2011 is shaping up to be the Year of the Minivan. Toyota is fielding new Sienna, Honda has an all-new Odyssey, even Chrysler has put a new engine in the Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan. Now, after a one-year minivan hiatus, the all-new 2011 Nissan Quest appears -- and if you thought the old Quest was a little strange, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Is the American public ready to "shift_" to this kind of minivan? Let's drive and find out.
Normally, I don't talk a whole lot about styling, because I have about as much aesthetic sense as a Jack Russell terrier. (Maybe even less, because Jack Russells seem to think that everything looks better with a bunch of holes dug in it.) Still, it's impossible to talk about the Quest without discussing its unusual looks. While the old Quest showed the French influence of Nissan's parent company, Renault, the new Quest has turned Japanese. Big, boxy minivans are popular on the Home Islands, and the Quest is based on a Japanese-market van called the Nissan Elgrand. I found the Quest a bit intimidating to stand next to -- I thought it might open up its grille and eat me, Godzilla-style -- but as someone with a taste for individuality, I like the tall slab sides and big squared-off back end. The Quest's styling may be a love-it-or-hate-it deal, but at least it's original. (In this country, anyway.)
But there's more to the Quest's Japanese roots than the styling. Back home in Japan, the Elgrand is not so much a mommymobile as a luxury VIP transport. Sold for up to ¥5,775,000 (about $69,000), the Elgrand is marketed as the "King of Minivans." The Quest isn't quite as luxurious, nor is it as expensive -- pricing starts at $28,550 for the sparsely-equipped Quest S, up to $45,450 for a top-of-the-line Quest LE with all the options. Nissan says most buyers will go for the version I tested, the $35,150 Quest SL, which includes power-sliding doors, leather upholstery, power tailgate and three-zone climate control.
In the Driver's Seat
Inside, the Quest really benefits from its Elgrand roots. Japanese buyers have a yen (sorry) for traditional leather-and-wood luxury, and that's exactly what the Quest delivers. I loved it -- from the high-quality wood trim on the dash to the expensive feel of the switchgear, the Quest is as nicely trimmed out as a Lexus... or perhaps I should say an Infiniti.
Though the Quest is slightly narrower than its competitors, the big, broad dashboard makes it feel wider, and thanks to its near-vertical sides, there's an extraordinary amount of elbow room. The Quest's perceived girth makes it a little tricky to maneuver in tight spaces, but the extra stretch-out space is nice on a long trip.
The Quest's second row has big twin captain's chairs divided by a removable center console. The bottom cushions are low to the floor and nearly horizontal. That's great for installing a rear-facing child seat, but there isn't much thigh support for adults, even short ones like me (I'm 5'6"). Same for the third row -- the seat is generously sized and there's decent leg room if the adjustable second-row seats are slid forward. But the seat is so low to the floor that adults will have a hard time getting comfortable.
Like most minivans, the Quest has a deep storage well behind the third-row seats. In most vans, the third row seat tumbles backwards into the well. Not so the Quest, where both second and third row seats fold forward to form a flat load floor. That does wonders for convenience -- other vans require you to remove the second-row seats, which is a royal pain -- but the trade-off is reduced cargo space. Compared to the competition, the Quest stores slightly less cargo behind the third row seats (35.1 cubic feet vs. 36 to 38 for its rivals) but a lot less with all seats folded (108.4 vs. 145 - 150).
On the Road
Knowing Nissan, I expected the Quest to be the sports car of minivans; instead, it's more like an old-school Cadillac. The ride is soft, smooth and serene, and quiet enough to hear your kids plotting mischief in the third row. Steering feel is good and handling is good enough to handle emergency swerves, but the Quest's suspension is clearly designed to relax, not to excite.
Even the powertrain gets in on the act: While competing minivans use 5- or 6-speed automatic transmissions, the Quest has a continuously-variable automatic transmission (CVT), which uses belts and variable-diameter pulleys instead of conventional gears. You'll never feel the gear-changes because there aren't any -- the CVT delivers a smooth, even flow of power that suits the Quest's luxurious demeanor.Said power comes from a 260 hp 3.5 liter V6, and acceleration, while not exactly thrilling, is perfectly adequate for short onramps and heavy loads. I expected the fuel economy to be lousy -- the Quest is about as aerodynamic as a shower stall -- but EPA estimates are 18 MPG city/24 MPG highway, same as the V6-powered Toyota Sienna but not nearly as good on the highway as the Honda Odyssey.
One nifty feature worth mentioning is the tire pressure monitoring system. Like other vehicles, the Quest warns you when a tire is low -- but unlike other vehicles, the Quest will also help you refill them. Just pull into the closest gas station and hook up the air hose, and the Quest will flash its lights and honk its horn when the tire is full. Very cool, as filling-station air gauges are notoriously unreliable.
At the end of my test drive, I wasn't sure what to think of the new Nissan Quest. But then a friend took me for a ride in a 2011 Honda Odyssey, and I knew right away which van I preferred. To me, the Odyssey is just another minivan, but the Quest's unusual looks, zooty interior, and luxurious demeanor make it something special.
Unfortunately, the Quest has some serious practical limits. Despite its big, boxy shape, the Quest doesn't hold as much cargo as other minivans, nor does it accommodate adult passengers as comfortably. Those are serious handicaps in a vehicle segment where most buyers are more concerned with utility than style. And as much as I love the Quest's funky styling, I'm not sure that mainstream America will take to it.
The Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey do a better job of accommodating people (especially big people) and cargo, and for interior innovation and flexibility, it's hard to beat the Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country, with their Stow-n-Go and Swivel-n-Go seating systems. In terms of raw utility, all four of these vans do the job better than the Nissan Quest.
Still, I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the Quest. Though it may not be the most practical, in terms of pure opulence it's a step above the competition -- to me, the mid-level Quest feels more luxurious than the top-of-the-line Honda Odyssey. The Quest's cushy cabin and refined ride make it the minivan I'd most like to spend time in. I'd recommend taking your family along on a test drive and see if everyone can fit comfortably. If you can live with the Quest's space limitations and low-slung seats -- and if the styling doesn't turn you off -- I think you'll really enjoy life with the Quest. -- Aaron Gold