The Toyota Previa S/C LE All-Trac: A Budget Hot Hatch Or Just A Minivan?

The 1996 Toyota Previa LE S/C All-Trac has the right ingredients on paper to compete with “hot hatches” of today: a trick all-wheel-drive system, 2.4-liter twin-cam supercharged engine, delicate chassis balance and… seating for seven. If you ignore the whole seating for seven thing, there’s an argument there.  If you are a budget-minded enthusiast who needs all-wheel drive, room to carry your friends and boost is in your blood, but don’t have the bucks to buy a new 2016 Ford Focus RS, check out the Toyota Previa LE S/C All-Trac.

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The Previa covered in snow. All you can see are the LE and S/C badging.

There is one problem when comparing a minivan to a 350 horsepower/350 lb-ft torque hot hatch that has a “drift” button. Most car enthusiasts hate minivans. Even Toyota –in their own 1996 Previa brochure– admits part of your soul dies when you buy a Preiva. “We know. When you decided you really ought to have a van, you probably winced a little. Visions of luxury-car quality faded while you prepared to do the right thing.”  I know this because I actually own a 1996 Toyota Previa brochure, a gift from my dad, seriously.

Minivans aren’t tested on racetracks, or have commercials with half-naked blonde girls. They are family-haulers designed to take people long distances, not sit in garages under car covers.  Minivans get destroyed, adults spill their super-sized diet Cokes and children let their soggy Cheerios marinate in the seats.  If you can overcome the soda stains, the Toyota Previa might be worth your time to look at.

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Picture the day I bought it.

When I came across a PRISTINE 1996 Toyota Previa LE S/C All-Trac with 200k miles on the odometer, I had to have it.  It was for sale by the original owner, garaged kept, meticulously maintained with a full service history.  All are rare occurrences in minivan ownership. It was the top of the line trim with full leather interior, captain chairs, alloy wheels, premium stereo, all-wheel-drive (All-Trac) and a supercharged mid-mounted engine. Manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) in 1996 was $38,481, that translates $58,208 in 2015 dollars.

Handling is not the first thing that comes to people’s mind when thinking about a minivan.  But by Toyota mounting the engine in the center of the car the weight of the engine is more evenly distributed across the chassis, thus reducing chassis bending when taking a turn.  Also known by engineers as having a low polar moment of inertia.

previa interior
Rear captain chairs that spin 180 degrees.

When you are taking a turn the steering is light and there is not much understeer. There is great feedback through the steering wheel, allowing you to adjust your steering input mid-corner.   Independent MacPherson struts up front and a four-link coil spring suspension in the rear aid in its well balanced handling.  One handling drawback is severe body roll when trying to transition from left to right, the Previa is about as graceful as your Uncle Larry on the dance floor.  Despite that fact, this minivan can boogie.

When those other hot hatches look in the mirror and see the Previa sneaking up on them I doubt the words, “Man that’s a great looking minivan,”will ever come out of there mouth.  Actually, Chrysler said that about their new Pacifica minivan.  I’d have to disagree.  It’s not exactly sexy.

bikeinback previa
I hope your trunk is big enough, because I’m going to put my bike in it.

Minivans don’t look good because they are designed to haul lots of people. Seating capacity is seven passengers, with the ability to fold up the rear seats to allow for a larger rear storing capacity. If you opt for the cloth interior, you can remove the bench middles seats and have an impressive 158 cubic feet of storage space.

Despite the weight of the Previa and its duties to haul people, it debuted in 1991 with one engine option, a 2.4-liter four-cylinder making 138 hp and 154 lb-ft of torque. Immediately critics felt it was underpowered. A couple years later Toyota decided to add a roots supercharger.  The supercharged four-cylinder twin-cam 2.4-liter engine packed 161-hp at 5,000 rpm and 201 lb-ft of torque at 3,600rpm. The supercharger whine is a nice touch, it makes you think you’re driving a Hellcat with seating for seven.

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Image of the Previa’s drivetrain. That’s the engine and transmission dead center of the drivetrain. Talk about balance baby.

The beauty of the supercharged engine is it’s connected to all four wheels (All-Trac), in the words of Randy Pobst, it will “put the power down”.  The torque will slap you harder than if you cursed in-front of your grandma.  If you happen to live where snow covers your roadways, this minivan will not let you down.   Floor it when there’s snow outside and the backend will step out, this minivan will drift… jealous yet Focus RS? It is rare for a minivan to have all-wheel-drive, but pretty damn cool when you’re passing a Subaru on a hill.

all-trac
You know it is an All-Trac when you see this.

It might shock that Subaru WRX owner when you are passing him a snowy hill, but enthusiasts don’t really know that this car exists. Travis Okulski, Jalopnik writer at the time, wrote, “I won’t lie, I’ve always wanted one of these bad boys. The idea of telling people you own an all-wheel drive, mid-engined car and then not showing up in an Audi R8, just tickles the right spot. And people who own Previas just seem like cool dudes.” Thanks, Travis, I think I’m a pretty cool dude.