Text: Raymond D. Young / Photos: Raymond D. Young | posted January 11, 2009 00:00
Exceeding Minivan Expectations
The Americans, who are accustomed to excesses in everything they do, gave the minivan a character that's uniquely theirs. The end result is a large, wagon-like vehicle that seats seven to eight full size Americans plus room to spare, six or eight cylinder engines averaging 3 liters of displacement, and a soft, cushion-like ride. With the dawn of SUVs, again, a product of their excess, minivans are relegated to "soccer mom" status, with the idea of using it to ferry elementary soccer teams of elementary schools by working moms.
The Japanese, on the other hand, have a different perception with regards to these kinds of vehicles. Living a life of simplicity and moderation, especially after the war, they are ingenious enough to convert ordinary, utilitarian light trucks into vehicles that we call as passenger vans today. That's why for every new van, even in 21st century Japan, there is always a bare bones cab-and-chassis truck variant available to the public, a reference that the vans that people have come to love were originally utilitarian trucks that were indispensable to economic development.
Enter the 2008 Toyota Previa. Launched in 2006 and is currently the third generation, in a nutshell this is a rendition of the minivan as the Japanese interprets it. The minivan category is a relatively new market for Japan, so for them, utmost care and moderation is needed for this segment to grow further.
Credit is due to Toyota for being brave pioneers of this segment, as the first generation Previa / Estima crosses one's mind. Launched in Japan in a time where passenger vans with snob noses were the norm, and in the United States as one of the first minivan offerings from a Japanese brand, it was futuristic and innovative during its time, for the first Previa iteration boasts of a front-engine rear-wheel drive configuration, with the engine ingeniously laid under the floor. A budding trendsetter it hoped to be, but there was a disadvantage: engine sizes were severely limited because of the layout, thereby making the van less powerful, at least to the Americans. This is probably the reason why the second generation Previa saw a switch from this layout to the conventional front engine, front wheel drive layout, which it carries until the current generation, and the American-made, mechanically-similar Sienna was made available instead to the US motoring public.
The new Previa is Toyota's proof of leadership in the minivan segment, and its intention to stay there. Proof of which is the highly updated styling reminiscent of a bullet train, which will make one conclude that its embracing modernism, a great diversion from its conservative nature. Whereas the second generation's styling, when launched in its time, was highly futuristic enough, the third generation's styling made its predecessor's design downgrade to the conservative side. Perhaps the main contributors to the futuristic concept were the overall fluid, wind-slicing sheet metal design, HID headlamps and LED tail lamps, as well as 17" wheels shod with 55 series tires. In hindsight, the Previa's design may lead one to think that it's not a minivan at all, which can probably be Toyota's goal when they designed this new Previa.
The interior of the new Previa speaks of more wonders. The topmost Q variant boasts of all-leather seating and fabric appointments, with nary a hint of vinyl. The leather-wrapped steering wheel equipped with audio controls is familiar, as it is also the same one used on its Camry contemporary. Wood accents are used sparingly on the cabin as well. Again, innovative ideas are widely used in the Previa's dashboard, as evidenced in the unconventional shift gate design and location, the novelty of a stop-and-start button and keyless ignition, as well as the left-of-center orientation of the highly revised gauge cluster, which is now more readable thanks to increased backlighting intensity. Resilient ones may be piqued with this layout, but they will soon find out that this arrangement is more logical and ergonomic and lessens driver fatigue. Very good news indeed for would be drivers of this car.
Seating accommodations, on the other hand, are excellent. The front seats provide excellent support and are very comfortable even on long trips. The driver seat has 8-way adjustable electric controls that guarantee the optimum and exact driving position for every driver, which is then complemented by the tilt and telescopically-adjustable steering wheel. Front seat heaters are available should the need arise during cold weather, which is then complemented by a dual zone front air-conditioning with climate control and pollen filter. A 2 DIN Toyota/Fujitsu Ten Audio System with CD and MP3 playback capability supplies tunes.
