What if I told you a story about a car from the 1990s that has all the features of a supercar: mid-mounted engine, supercharged and all-wheel drive. There’s a catch, though. It’s a car almost all people can afford. You can even fit your child seat(s) safely in the back. Now you are scratching your head saying, “Mike, what car can this be? It must be one of those really rare Group B rally cars like the Lancia Delta S4 or Ford RS200.” Wrong. The most unknown car of the 1990s just might be the 1996 Toyota Previa LE S/C All-Trac.
As described, the Toyota Previa is a minivan that, on paper, has the makings of a real performance car. Unfortunately it also has seating for seven and weighs 3,700 pounds sans passengers. Previas, made from 1991-1997 came in multiple variations. My Previa is the one of the most sought after configurations: all-wheel drive (All-Trac), the premium leather package (LE) and the mid-engine supercharged (S/C) 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine making 160 horsepower and 201 lb-ft of torque. This supercharger is interesting because it’s the same design used in the 1988/89 Toyota MR2. As you likely know, the MR2 was Toyota’s other mid-engine sports car in the “90s.” In the Previa the engine is directly under the passenger and driver’s seat. In sport cars this allows for better weight distribution, resulting in better handling. In the Previa this allows for a more spacious interior layout. The transmission is a four-speed automatic with overdrive. Consumers had the option of a five-speed manual from 1991-1993. If you ticked the box for the five-speed transmission, you were forced to have rear wheel drive but sadly no supercharged engine was offered with this configuration. Sales were not as strong as Toyota was hoping. The Previa’s main competitor, the Dodge Caravan, had a more powerful engine and a stronger position in the market. The Toyota Previa was discontinued after a six-year run in 1997. It is a car that has a very niche following. To your everyday person, it looks like a basic minivan. But to me, it’s one of the most underrated cars of its time.
I came across this particular Previa on Craigslist and emailed it over to my dad for his thoughts. He immediately responded “buy it now.” My dad, a big car enthusiast, never says that. I knew I had something special on my hands. I went to take a look at the car in Haymarket, VA, about 30 miles outside of Arlington, VA, where I live. When I arrived, the van was sitting outside and it only took a glance for me to know that this was THE car. I spoke with the original owner, a long time Previa fan, who shared the whole history of his van. This was their second Previa. They had kept every service record since new—a sign of a well loved car. This van was quite literally a member of their family. It took their kids to college, moved them out of college, moved their married children into new apartments, and helped transport their Christmas tree home every year. I made a quick call to confer with my dad about pricing. After some haggling, the seller and I agreed upon $3,600. The original MSRP was $33,120, which, accounting for inflation, is about $50,000 in 2015 money. They pulled out their iPhones and filmed me driving away in the Previa, waving goodbye like it was their last child heading off to college.
Now it’s time for the Previa to embark on a new journey. I’ll definitely field any questions that you have about life as a minivan owner. My time with the Previa so far has been overwhelmingly positive. Owning a Previa is a reflection on how you need to enjoy each moment that is brought into your life. My parents purchased a Previa in 1995, a gray DX model that was rear-wheel drive. I have many childhood memories in a Previa. I might be the only 29-year-old that is currently driving a Toyota Previa minivan in the United States. On purpose, at least. This ownership experience will be one that I’ll never forget. So this article serves to welcome the mighty Previa to the RFD Garage.