This free and impartial advice is brought to you free by estima-motoring.co.uk
What should you be looking for?
First of all, consider which model you want. Most people start looking at Estimas because they like the Previa but want a diesel engine, usually for the better economy.
Well they are more economical but not hugely so. In good condition, a diesel-engined Estima will return around 5-8 mpg more than a petrol-engined Previa - and can be run on vegetable oil to save even more money but there is a trade-off against performance.
Although the diesel will still reach the magic "ton" and will haul a caravan to well above the legal towing limit of 60mph in the UK. Another reason for buying an Estima is that most models are better equipped than the UK spec'd. Previas so what is there to choose from?
Body shells There are two basic body shells: wide and narrow. The Previa has the wide body shell and was also sold in Australia as the Tarago and in Japan as the Estima. Note that the Japanese wide body shell is just badged Estima with no other words. The wide body shell always comes with a petrol engine and in some markets there is also a supercharged version. The narrow body shell is the only one available with the diesel engine but can also come with the petrol engine. These narrow bodied cars were only sold in Japan so are always grey imports and are always badged as either Estima Emina or Estima Lucida. There are no left-hand-drive Eminas or Lucidas.
Roofs Most cars have a twin moon roof which is a large electrically powered sliding glass roof over the second row of seats and a hinged glass roof over the front seats but some have no sunroofs at all and some have a higher roof again with the two glass panels. This higher roof is known as the "Joyful Canopy" option which gives greater headroom but makes fitting roof bars more difficult as higher brackets are needed.
Engines The petrol engine is a four cylinder 2,438cc unit putting out a maximum of 133bhp at 5,000rpm giving a top speed of 108mph and a 0-60 time of 11·7 seconds. Fuel consumption is around 25mpg. With the added supercharger, the output goes up to 160bhp which raises the top speed to 112mph and lowers the 0-60 time to 11 seconds. The fuel consumption penalty is very small, falling to 24mpg.
The diesel engine is a four cylinder 2,184cc turbocharged unit producing 101bhp at 4,200rpm which gives a top speed of 100mph and a 0-60 time of 14·5 seconds. Fuel consumption is around 30mpg. Both engines are pretty reliable especially the petrol engine but the diesel does have a reputation for cracked cylinder heads which appear to be often due to an incorrect cylinder head gasket having been fitted at some time in the past. Nearly all Eminas and Lucidas have the diesel engine.
Gearboxes The choice is a four speed automatic with an "overdrive" function and a five speed manual. The overdrive on the automatic should normally be left switched on and the warning light indicates that it is switched off. First gear on the manual is extremely low and there is quite a gap between first and second. Both gearboxes are pretty reliable especially the manual which is almost indestructible. The automatic can suffer from the usual slipping clutches and bands especially if the transmission fluid is allowed to deteriorate and although there is a heat exchanger in the radiator, you may wish to consider adding an extra oil cooler if you are considering towing with an automatic. Both automatics and manuals come as either two-wheel drive to the rear wheels or permanent four-wheel drive via a limited slip transfer box. Around 90% of Eminas and Lucidas are automatic.
Grades The imported cars are graded as G, X, S, F or D. G-grades are the most luxurious and also have independent rear suspension. They have seven seats with captains chairs in the middle row, climate control as standard and better upholstery on the third row seats. There is also a G-Luxury model with alloy wheels as standard. Manual gearboxes were dropped from the G-grade option list fairly early on and consequently manual G-grades are very rare and 4-wheel-drive manual G-grades are extremely rare indeed. The X-grade comes next and has eight seats with a 2-1 split bench seat in the middle row and a solid rear axle but again there is an X-Luxury model with the climate control and there are X-Limited, Aeras and Eluceo variants with extra trim. The F-grade is more basic and few were imported into the UK and as far as we know the very basic D-grade has not been found in the UK. The S-grade is rather unusual in having eight seats but independent rear suspension and disc brakes with ABS all round. It only comes with the petrol engine and appears to be the "sports" version. They were dropped from the range fairly early on and none have been found in the UK.
Brakes Apart from the S-grade, the brakes are disc front and drum rear with an ABS and disc rear brake option up to '95 when ABS and disc brakes all round became standard.
Headlights Only the '92-'94 Emina has four headlights, all others having just two. There is a minor facelift to the front end appearance of both the Emina and Lucida in '95 and a major facelift to both models in '97 so there are in fact six different front end styles to the narrow bodied cars. All models have so-called fog lights which only have 35 watt bulbs in them and are not legal for use without the headlights in the UK as they are too far from the edge of the body shell. They are too high from the ground to be effective as true fog lights anyway.
Options There are so many options that it is impossible to list them all but common ones are alloy wheels, a Cool/Hot box below the centre of the dash which uses the air conditioning system for its cooling function, parking sonar and curtains which are electrically operated in some cases. It is possible to have a lower grade car with so many options that it is better equipped than a higher grade car but you only get the captains seats in the second row on G-grades and you only get independent rear suspension on G and S-grades.
So you've decided what you're looking for.
Dealers, Private or Personal Import?
