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Expert Reviews 1 of 4
By Richard Truett
July 12, 1990
Styling is perhaps the one area of automotive expertise the Japanese auto industry has yet to master. Can you think of any Japanese vehicles that are classics? Perhaps the original 1970 Datsun 240Z qualifies. The rest of the horde of Japanese
vehicles of the last 20 years have ranged from grotesque (example: Subaru's XT Coupe) to silly-looking (example: Datsun's 200 SX of 1983-84) to bland (example: Isuzu's I-Mark). Even the new Lexus and Infiniti luxury cars have been criticized for their
styling. The Lexus LS 400 lacks originality by being a near clone of large Mercedes-Benz models, the Infiniti Q45 is spoiled by its weird nose and strange shaped door handles. What does this have to do with the 1991 Toyota Previa van?
Everything. This is the second vehicle from Toyota that wasn't designed by Japanese stylists (the '78 Celica was the first). The styling was carried out at Calty, Toyota's design studio in Newport Beach, Calif. The engineering was done in Japan.
A similar exercise led to the creation of Mazda's sizzling Miata sports car. This arrangement - vehicles styled in America and engineered in Japan - may be what is needed to lift Japanese vehicles to trend-setting standards in styling. This
new van from Toyota is nothing less than a tour de force - not only for its styling but for its engineering. Added to that is the Previa's flashy, futuristic and functional interior. It arguably is the best-looking van on the market. Its slopey
rounded nose and rear end are contemporary and classic in design. Its low air drag coefficient enables the Previa to deliver a very quiet and stable ride at highway speeds. Fuel economy in the test van averaged better than 20 miles per gallon in combined
city/highway driving. There are a few minor first-year bugs that need to be worked out, but the Previa is dangerously close to being the best van money can buy. Let's start with the mechanicals. Unlike other minivans, the Previa's 138-horsepower,
16-valve, four-cylinder engine is located near the middle of the vehicle and it is laying on its side at a 75-degree angle. That means the traditional engine compartment is nowhere to be found. But don't worry, it's not a mechanical nightmare. Routine
maintenance items such as the radiator, air conditioning components, fan belts, alternator, filters, pumps, the battery and fluid reservoirs are under the hood and within easy reach. This layout allows for a nearly flat floor and unprecedented amount
of interior room. Toyota says that by folding up the rear seats, the you can place 4-by 8-feet sheets of plywood flat on the floor. Previa - an Italian word meaning preview - can seat either five or seven passengers. But therein lies one of the
problems. Fully loaded, the Previa's performance can best be described as dull. The engine has to work hard to achieve cruising speeds. Even when unladen with passengers and cargo, the Previa's p
erformance is leisurely at best. The first thing that Toyota needs to do is offer more performance in the Previa. The Previa's chief competitor, Mazda's MPV, offers a V-6, and so do most other manufacturers in their minivans. This is where the Previa
may lose some potential buyers. The test van, which came equipped with an automatic transmission with overdrive, lacked not only the power, but smoothness of a V-6. For now, the Mazda and Chrysler minivans have the edge in performance. Undoubtedly,
one of the best features of the Previa is its curvy futuristic dash. In one fell swoop, Toyota elevated van dashboards from being simply useful control centers to a topic for conversation among the hip and trendy. It's compact, neat, stylish and useful
and has numerous compartments integrated into its design. Press one of the sections in the middle of the dash and a cup holder pops out. Press another and a storage compartment opens. There's a cleverly hidden ash tray and a
neat array of switches and buttons. And therein lies another minor problem: Some of the switches and buttons could be redesigned into more user-friendly components. The switches and levers for the air conditioner felt wooden. The rheostat style of
switch that controls the fan (used in Mazda and Ford vehicles) rather than Toyota's four-position switch would be a better control for the air conditioner. The door-lock and power-window switches mounted on the door require a bit of fiddling with. In
fact, the driver must take his or her eyes off the road for a moment to find the desired button. The overdrive switch also is in a poor location. It's on the tip of the column-mounted gearshift lever. The natural movement of your hand across the lever
to shift the gears also causes you to inadvertently engage or disengage overdrive. A light on the dash tells you what you have done. One other criticism: The fabric roof panel for the forward sunroof - there's also a sunroof for rear passengers - fit
poorly and felt flimsy. These are minor bugs to be sure. And for a vehicle in its first year on the market, it shows that a few minor modifications are all that's keeping the Previa from greatness. Unlike previous Toyota vans, the Previa offers a
sedanlike ride. What kept Toyota vans off the best-seller lists in the past was the fact that the front wheels were directly under the driver and passenger doors, and they handled and drove like trucks. Although the Previa is better than previous
Toyota vans, I was disappointed at the amount of road noise and vibrations transmitted to the interior when I encountered such things as speed bumps and road reflectors. This is another area that Toyota engineers need to improve. The test van came
packed with just about every option Toyota makes. The stereo system featured both a CD player and a cassette tape and seemed ideally mated to the Previa. The two sunroofs elevate the Previa into a class by itself. The rear air conditioner is useful and
does a decent job of making sure rear passengers don't lose their cool. The seats - all of them - are comfortable, firm and supportive. Foot and head room is excellent in all seats. And visibility ranks among the best in its class, thanks to a huge
windshield and numerous windows. After Toyota irons out a few minor bugs, it's a good bet that the next Japanese vehicle honored with classic status will be the Previa.