When usefulness and practicality mean cool

AutoTrader NZ
Published 3 September 2020

The team on the Top Gear television programme might rate the MPV as being so uncool that it’s actually cool, but the reality is something else.

MPVs’ popularity, at least in New Zealand, has widened through the free and relatively low-cost availability of used Japanese import examples, but MPVs have been modest sellers from new after more than two decades.

More new sports cars are sold here than people movers. Yet if logic had its day, MPVs would be challenging SUVs for popularity.

In the first half of this year, a total of 339 new MPVs were sold here, or less than one per cent of the total vehicle market.

That’s a drop of 23 per cent on the 477 that attracted buyers in the same period last year, even though the whole new vehicle market size is much the same as 2006.

Things could have been so different. Renault started the ball rolling in the early 1980s with the adventurous Espace, a clever machine restrained by a high price.

The Americans had their Chrysler Voyager and Chevrolet Lumina, but they weren’t on New Zealand shopping lists in those days.

Then, in a market already conditioned to the Japanese, consumers took more notice when the Toyota Previa (Italian for preview) arrived in 1990.

It brokered a turning point for people movers, not so much because it was a state-of-the-art design, but by dint of it being a Toyota.

Here was a distinctive-looking MPV that was much more than an uprated van to drive, aided by an innovative, mid-engined configuration and excellent weight distribution.

A versatile and roomy interior, good handling and stability – the Previa seemed to have it all.

I first drove a Previa in California, months before the model’s local arrival in 1991, and wasn’t surprised to find passers-by stopping in their tracks.

The egg-shaped design gave a hint of the advances contained within the cabin, and the high levels of ride comfort indicated that the MPV had come of age.

North Americans played a key role in the development of the first generation Previa that tended to have a rather soft ride, with generous body roll that didn’t come at the expensive of poor suspension control.

I was less enamoured by the lack of steering feel and the generous understeer, but by the time the Toyota reached our shores things had firmed up to better suit our conditions. The Aussies and the Europeans also got the stiffer Previa.

David Doyle, one of the Americans responsible for the US input into the Previa, told me Toyota in Japan was nervous about the radical design of the sweeping dashboard that resembled a concept car.

But the folk in California convinced head office this was the right way to go. Doyle would enthuse over the originality of the car and how it was so refreshingly different.

People are spending more time in their cars and interiors shouldn’t only be comfortable, but also interesting place to be.

When Toyota engineers examined competitive minivans, they concluded too much potential passenger space was wasted by engine and drivetrain components.

So a unique twin cam 2.4-litre engine was developed specifically for the Previa, and mounted amidships for a low centre of gravity and near optimum 52/48 weight distribution.

Seventeen years on, and the third generation Previa embodies the same spirit and ingenuity as the original.

Choose from the entry-level 2.4 model with four-stage automatic at $55,900, or the swish 3.5 V6 Grande with six-speed auto for an eye-watering $69,990.

The Grande, as reviewed here, is packed with gear, including power sliding side doors.
The doors can be electronically opened from the master key, by an overhead control or manually by pulling the door handle.

A deactivated switch is provided for the front and rear parking sensors, which are a must-have in a vehicle of this sort.

Ivory leather upholstery not only looks good but the seating is also extremely comfortable. Real care has gone into making the world a good place for rear seat occupants.

The second row seats are captain-style, and they’re so comfy there’s no race for passengers to sit in the front.

They also slide almost the length of the rear cabin and include adjustable leather-covered footrests.

Then there’s a third row of seats that can be electrically stowed under the rear floor to provide additional load space.

Inside this seven-seater MPV is a great place to be. A low floor height eases entry and exit, and two glass sunroofs lighten the interior. The front sunroof has a manual tilt for ventilation; the rear incorporates an electric sliding blind.

The top-hinged back door opens on a huge load space when the rear seats are folded away, and the loading height is low.

There’s no trip or fuel computer, but dual air conditioning with rear controls and vents, a six-speaker audio and six-disc CD unit which is MP3 and WMA compatible and extra tinting for the rear window and rear side windows are standard.

Despite reasonably bold instrumentation, the centrally-located speedo isn’t in the driver’s line of vision.

Apart from prominent positioning of the battery, there’s virtually nothing to see under the bonnet; the 202kW V6 petrol engine (similar to the Aurion power unit) is a hidden asset.

The engine has dual variable valve timing, complies with Euro IV emission standards and packs 340Nm of torque at 4700rpm.

There’s no shortage of get up and go, but the transmission is prone to hunting up and down the six ratios.

Like the original Previa, the latest offering is a good handling vehicle, with engine-speed-sensitive electric power steering geared to 3.3 turns lock-to-lock.

MacPherson strut suspension is used up front and the rear suspension is a torsion beam arrangement with coil springs.

Five-stud open design, 17-inch, seven-spoke alloy wheels are shod with 215/55 series rubber.

VSC (vehicle stability control) is standard on the Grande V6 and the four-wheel disc brakes are complemented by ABS, EBD and brake assist.

Strip away the pseudo wood strips and the numerous gadgets, and you can’t help but be impressed by the opulence of the interior and superb all-round finish.

Given the industry advances, the latest Previa styling isn’t as radical as the 1990 model, though the body shape is not to everyone’s taste.

So just how cool are MPVs? Not very, despite 18 models being on offer.

Toyota managed to shift 79 new Previas in the first half of this year, compared with 113 in the same period in 2006 when the V6 model hadn’t been launched.

The class-leading Honda Odyssey chalked up 91, a drop of 10 on last year, and Kia sold 84 Carnivals. Only a handful of new Chrysler Voyagers and Mercedes Benz Vianos attracted buyers, and Renault’s Espace was gone from the sales charts.

There’s obviously no rush out the showroom door, yet when it comes to being useful and practical, this Previa is about as cool as you can get.