The first generation Previa (Estima/Lucida in Japan) is Toyota's first attempt in minivan development, as minivan production then are strictly Yankee territory. Although the egg-shaped fascia concealed a bonnet, the engine was still in cab-over configuration as per Japanese van tradition, which was not negative at all for it retained the heavy duty rear wheel drive virtue. With the second iteration, Toyota decided to bite the FF bullet to free up more interior room.
The refreshing exterior cues of the Previa are inline with Toyota's new styling theme and culture. Although plagued with sharp edges all over, nothing on it will make one say that three letter word (think: box). There is an aggressive front stance thanks to the uniquely-shaped headlamps that are in the same tune with the incumbent Toyota Celica and the increased overall dimensions will woo would-be passengers of all ages. The sloping roof line and the boldly-styled 16" alloy wheels will make one consider the Previa as the legit M-class sedan alternative.
The front bonnet now houses the transversely-mounted, 2.4 liter VVT-i (Variable Valve Timing-Intelligent) engine in the guise of 2AZ-FE, and is mated to a silky-smooth shifting 4-speed automatic transmission. Power and torque figures are enough to rival six banger minivans while maintaining excellent fuel economy that can go as high as 8 km/liter in mixed cycle driving. Strut-type front suspension and torsion beam rear suspension from the Corolla Altis provide handling and springing duties. As in the true sense of the word "Previa", overall ride height is slightly lower compared to its other counterparts.
The Toyota Previa cuddles seven passengers with more than enough room to spare. The seamless sliding and reclining configuration maximizes usable interior space. Ingress and egress is made easier with sliding doors on both sides. Again in new Toyota tradition, the left-of-center mounting of the Optitron-backlighted gauge cluster offers an unobstructed, optimal view, although the lighting may be too bright especially during night driving.
Supplying cabin tunes are a 2-DIN Fujitsu Ten cassette/CD combination and six speakers. Dual glove compartments and cup holders add a touch of versatility and convenience. The automatic, push-button controlled air-conditioning system is excellent and even borders on freezing. The automatic transmission lever deviates from the traditional column-mounted design and is now mounted beside the steering wheel, and retains the fore and aft detents just like a floor mounted slush box. A leather-wrapped four spoke steering wheel with wood-like trimmings complement the plush interior. Noise levels are decreased with the use of more sound deadening materials as in all Toyota vehicles.
On the safety side, seat belts all around secure the passengers, while active safety features are the ABS (Anti-Lock Braking System) with EBD (Electronic Brake Force Distribution) Braking Systems, as well as air bags for both driver and front passenger. All corners are secured by a SONAR (Sound Navigation & Ranging) sensor that whines when possible path obstructions are detected, and therefore eliminates the need for auxiliary mirrors. Those who get the privilege to know the Previa more may turn this off for additional peace of mind.
Handling and overall dynamic response is the Previa's shining jewel. Unlike traditional minivans which have soft, luxo-barge cruiser handling characteristics, it returns an otherwise firm and compliant but supple ride and surprisingly for a van, it is agile and nimble to drive especially on winding roads. As the vehicle speed increases, a little bit of down force is also invoked to ensure maximum grip on the rear tires while dicing the twists in near European fashion. Good thing the stock Yokohama ASPEC tires were up to the challenge. The braking department via four wheel disc brakes is superb, dynamic, and is responsive even to minute changes in pedal pressure, albeit a little bit more feedback from the pedal is to be desired.
The 2.4 liter VVT-i engine, despite being just a four banger, yields more than enough power for city jaunts. Coupled with the smooth-shifting automatic transmission, maintaining an engine speed of 1,500 rpm is enough to propel this van at acceptable city speeds. However, if more pep is desired, rev more and the throaty sound of the engine unveils its sporty nature, accompanied by an almost instantaneous rise in power and torque figures for sprinting and overtaking stints.
With multi-tasking being commonplace nowadays, the Toyota Previa is fortunately not an exception. Here is a minivan that's fun to drive and at home with the corners. Sure, it may have controlled body roll, but it is still nevertheless worth the enthusiast's drive and is bound to exceed expectations. It may be a grocery getter, a family shuttle or what have you, but one fact remains and must be kept in mind; the Previa begs to be owner-driven. Succumb to this urge and it returns the favor with delight.