Your typical American minivan is built to a very specific brief: “soccer mom” duty - to transport a gaggle of children to football practice. That means it’s low, wide, and powered by a “sensible” motor, usually a big, low-revving V6. There’s an attractive but low-key exterior, designed to remind mom why she married a sensible man instead of that boy with a mullet and a pick-up truck. It has also got a sensible vinyl and plastic interior built to survive a nuclear war, because... let’s face it... these are American kids. Nuclear war is second nature to them.
The Alphard, being Japanese, is a different animal, entirely. Where Toyota’s US-built Sienna minivan is inoffensively handsome, the Alphard is big, brash, and in-your-face. Ostentatious. It’s the van Japanese businessmen buy to impress their drinking buddies, not their wives. As such, the Alphard is designed to transport seven adults in luxurious style. No utilitarian benches here. There are power-adjustable captain’s chairs, front and center, and all but the driver get motorized foot-rests. Even the third row is shaped and bucketed for two, with the center headrest and belt being mere after-thoughts. And all of this is swathed in soft, creamy leather. All of it.
The rest of the interior is worthy of an executive express. There’s a pleasing dimensionality to the dashboard gauge cluster and the dark, mahogany-like fake wood on the steering wheel, and dash is the most convincing I’ve seen yet. What isn’t covered in this beautiful laminate is covered in aluminum-mimicking plastic or soft-touch material. The overall cabin ambience is light and airy. Even better, the backlit high ceiling and twin panoramic sunroofs give the illusion of unfettered, boundless space. It’s like a first-class sleeper cabin and a sun-deck in one.
Of course, this is all well and good, but most luxury vans tend to drive like boats. But despite the Alphard’s whale-like proportion, it has the soul of an athlete.
High Stakes Hustler
I know, I know. We’re talking about a tall van with a torsion-beam rear suspension here. But the Alphard is a much handier-steer than you’d expect. There’s less body roll and pitch than in most sedans despite the cossetingly supple ride. Carving up corners won’t have Mr. Miyamoto spilling his sake all over his silk shirt or falling drunkenly out of his seat. And as the Alphard is built for Japanese roads, it has a narrower beam than American-style minivans like the Honda Odyssey, which makes it very easy to thread through traffic.
With a punchy 276 horsepower 3.5 liter V6 mated to a responsive six-speed automatic, acceleration is about what you’d expect from a road-going bullet train. The Alphard scoots to 100 km/h in a mere 8.8 seconds, and it bangs into its electronic speed limiter at 180 km/h a scant dozen seconds after that. Fuel economy is surprisingly good for an engine of this size, averaging 4 to 6 km/l in the city and 9 to 12 km/l on the highway. Even better, the generous mid-range torque makes it a potent weapon for overtaking or cutting through traffic... all in perfectly unhurried comfort.
Granted, the steering is rather numb and the brakes (though competent) aren’t quite as impressive as the rest of the package. What do you expect? Moby Dick may have been agile and strong enough to evade old Ahab and sink a ship or two... or three... but he was still a whale.
But then, that’s a minor complaint. In fact, it’s hard to find anything to complain about with the Alphard. Maybe the touch-screen radio and sound system are a bit underwhelming for a car of this price. Maybe the remote-controlled powered sliding doors could move a little faster. Maybe the beige carpeting could be a little more mud-resistant. Maybe the ride in the third row is a tiny bit jiggly as it’s so far over the rear axle. Maybe the third row could be a tad easier to fold up for cargo.
King of the Road
None of that really matters. With the Alphard, you’re paying for the luxury of unfettered space. A luxury in short supply in Japan. This is probably why the Alphard and its youth-marketed twin, the Vellfire, have combined sales that make them the fifth best-selling vehicle in Japan. That’s two spots higher than the next best-selling van, the Nissan Serena, and higher than either the Yaris or the Corolla.
Given the Alphard starts at P2.97 million for the 2.4 liter variant, and tops out at P3.160 million for the 3.5 liter model we’re testing here, this sales success probably won’t carry over to the Philippines, but given the large number of Alphards I’ve been seeing lately, it seems a lot of lucky buyers are already enjoying this not-so-little slice of Japanese heaven.