There are many sources of cars from local papers, regional magazines, on-line auction sites and dealers; so the important thing to do is to research your potential vendor. Obviously with a private sale you are on your own but you can check the feedback of vendors on on-line auction sites and also see if they have sold other cars and could be a dealer masquerading as a private seller. If you are considering buying from a dealer, see if you can find any comments on the various dealers on-line or contact the local Trading Standards department to see if there are any known problems. If you can't find exactly the car you want you could even consider importing one yourself or via an agent. You could save money but you may have the ESVA test and registration to deal with unless an agent will do all that for you. Importation is way outside the scope of this guide so you will have to do your own research I'm afraid.
You can of course pay for an independent inspection or you can do it yourself if you feel confident. Japanese cars are generally very well built and Toyotas are no exception but you will rarely find them undersealed as salt is not used on Japanese roads in the winter. However, despite this, they do not usually suffer from rust problems so be suspicious of one that does. Also have a look around the car for containers of coolant which may indicate regular topping up and look underneath the car for patches of water, oil or fuel which can indicate a leak. Now examine the coolant in the expansion tank under the bonnet which should be clear red, green or blue in colour. It's always best to see a car which is cold as this will show any starting problems but check to see if the tank is hot or cold and if it is hot, remove the filler cap very carefully to avoid getting scalded by boiling coolant. Now start the engine and make sure no bubbles appear in the coolant and that the level in the tank does not rise suddenly. Don't forget to replace the cap! If the tank is cold, start the engine and make sure it turned over freely and that there is no excessive steam from the exhaust. If you aren't used to diesels, there is a warning light like a coil on the dash and you should wait for this to go out before starting - it only takes a second or two.
If those checks are OK, go for a test drive and get the engine thoroughly hot - the temperature gauge should reach the half-past-eight position fairly quickly. If it does not, then it is possible that the thermostat has been removed to mask a problem. Early diesel cars have two turbo warning lights on the rev counter and the green one should come on at anything more than light throttle. Now find a long hill, motorway or dual carriageway and put your foot down and the temperature gauge shouldn't move at all. If it rises above nine-o'clock there may be a problem. The orange turbo warning light should not come on. Check that the heater is working. If not, there again may be a problem. Now stop the car, open the bonnet and look again at the coolant in the expansion tank and see if it is overflowing. If all these checks are satisfactory then you can be fairly confident that there is no problem with the head gasket or the cylinder head itself although it is possible to effect a more or less temporary repair with the careful use of a crack sealant. If you suspect this, look for copper particles in the coolant.
While driving the car do all the checks you would normally do on any prospective purchase as far as the brakes, steering, electrical system, air conditioning etc. are concerned but don't worry too much if you hear a thumping sound from the footwell when going over bumps. This is often described as sounding like someone emptying a sack of potatos into the footwell and is just worn anti-roll bar bushes which are very cheap and easy to replace. If you are looking at a 4-wheel-drive version check whether there are any undue noises or shuddering when maneuvering at slow speed. A knocking noise on tight lock is usually worn CV joints and a shuddering or tendency to stop on tight lock is usually a fault in the transfer box.
If you are looking at an automatic, ask the vendor to show you the gearbox dip-stick so you can check the colour of the fluid which should be clear and red. If it is dirty and/or brown then it is an indication of possible future gearbox problems. Also on automatics, check that the handbrake operates properly. Although it is very bad practice, some drivers of automatics rely on the park function too much and in consequence the handbrake can be underused and it can tend to seize.
With the bonnet open, listen carefully for a knocking or rattling sound. If it is there, get someone to turn the steering slightly when the noise may change. If so then it's probably worn SADS couplings. Because the car is mid-engined, there is an extension shaft from the front of the engine to run the under-bonnet ancillaries. This is the Secondary Accessory Drive Shaft or SADS for short and has a flexible coupling at each end.
Check the tyres for the right load rating and, if the car is a fresh import, check to see if they are winter tyres which do sometimes get left on in Japan and are not suitable for general use on UK roads. Also check the sidewalls carefully as annual mileages can be very low in Japan and the tyres could be quite old.
Ask when the cam belt (on diesel-engined models) was last changed. It should be changed every 100,000Km or five years whichever comes first. If in doubt, allow a couple of hundred pounds for the work - more for a garage that doesn't know the car and less for a specialist - or a day of serious DIY. Japanese cars often have quite low annual mileages but do the usual checks for clocking anyway - steering wheel too shiny or pedals too worn for the indicated mileage or odometer digits not lined up properly. Ask to see the original Japanese documentation as the mileage (actually in kilometres) should be on the Japanese auction inspection report which any good dealer should have if the car is a fresh import. In this document all cars have their mileage verified but if the mileage can't be verified then there will be a bold question mark instead. Each car also gets graded to indicate its condition. Used imports are generally 3 to 4·5, 3 being average and 4·5 being very near immaculate for a used car. Grades O, A, R, ** or RA are all forms of accident repair and a grade 1 can be a car with major modifications. The report should also show the year of the car but this will probably be the Japanese dating system which is based on the reign of the current emperor - 5 is 1993, 6 is 1994 etc. - You can check the date you are given against the tabs on the seat belts as these will be dated. Another document which should be available is the Export Certificate or at least the English translation as the Japanese original should go to the DVLA when the car is registered. If there is no paperwork but you really like the car, you can get a check on the mileage from BIMTA, the British Industry Motor Trade Association. If the car isn't yet registered, do make sure you get an ESVA test certificate if it is less than 10 years old or you will not be able to register it.