Ah the minivan. Love the utility, hate the stigma. Oh, there was a brief moment in time after Chrysler invented them in 1983 they were cool. After they became the very symbol for “I had to grow up,” they fell out of disfavor with American families. You have to believe that crossovers will someday succumb to the same fate and station wagons will become cool again. Or not.
Lately, Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna, Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town and Country have been battling for garage space in a segment that has shrunk by about half in the last 6 years. These vehicles are either all new in 2010 or significantly refreshed. GM and Ford have ditched the market to concentrate on crossovers. Nissan left too; there was no 2010 Quest. Their “anti-minivan” approach with their last model was about as popular with parents as foie gras is for kids. Both have a French orientation about them but sometimes a familiar hamburger is best.
From Out of the Blue
Considering the outgoing Quest wasn’t a major player, the 2011 model seems to have come out of nowhere. It is designed to strike deep into the mainstream market. At the press launch in San Diego, Nissan says they’ve fully embraced the family way. Chris Woodruff, their Senior Model Line Marketing Manager says, “Our research showed some buyers think of the minivan as a surrender to their youth and fun but our feeling is it doesn’t have to be that way. The other way of looking at it is that it’s a commitment to family life and to being with them and having fun. That’s what we did, we built a van that’s fun for everyone and everyone enjoys”.
The fun starts at $28,550 for an S model including destination. The popular SV version goes for $31,700. Move up to a LE and then you’re entering the spendy neighborhood at a starting price of $42,150. All of them include keyless push button ignition.
Who Likes What
Let’s start with the parents since they’re the ones paying for the rig. Quest is all about coddling and it should help soothe frazzled moms and dads. The Nissan folks say it’s a mobile great room - you know, what we all used to call a rec room or family room. We teach our children that it’s what’s on the inside that’s important and Quest is clearly best in class. Soft touch materials look and feel rich, wood-like trim is standard and hard to tell from the real thing. Comparing the hard plastics found in the competitors vans, Quest seems to be gunning for a slot in the premium Infiniti lineup. Give Nissan a star here; it’s a warm and inviting space.
Nissan is particularly earnest about the seats. They use two different foams, a firm layer rests on top of a softer layer so they offer both support and comfort. After 4 hours of driving I’d have to agree. Order seat warmers and they have a quick heat feature.
Let’s Give Mom a Hand
A parent’s arms are often filled with groceries and kids. All but the base S model have a nice touch (pun intended); the power side doors open with just a touch of a finger (or knuckle if your digits are full too). There’s no need to pull the fob out to unlock the doors, the proximity smart key allows it to stay in pocket or purse. That and a low step-in height makes it easy to get into.
The SV has the trick doors, Bluetooth, iPod integration and a backup cam located in the rear view mirror. There’s also a “conversation mirror” that allows mom and dad to keep an eye on the kids. Yes, you’ll really know if Billy is hitting Sally. I’m driving a top line LE with navigation, Bose audio, power operated back seats and side mirrors that tilt down toward the curb when the car is put in reverse.
It’s also quiet. Traveling the backroads and freeways around San Diego, voices never need to be raised to reach those in the third row (unless you’re in discipline mode). Quest shares its strengthened architecture with Altima, Maxima and Murano so the ride quality is comfortable but nicely buttoned down, never floaty. It performs a decent “U-turn” as well (Dad! I forgot my jacket at the park!). The driving dynamic is about perfect for this kind of vehicle; personally I just don’t buy into the “sporty minivan” marketing approach.
Power to the 7 People
There’s just one powertrain, Nissan’s ubiquitous 3.5-liter, 260 HP V-6 that’s coupled to a continuously variable transmission. Quest is front-wheel drive. There’s plenty of power to run errands and deliver kids. 0-60 happens in about 8 seconds and it’ll tow up to 3,500 pounds. Fuel economy is estimated at 18 city, 24 highway.
Many continuously variable transmissions exhibit a rubbery or elastic dynamic, this one feels much like a standard shift box. Nice job Nissan. It rolls backwards on a hill if your foot is off the brake though.
A neat feature I didn’t get to try: When topping off an under inflated tire, the side markers flash and upon reaching the proper pressure, the horn chirps. Very cool. Throw away that pressure gauge (you do use a pressure gauge don’t you?)
What Will the Kids Like?
Well, there are cup holders everywhere and all rows get the comfy dual-density foam seat treatment. The front console is fixed, the rear is removable. Quest is a 7-seat van. Period. The two bucket seats in the middle row will offer each child plenty of personal space. They recline and slide fore and aft so Billy and Sally can get as far away from each other as possible.
Parents of lucky kids will spring for the DVD entertainment system. Sienna and Odyssey have gone to a narrow but wide screen that can display two sources side by side, Nissan sticks with a large standard display that optimizes one video. A 115V power outlet and AV inputs support gaming consoles so the tykes can play Call of Duty on the way to grandma’s house. Dual sunroofs are also available, even with the entertainment system.
A Plasmacluster air filtration system not only filters out odors and pollen, it senses nasty smells outside and throws the climate control into recirculation mode until you get past the manure plant. How it deals with a full diaper is something I didn’t test.
The third row might be a little snug for three full-sized American adults but kids and teens will have plenty of space. This row is raised a bit theatre style so visibility is good. It splits and folds 60/40. All the seats drop very easily. I’m glad I’m at a press event far away from my bath tissue supply because bringing out enough TP to fill this rig up is an awful lot of work.
Quest is optimized as a human hauler. The space that other vans use to store the third row is always available as a covered storage bin since those seats don’t tip backward, they fold forward. Instead of dropping into the floor, they rest on top of it cutting into overall cargo volume. Unlike Sienna and Odyssey the middle row is not removable (Grand Caravan and Town and Country fold neatly into the floor). Those who often use their vehicles to tote very large things should check to see if Quest’s set up works for them. A 4 x 8 sheet of plywood slides in but the rear hatch won’t quite close.
Since we’re talking family, Quest looks like the offspring of a Toyota Sienna and a Ford Flex. It is distinctive, not nearly as polarizing as the previous generation (or the current “lightning bolt” Odyssey). Some will find the swept front and side a little incongruent with the bolt upright back end but frankly minivans are less about style, more about getting through life in a sane fashion.
The Quest nameplate has been gone for a year but Nissan is making up for the time lost. Suddenly Sienna, Odyssey, Caravan and T&C have real competition. If you’re in the market for a family hauler, I highly suggest a stop by the Nissan store. Right after you pick your daughter up from piano lessons.