If you want to become a leading player in a segment (say, minivans), you have a choice: Either do what everyone else is doing, only better, or do something entirely different, and hope that car buyers see the result as better. With the Mississippi-made 2004 Quest, Nissan attacked America’s minivan market using the latter strategy. The styling was bizarre, the suspension tuning was sporty, the seats were French-inspired, and the gauges were centrally located. And even after revisions relocated the gauges and improved the initially abysmal reliability, the gambit failed. That particular Quest came to a slightly premature end with the 2009 model year. Now, following a one-year hiatus, Nissan has launched another Quest. This iteration is very different from the 2004, but still manages to be very different from the competition. Prognosis?
The 2004 Nissan Quest was designed with the American market in mind. The 2011 is a rebadged JDM Nissan Elgrand. Either the Japanese domestic market likes big butts, or someone in Nissan’s design staff does, because the new minivan’s styling accentuates el grande backside. There’s a reason the D-pillars aren’t usually blacked out on minivans. Ditto the rarity of high beltlines in the segment. They don’t get much higher than the new Quest’s, and the minivan’s sides appear unusually tall as a result.
Those attracted by the exterior styling (or at least not repulsed by it) will find the segment’s most luxurious cabin inside the new Quest. The instrument panel is conservatively styled in the luxury car idiom, with a wide swath of faux timber beneath a soft-touch upper. The door panels are thickly padded and include freakishly wide armrests that should serve well on long stretches of Interstate.
Sadly, the ergonomics are awful. Thanks to the small windows, the view forward is far less expansive than in the typical minivan. Or even the typical bunker. I raised the soft driver’s seat to partially compensate. Visibility in other directions is similarly restricted by the high beltline. The infotainment system’s touchscreen is a couple inches out of reach and the IP-mounted shifter partially obstructs the HVAC controls. The switch for the driver seat’s power lumbar adjustment avoids discovery by hiding on the seat’s inside rear pedestal, but this isn’t an issue once you know where to find it.
Functional compromise continues in the rear quarters. As is often (but not always) the case with minivans, the second- and third-row seats are low to the floor. Move the second row all the way back and there’s a minimal amount of legroom for adults in the third—even if the official specs suggest otherwise. There’s considerably more passenger room inside a Toyota Sienna and especially inside a Honda Odyssey, both of which also offer an eight-passenger option that the captains-only Nissan does not.
Though it’s been 16 years since Honda introduced the first stowable seat with the Odyssey, the industry continues to struggle with how to handle the seats in a minivan. Nissan’s solution with the new Quest: fold them flat atop the floor, SUV style. This has the advantage of providing a flat floor without removing any seats. But, since the seats do not stow beneath the floorpan as in the Chryslers, the resulting floor is high. This shows up in the cargo volume specs: only 108.4 cubic feet for the Quest vs. 148.5 for the Odyssey. In all fairness, the former figure excludes a large, 11-cube storage compartment beneath the Quest’s rear floor. If you’ve been wanting a trunk inside your minivan, it’s here, and possibly worth the sacrifice in total volume.
This being a large, front-wheel-drive Nissan, the engine is a 3.5-liter V6 (in this application good for 260 horsepower and 240 foot-pounds of torque) and the transmission is a CVT. The V6 is silent at idle but a little gruff when revved. Acceleration, abetted by a CVT with no qualms about taking the engine to the high side of the tach and then holding it there, is well beyond the needs of most minivan drivers. Precise manual control over the CVT, present in some Nissans, is absent here. But hints about your desires can be passed to the CVT via an OD lockout button and an L shifter position.
The revised Dodge Grand Caravan stakes out the firm, tight extreme of the minivan handling spectrum. The new Quest, in sharp contrast to its predecessor, stakes out the other. The Nissan’s steering is unusually light and numb, even by minivan standards, and the pillow-soft suspension tuning permits copious lean in even moderate corners. Heavy understeer as well. There’s not much mechanical control inherent in the chassis, so it should come as no surprise that the electronic stability control intervenes very early and very aggressively. The ride is smooth in the traditional American luxury sedan way, so uneven roads effect some float and bounce. Even a Toyota Sienna is a driving machine in comparison.
The price for all of this JDM goodness? In the cheapest-dealers-will-stock “SV” trim, with floormats: $31,890. This is $150 above the similarly equipped Honda Odyssey EX, and so about $2,500 more than a comparable Dodge Grand Caravan or Toyota Sienna (based on comparisons using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool). Honda has worked hard to justify the high price of its minivan. Nissan…I’m not sure what they’re thinking.
We’ve been known to bemoan the “domestic market” cars that foreign auto makers don’t deign to offer in the US. “JDM” has a certain cult following here. But the track record with such products, when they are finally imported, is clear. Just consider the Nissans. Second-generation Infiniti Q45? DOA-it never had a chance. First-generation Infiniti M sedan? After some initial enthusiasm—the price was low for an imported luxury sedan with a strong DOHC V8—sales were similarly miniscule. Fourth-generation Nissan Quest? Between the odd styling, poor visibility, tight interior, squishy handling, and high price there’s no reason to expect the outcome to be different this time around.
Brian Evans of Suburban Nissan helpfully provided the vehicle for this review. Brian can be reached at 248-715-2062.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive reliability and pricing data