BY GLENN BROOKS
In late 1990, Renault's top-selling people mover, the Espace, was challenged by an impressive newcomer from Toyota. The egg-shaped, eight-seater Previa featured advanced styling and engineering in a premium-sized package. It set new benchmarks for build quality, reliability and handling among full-sized MPVs. Along with limited import quotas and constant demand, this led to the big Toyota enjoying excellent resale values. The Previa aged surprisingly well. Its mid-mounted four-cylinder engine originally caused much raising of eyebrows, with claims from some quarters that such extravagant engineering should be reserved for sports cars. Toyota had the last laugh though, as the Previa needed no mechanical or chassis updates since launch, even in the face of rivals like Ford's Galaxy and Renault's second generation Espace. Sales were never huge, yet a steady supply of Previas entered the UK every year since late 1990 and all were well-equipped, compared to rivals. Critics point to the large size, yet the driving position is remarkably car-like and the handling, though, no longer state of the art, still competitive. Those buyers who baulk at paying £20,000-plus for a new full-sized people carrier would do well to consider a used Previa.
Models Covered: First generation September 1990-to July 2000: 2.4i [GS, GL, GX]
The late 1980s saw the Japanese manufacturers ploughing billions into new model development. Toyota, the biggest and richest of all, decided its new MPV for the 1990s was to be a true clean-sheet of paper design. The result, when it appeared, made all other MPVs look boxy and mechanically backward. The UK-market cars first appeared in September 1990 and all featured the same 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine, mounted on its side, under the front passenger's seat. The handling was excellent, particularly for such a large, heavy vehicle. Clearly, rear-wheel drive and a low-mounted engine amidships made this one people carrier that wasn't all at sea when the tarmac turned twisty. There was only one level of trim available at launch, called GL. Automatic transmission was by far the most popular of the few available options, to such an extent that manual versions have always been difficult to find. Though standard equipment was generous, an even better equipped GX version was added to expand the range in October 1993, while the existing GL received anti-lock brakes. Since then, the original GL gave way to the newer GS in March 1995.With its age now almost twice what we have become used to with Japanese cars, there was finally a second generation successor in July 2000. Though still recognisably a Previa, the new model was completely restyled inside and out but the new 2.4-litre variable valve timing VVTi engine was now mounted conventionally under the bonnet, driving the front rather than rear wheels.
What You Get
A lot of road-presence, for starters. The Previa is not nearly as compact as the Espace or Galaxy, so get behind the wheel and make sure you're comfortable with reverse-parking - it's longer and wider than that curvy shape makes it look. A fixed-seat configuration accommodates eight people in two rows of three-seat benches behind the front seats. Despite the sloping roof, rear headroom is sufficient and there's ample legroom for all passengers. True, it isn't as versatile a set-up as the Renault Espace, but there is the bonus of extra luggage space, even with a full complement on board.
What You Pay
Please fill in the form here for an exact up-to-date information.
What to Look For
The Previa is a strong but extremely heavy vehicle, so brake discs, pads and shock absorbers will have had a hard life and may be in need of replacement. For the same reason, it really is worth having your potential next family car checked over by a specialist. Two tonnes (and that's without occupants) of people carrier will put quite a strain on the clutch or automatic transmission torque converter, even with 'normal' use.
(Based on a 1995 GS) A full exhaust system will be about £395. Brake pads front and rear are about £70 a set, a starter motor is about £190 and an alternator around £350. You'll pay around £40 for a new door mirror, roughly £190 for a radiator and about £170 for a replacement windscreen.
On the Road
The designers say that the idea behind the mid-mounted engine was to provide the Previa with a low, flat floor for ease of access while optimising the centre of gravity and weight distribution. This design feature means that the vehicle offers MPV users something quite unique; a multi-purpose people carrier that's actually fun to drive. Throw the Previa into a corner (and with performance figures of 112mph flat out and 0-60mph in 11.3s, it's remarkably easy to find yourself doing so) and the expected lurch to one side fails to materialise. There's roll certainly, but no more than you would expect from a well-developed saloon. Jump into an Espace or even a Range Rover after this and you'll realise the extent of Toyota's achievement.
If your lifestyle demands an eight-seater vehicle but you can't bear the thought of driving something that looks like a van, then the Previa's for you.