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Japan likes to do things differently. While the rest of the world is obsessing over crossovers and SUVs, the humble minivan is still very much a family favorite here. It might be a dying breed in other markets but the minivan is still going strong in Japan. The van culture in Japan is unlike any other, perhaps with the exception of Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore.

And right now the Japanese automakers have the widest variety of people movers, from tiny kei-vans to S-Class rivaling luxury vans and everything in between. The fancy minivans caught my attention. While ordinary family-friendly minivans and small, affordable commercial minivans are common in other markets, only the Japanese seem to have really taken to the idea of a luxurious minivan.

I wanted to find out what the big fuss was all about so I got the grandaddy of the luxury minivan—the Toyota Alphard.

(Full Disclosure: Toyota of Japan hooked up with an Alphard for a few days to review, along with a tank of fuel.)

What Is It?

The Alphard is Toyota’s flagship minivan, as unusual as that segment may seem in the West. It made its debut in 2001, originally aimed at families needing a bit more refinement and space. The second generation brought it upmarket and its third generation cemented its image as the final word in the world of luxury minivans.

It sits at the top of the Toyota Japan minivan hierarchy, above the Voxy/Noah/Esquire trio, Estima, Sienta and Hiace. Toyota also sells the Vellfire which is basically an Alphard with wilder styling to appeal to the younger crowd. (I told you, vans are big here.)

But for sheer presence and regality, the Alphard is king.

You can get the Alphard in a range of trim levels with the most basic versions seating eight people on cloth trimmed seats. The version most will be familiar with is the Executive Lounge with its second row of captain chairs.

But this isn’t even the range-topper—above the Executive Lounge sits the Royal Lounge, which has a divider between the driver and the throne-like rear seats.

Specs That Matter

For the Japanese market you can get three engine choices. You can get a 182-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder petrol as the base. Topping the range is a 306 HP 3.5-liter V6. For those eco-conscious, a 2.5-liter four-cylinder petrol with hybrid is also available, as tested here.

With a combined output of 200 HP, 151 lb-ft of torque, and an average claimed fuel consumption 43.3 mpg, it’s the best all-rounder. That E-Four badge means it’s got all-wheel drive, too.

It measures in at 194.6 inches long, 72.8 inches wide and 76.7 inches tall. In Executive Lounge spec with all the luxurious goodies, weight is 4,938 pounds. There’s also 21.75 cubic feet of luggage capacity with the third row stowed away. It’s not massive, but comparable to a similarly sized Ford Explorer.

Prices for the Alphard start from a very reasonable ¥3,376,080 ($30,430) for the base model and jumping to ¥7,028,640 ($63,360) for the V6 Executive Lounge. The Hybrid Executive Lounge will cost you ¥7,352,640 ($66,280).

But if you want to spend even more, the boss-level Royal Lounge starts from an eye-watering ¥15,629,760 ($140,873).

That’s almost AMG S-Class money, for a Toyota minivan.

How Does It Drive?

No surprises here: it’s smooth and easy. The Alphard is the single most relaxing car to drive on the planet.

But “drive” perhaps isn’t the correct way to describe being at the helm of this thing. It’s like a business jet for the road. You’ve got a great high driving position with a view of your entire surroundings. Despite its size, it’s not difficult to place thanks to all the driver aids such as blind spot assist and lane keep assist.

It’s no performance toy. The steering is light, though vague, but still manages to make easy work of getting through tight Japanese roads. There’s decent body control around corners but it’s not something I’d feel comfortable taking on any of the driving roads I’ve covered in the past. This is very much a motorway cruiser and urban commuter.

At motorways speeds, it’s perfectly fine. At anything above the legal speed limit, which you shouldn’t be doing anyway, it starts to show some stability issues. An Autobahn cruiser this is not. However, for most speed limits in America and Europe, the Alphard performs well.

Not that you’d be speeding the whole time. The interior might make you think you’re in a Shinkansen (bullet train) yet in hybrid form, it’s anything but. It’s brisk enough to make sure you won’t be late for your meetings, though will return a claimed 746 miles on a full tank.

If you want something with a bit more urgency, the V6 engine is the one to go for. Personally, I like the smooth and calm demeanor of the hybrid powertrain. It suits the Alphard more. This thing is all about having the most relaxing journey to your destination.

