The Japanese carmakers have a big head start on hybrid technology. They made a serious commitment to hybrids in the early 1990s, and began releasing hybrid vehicles to Japanese consumers in 1997. The second hybrid launched to the Japanese market (after the Prius) was the Toyota Estima Hybrid Minivan. It launched in Japan in 2001, as the first mass-produced four-wheel drive hybrid. An early article about the Estima Hybrid mentioned a selling price of $27,000.

Six years later, a group—strike that, a mob—of car shoppers wanting the utility of a minivan and the fuel efficiency of a hybrid are airing their demands for a hybrid minivan on the discussion forum and elsewhere. All together: “We want a hybrid minivan. We want a hybrid minivan.”

A larger version of the Estima is marketed in the U.S. and Europe as the Sienna. It’s likely that the Sienna Hybrid will be the first hybrid-power minivan on the American retail market, but Toyota has not announced a date.

American consumers have overwhelmingly stated that they would consider a hybrid powertrain option—if it came in the same size/segment car they currently drive. Minivan drivers are not going to give up their seven or eight passenger vehicles for compact hybrids. However, family-oriented minivan owners might flock to a fuel-efficient eco-friendly hybrid minivan.

The Japanese Toyota Sienna Hybrid Minivan’s main features:

  • The Japanese Estima Hybrid uses a 2.4 liter, four-cylinder engine. The U.S. Sienna hybrid system will likely be similar to the one being used in this year’s Highlander and Lexus Hybrid SUVs. In the SUVs, the gasoline engine, CVT transmission and electric motor combo will deliver up to 270 hp total for a speedy 0 – 60 acceleration in 8 seconds. The Estima may be a little slower.
  • A four-wheel drive system dubbed “E-Four,” which regulates a rear-mounted, rear-wheel propelled electric motor and coordinates electric power distribution to all four wheels.
  • ECB (Electronically Controlled Brake system) for efficient wheel-by-wheel brake control and optimum management of the vehicle’s regenerative brake system.
  • 1,500 watts of auxiliary 100-volt power available via electrical sockets—enough to power hair-driers, laptops or microwave ovens.
  • A highly aerodynamic body design, insulated roof, and an “intuitive” humidity-sensing air-conditioning system—all designed to help decrease fuel consumption.
  • Fuel economy numbers targeted to around 40 mpg, and low emissions (the first minivan to meet stringent levels set by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment).

Byron Sigel, a Michigan man who lives in Tokyo and drives an Estima Hybrid minivan, calls it “The best car I’ve ever owned.” Sigel says the minivan “seats eight, gets great gas mileage, good acceleration, is comfortable and has good storage. It is also very reliable.”

Articles have also appeared about a Toyota Alphard Hybrid Minivan, announced in Japan in 2003. Using the conventional versions to compare, the Alphard is larger than the Estima and has more luxury features like larger “business class” seats, and automated doors and curtains that can be opened and closed by the remote control or the driver’s panel.

The demand is there. Which carmaker will answer the call for a hybrid minivan?