What if you could afford a mid-engine, supercharged, all-wheel-drive vehicle as your soccer game mule and weekend grocery-getter? You could in the 90’s for between $24,000 and $32,000. At these prices, it was certainly no Ferrari F50 or Lamborghini Diablo. It was Japanese, but wasn’t an NSX. It was the Toyota Previa.
Take a moment to let the shock and awe settle. Those sweeping, almost sensual, contoured body lines. The arrow-point front end and muscly front fascia. It obviously boasted a remarkably low drag coefficient. No, we’re not joking. This was the Toyota Previa, a supercharged, mid-engine hauler that seated 7. It could take you and the book club to Wine & Spirits on about 18 to 22 MPGs.
The Previa truly had all the makings of a Japanese exotic tucked away in one of the most boring, pedestrian bodies ever conceived. Don’t believe us? How do dual overhead cams sound? Four valves per cylinder? A roots supercharger? Coil spring suspension? 2.4L mid-engine placement with 5-speed manual transmission? This had the formula (at least on paper) to rival the NSX. “But why?” you ask. Why not? Turns out this design could not only help exotics cut lap times, it could do well for adding space to a vehicle meant for lots of kids, dogs, and cargo.
The Toyota Previa was rolled out in 1990 as a replacement model for the aptly named Toyota Van. The mini-mommy-mover market was heating up with Chrysler’s Town & Country and Dodge’s Grand Caravan coming packed with features and creature comfort. The Previa thus contained some creative design elements to edge out the competition. For starters, the motor was installed almost flat, behind the front seats. A quick-access panel allowed for easy maintenance and access to spark plugs and other bits.
Even cooler was the Supplemental Accessory Drive System, or “SADS”. This configuration held all the engine-driven accessories in the front, including the alternator, power steering pump, radiator fan, compressor, and other bits. The result was a near-perfect weight distribution. The Previa even came optioned with all-wheel drive and four-wheel disc brakes with available ABS.
But these things were not mated with the Previa’s chassis to make it go around the Nurburgring in haste. The Previa’s almost-flat motor meant it could provide more cabin space than the Town & Country. But this limited the size and displacement of the Previa’s motor, so Toyota made a simple upgrade: Add a roots blower.
That might sound like a simple solution, until you come to find the roots blower was a part of the SADS system, a good few feet in front of the motor itself. Metal plumbing connected the SADS system’s blower to the engine itself, creating a bridge for the charged air to get to the motor’s intake manifold. We’re not quite sure why Toyota opted for a roots blower over a design literally intended for a centrifugal supercharger, though we imagine it had to do with reliability.
Even for all these treatments the Previa only came with 158 horsepower. While the Toyota didn’t match the performance of the Chrysler vans, it boasted the company’s gold standard of long engine life and general ruggedness. Old Toyota Previas are often found with 200,000, even 300,000 miles on the odometer. Although the Sienna replaced the quirky, egg-shaped Previa in 1997, the line of blown, mid-engine vans enjoyed quite a few years of successful tenure.
You can find many Toyota Previas for sale across the U.S. even still. They often have a minimum of 100,000 miles on the odometer and even command prices reaching $5,000. An odd tuning community has come about to show its support for the Previa, too. You can some hellishly modified examples of Toyota Previas with slammed wheels, crazy paint jobs, and some impressive numbers. The egg-shaped tuner’s van. What a time to be alive.