2011 Toyota Sienna: Remembering its Great-Grandad
June 02, 2011
Throughout its three generations, the Toyota Sienna has been a pretty traditional, inside-the-box type of minivan. That's certainly not a bad thing, because if you're buying a minivan, you're almost certainly looking for traditional, simple and functional all the way.
But let me take a moment to honor a time when Toyota's minivan was, quite frankly, just a little bonkers. That's right, the Toyota Previa.
You want untraditional, how about a midengine minivan? Check out the diagram below from the 1994 Previa brochure. Sitting underneath the front seats is the 2.4-liter 138-horsepower four-cylinder placed on its side at a 75-degree angle. This increased interior space, evened out the weight distribution and lowered the center of gravity. This weirdo powertrain was also hooked up the rear wheels, while there was an option for all-wheel drive (a rarity today amongst minivans, but less-so then) and a limited-slip differential. And get this, you could get a five-speed manual ... in a minivan. Of course, that wasn't unique at the time since you could also row your own in the Chrysler vans. The manual died after 1993.
Now, perhaps you'd think that 138-horsepower pulling around up to 3,750 pounds of all-wheel-drive minivan would result in glacial acceleration. And you'd be absolutely right. Because of the engine's odd placement, a V6 was out of the question, so for 1994 Toyota offered a Roots-type supercharger that bumped power up to 161 horsepower. An improvement certainly, but consider that our 4,461-pound Sienna has 265 horsepower ...
Now, perhaps you'd think that with a 138-horsepower four-cylinder, the Previa would get good gas mileage. And you'd be absolutely wrong. Using today's EPA calculations, an automatic, rear-drive Previa would return 15 mpg city/20 mpg highway and 17 mpg combined. The highway number dropped to 19 with all-wheel drive, while the supercharger didn't really change anything. Either way, that stinks by today's standards. The V6-powered Chrysler minivans were slightly thriftier, though it was the 90s, so nobody really cared.
Beyond the engine, the Previa also was unique in that you didn't have to completely remove the (optional!) third row seat should you need additional cargo space. No, it didn't fold away into the floor like the future Honda Odyssey, but it swung up to the cabin's size like Toyota Land Cruisers continue to do today. Definitely better than calling over an American Gladiator to heave out the back row. The Previa also had a panoramic sunroof, swiveling second-row captain's chairs and a separately powered roof-mounted air-conditioner unit -- features that would appear in later vans.
Let's also not ignore its futuristic exterior and interior styling. The latter in particular brought all the interior controls toward the driver -- something our Sienna could certainly learn from.
I'll stop now, since this is certainly way more than you ever wanted to know about a '90s Toyota minivan, but it was a pretty cool car in its own right that actually sold pretty well. It was also indicative of a period when Toyota wasn't so hopelessly conservative and dowdy.
James Riswick, Automotive Editor