I recently drove a 1997 Toyota Previa, which is a minivan that’s not like other minivans. This is because it’s a mid-engine, supercharged, all-wheel drive minivan. It’s a minivan that thinks it’s a sports car. Except it’s shaped like an egg. Basically, it’s the weirdest minivan ever made.
Let’s start here: The Previa was Toyota’s minivan before the Sienna, and it was sold in the United States from 1991 to 1997. Originally, it was offered with rear-wheel drive and a manual transmission (and the aforementioned mid-engine configuration), but later models added all-wheel drive, an automatic and a supercharger for a little more power. I drove a 1997 model, from the final year, with all of those things — even the nice, big supercharger. Gotta love that minivan supercharger whine.
Amazingly, you can hear a little bit of that minivan supercharger whine, because the engine isn’t just in the middle — it’s underneath the driver’s seat. Directly underneath the driver’s seat. When I say this, what I mean is if you want to check the oil, you have to lift up the driver’s seat, then open up a little cloth flap covered in interior carpeting, and there’s your dipstick. The hood in your car is a piece of painted metal. In the Toyota Previa, the hood is a small piece of carpet underneath the driver’s seat.
So what exactly is the engine? The Previa was initially sold with a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder that had 138 horsepower and 154 lb-ft of torque, but these numbers just weren’t sufficient to compete with V6-powered American-market vans. That’s the reason for the supercharger: Toyota couldn’t fit another engine in this odd configuration, but they could fit a supercharger, so they did. Unfortunately, it only brought up power to 161, though torque increased to 201 lb-ft. Still, this van isn’t exactly fast, or even spry, despite its supercharged, all-wheel drive, mid-engine nature. Not surprisingly, its Sienna replacement offered a V6.
The real question, perhaps, is: Why did Toyota put the engine there? I suspect the reason is a little different from what you’re thinking: it wasn’t intended to free up space in the front, or at least I don’t think so — it was intended to preserve the appearance of the car. Most minivans had their engines up front in the 1990s. But the Previa had it underneath the driver’s seat because they wanted the thing to look like an egg. Why they wanted this is anyone’s guess, but I can promise you this: they succeeded. It looks like an egg.
So you have an egg-shaped van with a mid-engine design and a supercharger. It’s weird. But it gets weirder when you start poking around it. This is when you find, for instance, the swiveling seats in back: The middle row of seats can face forward, like a normal van, or you can turn them around and face the cargo area. They lock into place facing backwards — and they even have supplementary seat belts to keep you secure if you’ve decided you want to ride along looking out the back window instead of the front window. And speaking of seats, the third row is another quirk: It’s split into two pieces that don’t fold into the floor, and you’re not supposed to remove them. Instead, they fold up against the windows and clip into the rear coat hangers.
Up front, of course, the seats are also bizarre in the sense that you lift them up to reveal the engine — but that’s not the only weird thing. There’s also the windshield. Because the Previa is shaped like an egg, the windshield ends up so far forward that you can barely reach the base of it. The dashboard is also odd, creating an "M" shape in the interior — and the parking brake is between the driver’s door and the seat. It’s a comedy of absurdity.
Oddly, when you drive it, nothing is all that absurd. Behind the wheel of the Previa, you’re primarily struck by three things. One is that your visibility is great, because the egg shape means you have glass everywhere. And since the front windshield — as bizarre as it is — is directly at the front of the car, you’re not guessing where the corners are, even in tight spaces. Another thing you realize immediately when you’re in the Previa is that you have a very high seating position; higher than the position in most other vans, likely on account of the seat sitting on top of the engine.
And the last thing you realize as you drive the Previa: it’s slow. Really slow. Quite slow. It may be a mid-engine, supercharged, all-wheel drive vehicle on paper, but it moves like a van.
And, indeed, it feels like a van in every other arena, too, including handling, steering and all else. The simple truth is the weirdness of the Previa is confined to its on-paper attributes, as Toyota was generally able to make this thing feel like a usual minivan otherwise. At least until you have to change the oil. Find a Toyota Previa for sale