The Coolest MPV You Never Knew About. Probably.
Now, should you be an international reader, you might be feeling smug having recognised the thumbnail. Ten internet points to Gryffindor if you have. If you're from the UK however, you might be feeling confused and underwhelmed looking at a mid-nineties people carrier. Even more confused by the fact that I bought it. Let me explain.
It's a 1997 Toyota Estima/Previa/Tarango SC -more on that super fun naming structure later. I'll stick with Estima for this as that's the JDM moniker. It features a mid-engined layout, 4WD and a 2.4 Litre supercharged petrol engine. Inside there's a beautiful faux wood scalloped dashboard, captains chairs, two sunroofs of which the larger one electronically retracts and 7 seats waiting to accommodate the swathes of interested ladies. Never mind the -admittedly battered - Bomex body kit, complete with lairy spoiler, the auto-folding mirrors, auto-lights and a reversing camera. Phew. Try getting that spec list on a new Touran, or Cayenne for that matter.
The feature list resembles a supercar, which makes the cavernous boot, uber cushioned ride and excellent visibility all the more appealing. Now obviously with only around 180bhp on tap and nearly 2 tonnes of weight to carry around, it doesn't move like a supercar, but forged internals and whispers across the internet that the Japanese were able to extract around 400bhp from these cars gives credence to the notion of having a very practical sleeper. With that said, there are a few caveats.
Caveat number one is the fact that it doesn't completely work. My particular tragedy on wheels suffers from a few neglects which include uneven brake pads, well-worn tyres and a hole in the dashboard where the head unit should be. Instead of music and a stock rearview camera, the dashboard is now blessed with a small 21st-century birds-nest made from hacked wires and additional connectors. The biggest issue, which is common in all mid-engined vehicles, is overheating. This meant that the expected 7-hour drive back from North Livingston in Scotland took a heady 11 hours to complete. For every thirty minutes of careful sub-2000rpm driving, the engine needed 15 minutes cool down to maintain a healthy temperature. Mercifully my headphones were up to the task, and my spirits were buoyed by the fact that it's so large, there's space take a proper nap, even with a set of alloy wheels and a body-kit in the boot. With all that combined with the fitted rubber risers to "protect" the body kit, the car handles like a drunk marshmallow. Merrily bumbling around the road, only vaguely responding to all inputs aside from lateral g's, which are transferred very enthusiastically. The American nickname for this van is the egg, and the parallels to Humpty Dumpty, seem apt.
Then we have the model naming structure. There are five different names and three generations produced. Three are localised names; Tarango, Estima, Previa and two offshoot vehicles; the Estima Emina and Estima Lucida. These offshoots have a narrower body to help cut down on export tariffs from Japan. They also received a diesel engine, and are devoid of the many toys the larger versions received. These were the models chosen for the UK showrooms. Boo.
With as many names as the devil, finding parts with three different names is as much an exercise in patience as needle finding. To even fit anything requires spaghetti fingers or large scale disassembly as accessing the engine requires one of the front seats to be removed. Luckily for major fluids and other common maintenance parts, an auxiliary drive, cheerily named "SADS" extends under the bonnet. This was no doubt added after Toyota technicians suggested to head office that they would rather keep the skin on their knuckles.
The end goal of the Estima is to modify it and enter into the UK custom van scene. At the time of writing the zeitgeist is slammed German base cars, typically with a VW badge in sight. While many individual executions are stunning, the lack of variety begins to wear, especially when compared to the recent explosion of diversity in the UK custom car scene. With neo-classic cars becoming affordable, resto-modding on the rise the days of thousands of hatchbacks on Wolfrace alloys is over. Given the diversity the Japanese and Americans have been able to achieve with modest budgets and an open mind an Estima in the UK would be an interesting addition.
With a "new" import price of around £4500, polarising looks and a difficult engine, buying one seems far-fetched. For the princely sum of £450 and eleven and a half hours of driving though, I feel like I've bought the bargain of the decade. And I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat. I'll post updates on any significant progress, in the meantime, write what you'd to with it below, I'd love to see your ideas.