You know how they say someone should make a hybrid minivan? Well someone does and it's Toyota and the product in question is called the Estima. In fact, Toyota has been selling the gas-electric people mover in Japan for over a decade, putting the world's first hybrid minivan on sale in 2001. The Estima was redesigned in 2006 and the latest model is brand-new for 2013. What's not news to us that the rest of the world gets some very cool vehicles that simply are not available here, but when we got to drive the Estima Hybrid a while back, the question we just couldn't get away from was: why? Minivans aren't everyone's cup of tea, but they're practical and there's no reason all of them have to get terrible gas mileage. The Estima even packs a bunch of style in places where other minivans opt to not offend.
- We'll start there, with the admission that we think the Estima offers excellent looks for a minivan, especially the somewhat aggressive front end and the incredibly fitting wheels. The design doesn't get in the way of functionality though – this is a minivan, after all – and the huge side mirrors and excellent rear visibility make this one big vehicle you won't feel like a blinded horse in. The Estima doesn't have the front side mirror that is available in the deluxe Toyota Alphard Hybrid minivan (you can watch a short video review of that over at Driving The Nation), but it's still easy to see what's going on outside.
- The view from the inside is cool, too. The dash spreads out in front of you like a cockpit, with a big speedometer and a cyclable display screen underneath. There is an instant fuel economy report right next to the fuel gauge, which is a good place for it, we think. The Estima trim that Toyota brought to the US for us to test does not skimp on the comfort level with power doors, Bluetooth and the ability to watch Japanese-band TV on the info screen (not while driving, of course).
- Under the hood, the 2.4-liter gas engine and two electric motors, a 13-Kw unit up front and a 18-Kw one in back offer a total power output is 190 horsepower. The resulting acceleration is nothing to write home about, but it is more than acceptable in a vehicle like this. Because, let's be honest, the Estima Hybrid doesn't break the trend of minivans that kind of drive like they're buses, but that's okay: this is a multi-person transport and you're not going to race it around winding corners. That said, we had no trouble catching up with highway traffic or stopping quickly when necessary. Hitting the EV button puts the van into electric power-only mode, but in our experience, the battery pack barely held enough energy to take off from a stoplight and fizzled out before we got through the intersection.
- After about a dozen miles behind the wheel, the in-dash display read 10 kilometers per liter (23.5 miles per gallon). Officially, the Estima Hybrid gets 20 kilometers per liter (47 mpg) using the older 10-15 mode Japanese test cycle, which is friendly to hybrid vehicles and is not at all indicative of where the EPA would rate this thing. Still, that 47 mpg number implies potential. Currently, the most efficient minivan sold in the US is the 2013 Mazda 5, which offers 24 combined mpg, 28 on the highway and either 21 or 22 in the city, depending on configuration. Most of the rest get a combined rating of around 20 mpg. The least thirsty Toyota is the 2013 Sienna with a 2.7-liter, four-cylinder engine and an automatic transmission. It gets 21 combined, 19 city and 24 on the highway. Just looking those numbers over should prove that a Toyota hybrid minivan for the US market wouldn't need to get 50 mpg to shell-shock other automaker into upping their game. More importantly, it'd catch minivan buyers by surprise. Offer the soccer moms 38 or 40 mpg as they transport half the team to practice and you're got the makings of a marketing campaign a lot of people would pay attention to.
- Until 1997, earlier versions of the Estima (never the hybrid) were sold as the Previa in the US. We now get the Sienna in North America, so just bringing over the gas-electric Estima wouldn't be an easy move, but you've got to admit that the minivan segment is in dire need of an efficiency overhaul, and we'd love to see the Estima be the one to go before (we're not the only ones). Get on it, Toyota.