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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Why Can’t the U.S. Have Toyota’s 40 MPG 4WD Minivan?

Toyota sells a 40 mile-per-gallon, four-wheel-drive hybrid minivan in Japan, and has since 2001, but they’re playing keeps.

Its become a bit of a perennial question that I’m reminded of when I find myself mired in the depths of the internet — a question that’s been simmering in the back of my mind since I learned about the Toyota Estima hybrid minivan 3 years ago… and then went to full boil when I learned that the Estima hybrid has been sold in Japan since 2001.

At the time, I googled extensively, I asked some Japanese colleagues, I contacted Toyota — I even set up a half-hearted online petition to bring the Estima hybrid to the US (offline now, but the Union of Concerned Scientists was more ambitious, garnering over 18,000 signatures).

After all that, I never really got answers as to why Toyota had no plans to bring this family-fantasy four-wheel-drive, 40 mpg minivan to the US, but as I did more research, I pieced together my own picture of the reasons. It seemed that Toyota didn’t think Americans would buy it because it wasn’t a “full-sized” minivan and it didn’t have enough power.

But now, with the hearts and minds of consumers changing and demand for fuel efficient vehicles steaming ahead, I come back to the same question. And it’s the question I find myself asking of most every major auto manufacturer these days: WTF? If you’ve got a car that everybody will want, why don’t you just go ahead and sell it to everybody?

When I was growing up, my family was one of the first to buy Toyota’s Previa minivan. I remember sitting in it for the first time and thinking I was at the helm of a spaceship. It seemed so cool and turned me into an instant Toyota fanboy.

That Previa was built like a tank: it went 170,000 miles without any major service needed. It was also the source of many a fond teenage make-out and illicit substance memory — although most of those are a little foggy now, aren’t they?

I’ve owned Toyotas ever since, and probably will ’till the day I die. But recently I’ve started to get pissed at Toyota in the same way that I am at the American auto manufacturers for some of the dolt-headed, intelligence-defying marketing decisions they’ve made in regards to fuel efficient vehicles.

You see folks, that first generation Previa was the precursor to the Estima, but for some reason, when Toyota introduced the next generation Estima to the rest of the world as it phased-out the Previa, it introduced the turd-like Sienna to the US. The Sienna was a gas hog — just like all other US minivans — and was designed with not a hint of the Previa in mind.

As the years went on, the Japanese Estima got better and better and Toyota even released a “full-size” hybrid minivan to the Japanese market called the Alphard. But we were still stuck with the hulking Sienna.

Currently, the rumors indicate that Toyota will introduce a hybrid version of the Sienna to the US market sometime next year, but it won’t get nearly the mileage of the Estima. Again, I ask, WTF? Yo, Toyota, you’ve already got a minivan that half of the families in the US would kill for, what the hell are you doing investing so much energy in redesigning a has-been?

The video below is in Japanese, but regardless, it clearly shows the Estima hybrid in operation with its fancy Americans-need-it options and all. As a dad to two, I want this car for my family. What do you think? Is Toyota crazy just like all the other big auto manufacturers?


More Miles September 24, 2008 at 11:44 PM  

I could totally use that car. I am about to have my fourth kid under four and a half years old! Lots of carseats and gas prices are so high. In the meantime, one of the ways I have been saving money at the gas pump is with Bishop's Original- it increased my mpg by 15%.