TRUTH IN THE automotive world manifests itself in tangible ways. A vehicle rides well or it doesn't. Its capacities are finite -- so much room for people and their things and no more.

Even a vehicle's attractiveness is measurable. If people smile at it everywhere it goes, if they trample over one another to take a closer look, if in every parking lot people surround the vehicle and bombard its driver with questions, it's safe to assume that the object of that attention is a head-turner supreme.

Thus, the truth is that the 1991 Toyota Previa minivan is a winner. It might also be the best minivan on sale in America. That pains me.

As an American, I would prefer that a U.S. company have the "best-in-class" honor, especially since it was an American company, Chrysler Corp., that started the minivan boom in the early 1980s.

But truth is truth, and sometimes the truth hurts. The Previa will cause marketplace moaning among Toyota's competitors. The new minivan will bring joy and laughter, too -- from Toyota's customers.

Background: The 1991 Previa, on sale this summer, is a beneficiary of all that Toyota and its rivals did right and wrong with earlier minivans. For example, General Motors Corp. gave us space-age styling with its long-nosed Chevrolet Lumina and Pontiac Trans Sport minivans. But a bothersome, long, flat dashboard was part of the GM package.

Toyota's super-aerodynamic Previa has a dashboard of similar length. But the Previa's dashboard is sculpted and rounded, with recesses here and there, all of which makes it much less distracting and much more pleasant to look at than the dashboards in the GM models.

Interior layout in the Previa is better than anything Toyota and its competitors have done previously. Third-row seats in the tested seven-passenger Previa LE are designed to fold flat against the side walls, creating 85.3 cubic feet of easily accessible cargo space when the middle seats are removed.

The Previa is available in rear-wheel-drive and "All-Trac" four-wheel-drive versions, both of which are sold as Deluxe and the more expensive LE models.

Ironically, the Previa was designed by Toyota's California-based design studio.

Complaints: Because of the Previa's mid-engine arrangement, access to the oil dipstick is through the Previa's passenger compartment. The driver's seat must be flipped back and a little door in the floor opened for a thorough oil-level check. A quite troublesome affair.

Toyota tried to alleviate this hassle by putting a transparent engine-oil reservoir underneath the front hood, which is good for a quick visual check. But failing to check the dipstick, in addition to the oil reservoir, can get you into oil-level trouble.

Praise: Overall quality, engineering and design are excellent. It's the easiest, friendliest, best-constructed minivan I've ever driven.

Head-turning quotient: Simply superior. It attracted attention everywhere on a 2,000-mile, round-trip journey from Northern Virginia to northern Michigan.

Ride, acceleration and handling: The most sedan-like of minivan rides. It handles extremely well on the open road, although it does tend to sway a bit in strong crosswinds. The Previa is powered by a 2.4-liter, 16-valve, dual overhead cam, 138-horsepower engine. It scoots.

Sound system: Nine-speaker AM/FM stereo radio, cassette and disc player, Toyota-installed. Excellent.

Mileage: About 21 to the gallon (19.8-gallon tank, 400-mile range on usable volume), running with three occupants, air conditioner in full-time use, and 500 pounds of luggage.

Price: Base price on the tested Previa LE (four-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel-drive) is $18,698. Dealer's invoice price on that model $15,893. Price as tested is $23,103, including $4,140 in options and a $265 destination charge ($480 destination charge for Alaska).

Purse-strings note: It's a buy, without options such as the $1,260 premium stereo system. However, the optional $1,130 anti-lock braking system is recommended.

Warren Brown covers the automotive industry for The Washington Post.