Toyota Granvia makes a big impression

Peter Atkinson
The Granvia effectively replaces the long-serving Tarago in the Toyota line-up

Years ago, before there was an SUV to suit every possible size and purpose, there were cars called "people movers".

They were usually big, generally quite ugly to look at, and had names like StarWagon and HiAce. Based on the underpinnings of commercial delivery vans, they were diabolical to drive and were as noisy inside as a kettle drum.

Popular with big families because they could fit in half a dozen kids in relative comfort, they became synonymous with a life of boring domesticity. People who drove "people movers" were generally considered to have given up their sex life.

To break this stigma, carmakers began designing "sporty" purpose-built models that were sleeker, and less cringeworthy, than their predecessors. Attractive, in an awkward kind of way - but still able to fit in half the local cricket team.

Leading this charge was the rather futuristic Toyota Tarago, whose recipe was followed by the Honda Odyssey, Toyota Avensis, and later more exotic models like the Citroen Picasso, Dodge Caravan and fancy Mercedes-Benz R-Class. Honda even did an ad for its Odyssey in which a man and woman were seen in a romantic embrace. Really.

But then the SUV arrived and swallowed the entire world, sounding the death knell for the people mover (along with the once-popular station wagon).

Even the long-serving Tarago, an enduring favourite for fleet buyers and the like, was finally given its marching orders after almost 40 years on the Aussie market.

But then, just as it seemed soccer dads of the world may have rolled shut their final sliding door, the people mover returned - in all its big, boxy glory.

And this time, the bigger and boxier the better.

No longer seen as family transport, these days they're more likely to be found ferrying around visiting executive groups, taking people to the airport or dropping them home after a boozy night out. Hey, it's a living.

Mercedes-Benz has dominated this niche with its smart-looking Viano, but now a newcomer, the gargantuan Toyota Granvia arrives as a formidable, and cheaper, competitor. It's surely one of the few segments where these two marques "square off" (sorry).

Like the Viano, the Granvia, launched in Australia late last year, makes a big impression. It is massive - a huge, square box that fills out every centimetre of your average shopping centre car park. Its dimensions are staggering - 5330mm long, 1990mm high and 1970mm wide. Did someone say square?

It sits behind the biggest, boldest chrome grille I have ever seen - looking like an escapee from a Transformers movie. There is nothing delicate about the Granvia.

I was concerned it might not fit in our apartment's underground car park. But on the upside, you could never fail to find it at a shopping centre. In fact it's so big that it probably features on Google Maps.

So big, in fact, that on one particular trip, with five adults on board, we were easily able to satisfy social distancing rules.

That's because, instead of the traditional three rows of seating the Granvia manages four rows of seats - sitting eight adults in comfort. Try doing that in your SUV!

The Granvia effectively replaces the long-serving Tarago in the Toyota line-up, but it's fit for an entirely different purpose, and market.

Having moved family buyers across to the LandCruiser, Prado or Kluger, Toyota has set its sights on corporates and desperates looking for someone else to do the driving.

Accordingly, the Granvia has two distinct trim levels - the fairly humble Granvia Standard (tested here) and the swanky VX - with all manner of high tech and several cows' worth of leather trim. Both are available in either six or eight-seat configuration, with prices ranging from $62,990 up to a substantial $74,990 for the leather-seats VX version.

The Granvia offers only one choice of engine - a 2.8-litre, four-cylinder turbo diesel, mated to an effective six-speed auto.

You won't be surprised to learn that combination doesn't exactly make the Granvia a dynamic thing to drive, but it does get along surprisingly well, feels sturdy and confident at highway speeds and delivers a surprisingly modest thirst of 8L/100km. Not bad for an apartment-sized machine.

Perhaps best of all, it also has a very smart turning circle - although without it, the Granvia would be almost impossible to park.

The interior space is, as you'd imagine, vast. Access is simple because of the three rows of "captain's chair" seating with walking room between each passenger.

It's possible to remove the fourth row and fold down others to create a formidable load space, although Toyota doesn't bother to publish the exact capacity.

Why not, you might ask. Well, the answer to that question can be found in the Granvia's glovebox - of all places.

There, you'll find a user's manual - for a Toyota HiAce. Yes, the Granvia shares its heritage with the Japanese maker's legendary delivery van. Just like those good old days.

TOYOTA GRANVIA

HOW BIG? You have to ask? In its native Japan, people live in spaces smaller than the Granvia.

HOW FAST? Hmmm. Not particularly. The diesel engine produces a decent 130kW and 450Nm - so it rumbles along adequately.

HOW THIRSTY? Its average thirst of 8L/100km makes it surprisingly frugal for such a big thing.

HOW MUCH? Prices start at $62,990 for the entry-level model - which is more than $10-grand more expensive than the Tarago it replaces. The luxury VX model will set you back $74,990 plus on road costs.