The second row seats, otherwise called captain's chairs, are infinitely adjustable, except for swivel (rotate) and face-to-face configuration. They can be adjusted fore and aft, can be reclined, and can be moved laterally (i.e. side-by-side) to reveal either a juxtaposed seating position or an isle in which the Superslide center console tray can travel freely, as it has its own rails. Equipped with footrests, the captains' seats easily resemble that of an airline's Business Class; too bad a stowable table is not included. The third row seats, meanwhile, can also be adjusted fore and aft and can be reclined. For cargo purposes, it can folded and tumbled down to reveal additional space for cargo.
What else makes the Previa the default winner in the segment it started, at least in its home market? As Toyota moves on to the 21st century, it now, more than ever, embraces many technologies and innovations, even those previously unheard of or applied in minivans. First and foremost of which is the Smart Entry System, which allows true keyless ingress and egress with minimum driver supervision. It is also surprisingly fool-proof, as tested by this writer. The system will not open the doors even if the car is parked near the house and the key fob is left inside. Power amenities also include the remote opening and closing of sliding passenger doors and the tailgate, an obvious touch of luxury. Despite being automated, it is safe as well, as the doors and tailgate will not open at a button's touch if the car is in motion and/or the transmission is not in Park mode. For purposes of austerity however, if one desires, the passenger doors and tailgate can still be opened in the normal manner. Adaptive front headlights are a first for this segment; this cool and safe feature automatically adjusts the headlights in the direction that the steering wheel is turning. This is a welcome feature that effectively complements the HID headlamps, and makes the Previa's lighting excellent especially at night. Headlight washers are also standard, as well as proximity sonar modules on all four corners, with the rearmost functioning as reverse sensors.
What good is all these gadgetry inside the Previa if its engine is left out? The new Previa sports the same 2.4 liter VVT-i engine from the previous generation, but is updated to generate total power and torque figures of 170 Hp and 224 Nm of torque, respectively. Coupled with the four speed automatic transmission with Super ECT which shifts very seamlessly, the Previa's power delivery is as smooth and as a linear as a Toyota could be. If one wanted spirited performance, a manual mode is available.
With increased insulation materials onboard, the Previa's cabin is effectively masked from external noises and undulation which contribute to the smoother ride. The suspension setup of McPherson struts up front and torsion beam at the rear is surprisingly taut yet supple, partially thanks to the larger 17" wheel and tire combo. Braking duties, on the other hand, are served by large disc brakes on all four corners, which are then complemented with the latest braking assist technologies such as Anti Lock Braking System as well as EBD and BA. The result of which is stopping power that's previously unheard of, especially from a van of this size. Electrically-assisted Power Steering is light but well-weighted.
How it is driving the Previa around? The large side mirrors and green glass truly contribute to how easy it is to maneuver. Acceleration, although with very minimal reaction lag due to the Drive-by-Wire throttle, is modestly brisk but smooth. Steering is unusually precise and taut, thereby inspiring the driver even more. Even though minivans are not built to carve out corners, the Previa wins points in this area as it is really capable of holding itself on corners, thanks to the lower vehicle height, wider track dimensions, larger road footprint, and also the wider 17" tires. The Previa's brakes stop the vehicle well and are easy to modulate. Nice-to-haves for me would probably be an additional of cruise control and traction control, as well as a second row bench seat option in lieu of captain seats. Perhaps a little surgical action can also be done on the rearmost seats so that it folds up in the same manner as with the Lite Ace of yesteryears, so it reveals more cargo space. As the Previa remains a very competent midsize sedan alternative, offering the 3.5 liter V6 engine as an option (just like in other markets including Japan) may attract more buyers. Some people are aware that a Hybrid version is available in some markets (Estima Hybrid), but hold your horses as this variant will probably eat up some time as hybrid vehicles are not that widely accepted here yet.
Summing up, the Toyota Previa, as mentioned, remains to be a top midsize sedan or even a compact SUV alternative. The Previa is proof that the Japanese can compete and lead in a vehicle segment that the Americans started by providing their own interpretation of what a luxury minivan should be.