noted that the design was actually originally half American, CALTY designer David Doyle is credited as one of the original designers, but it was a bold Toyota that greenlit it in its radical form.

Tragically, this sort of design bravery isn’t necessary rewarded, especially in a market as practical appliance minded as US family cars. The Previa was never fast, even with the supercharger added in 1994 to sate V6 power appetites. The Previa was available only with rear or all-wheel drive, but never front drive. The visionary look was polarizing. Probably the biggest blow, though, was pricing.

When it debuted in 1991, the base MSRP ranged from around $14,000 to about $22,000, which was comparable with a contemporary Dodge Caravan but exclusively Japanese production meant it was hit hard by currency fluctuations and in 1997, its last year of import, the base Previa was $25,228. to the Caravan’s $17,815.

It was right around this time that Toyota started “decontenting” across its lineup.

The Sienna debuted for the 1998 model year with a front transverse mounted V6 engine, a carlike hood, and FWD. It was a handsome van, with plenty of power and Camry underpinnings. It was made in Kentucky, which meant it could be priced against domestic minis. It did better in crash tests than the short nosed Previa and as expected, it was a sales success. It continued to get bigger and more powerful, current iterations have up to 266 hp compared the the Supercharged Previa’s 161hp. If I needed a minivan to suit the usual minivan needs, I would get one in a heartbeat.

But it’s not a Previa.

Compared to the Siennas listed on Craigslist, the few Previas that are still in circulation are starting to get priced with a rarity premium. As I’ve found, the ones that are left are often in rough shape, and most worth a look get sold quickly, a testament to their nascent cult following.

If the good Previas have all dried up, the nearest equivalent is probably not the Sienna but the VW Vanagon, which also eschewed convention with a rear mounted engine, creative interior layouts, and sometimes a kitchen sink.

But I’m hoping they haven’t. I want to believe the preserved Previas are out there, and I’ll keep looking. For now, I’ll try addressing TRO’s current suspension and coldstart issues.

There’s still plenty of Previa to Diarize.


About previadiaries

Ride bike. Drive Van.
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