What’s Great

Everything feels luxurious. The soft leathers, the generous use of soft touch materials and the indestructible feel of all the switchgear made the Alphard’s reputation synonymous with premium. Okay, it’s not as posh inside as a Bentley or Rolls-Royce, there’s still some plastic around, but for something wearing a Toyota badge, it’s on par with the Germans.

You won’t find a minivan as comfortable or as well appointed as this. The plush captain chairs in the second row feel like sofas at your parents’ house. There’s something so familiar about them. There’s a homey sort of comfort about this car. Hell, even the front passenger seat can recline and has a foot rest. It’s got all the toys such as heated and cooled seats, reclining seats with tables and 12-volt plugs for your laptop. Forget Bumblebee and Optimus Prime, this is a real-life transformer; it’s a private jet disguised as a Toyota minivan.

I’m really nitpicking here, but as comfortable and smooth as the Alphard is most of the time, the damping could do with a bit of fine-tuning. For the most part, it smooths out imperfections nicely but there were times where some road surfaces caught it by surprise and would jolt the cabin. At no point would anyone think it was rough or uncomfortable, but you’d need to get it on smooth roads and to feel like you’re floating on a mattress.

The Alphard is all about accommodating its occupants in the second row. It’s like a zen castle isolating you from the outside and you can waft without a care in the world.

I covered 940 miles with the Alphard during the week I had it and didn’t skip a beat. It made the journey feel a lot shorter than it actually was. This truly is the Rolls-Royce of minivans.

Privacy glass is standard but it also has blinds. It’s a shame the blinds aren’t power operated even though pretty much everything else is, like the doors, the tailgate and the seats. Like every luxury car these days, the Alphard has mood lighting with far too many color choices. It’s great fun to play with though.

But the best thing about the Alphard is that it just blends in. You could be a zillionaire tycoon being chauffeured in the back of this and no one would have any idea. It’s stealth wealth and its one of those cars where if you know, you know. It’s not beautiful, nor is it offensively ugly. It just looks like a minivan that’ll do its job. For many, that’s what makes the Alphard great.

What’s Weak

There’s no getting away from the size of it. It’s a big car and in most driving situations in Japan, that can be tough. There were a few butt clenching moments when the sat-nav would take us down a very narrow two-way road.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a problem somewhere in America where your roads are wide enough to easily fit an Alphard.

For a people-mover, the third row can be quite tight, especially is if the second-row captain chairs are all the way back. If you’re transporting seven people in it, there also isn’t enough space in the boot for everyone’s luggage. With one of the third row seats stowed away, there’s enough for six people and their luggage.

This is a problem with cars that have this seating configuration, but you’d think something as big as the Alpahrd would have a bit more space in the boot than a couple of shopping bags.

The infotainment and sat-nav were a bit old-school, the graphics certainly weren’t befitting that of a brand new $70,000 car. But otherwise it did the job well. There’s honestly little fault to it. Perhaps the hybrid version isn’t the fastest thing in the world but that doesn’t bother me. Maybe a 3.5-liter V6 hybrid like in the Lexus LS500h would be an ideal set up in export markets.

Value

At $70,000 (or double the price of a U.S.-spec Sienna), it’s a big ask for something with a Toyota badge. But it’s worth it. Not only are you getting a brilliant and capable minivan, you’re also getting a luxury car with more toys and legroom than you’ll know what to do with. It’s a fantastic way of going around in comfort and space. Certainly more so than any equivalent SUV.

There’s no excuse for this not being sold in Europe or in the Americas.

Toyota sells left-hand drive versions of the Alphard in other Asian markets such as Taiwan and the Philippines. They have the resources to convert these into left-hand drive, but perhaps the relatively high starting price is what’s holding it back. It could easily slap a Lexus badge on this thing to justify that price.

I genuinely believe the Alphard would suit places with large open roads such as America and Australia. It’s big, it’s comfortable and it’s a hybrid. It’s a damn shame because even if it did offer it stateside, none of you would buy it because you people buy SUVs instead.

Screw SUVs. Get Alphards.

Verdict

Is this the best Toyota currently on sale? Possibly, though the Century might argue with that. For what it was designed to do and what most buyers would expect from it, the Alphard can do it all. It’s quite literally in a class of its own.

It’s as comfortable as you’d ever want it to be, luxurious for most needs and surprisingly economical, too, if you’re light on the throttle. It’s a minivan with business class levels of refinement and a luxury car that’ll also seat seven.

I never thought I’d like a minivan this much, but then again, the Alphard is not just any minivan.

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